At the Baghdad International Airport today United States military forces lowered the American flag, and, in a ceremony with a long tradition, “cased” it for the trip home to America. Just a few thousand U.S. troops were left; the main U.S. base in eastern Baghdad is closed, as are hundreds of others. In a gigantic logistical operation, U.S. troops, support personnel, and equipment and supplies have been departing for months.
And yet, since lead elements of the 3rd infantry division entered Iraq eight years and almost eight months ago, some million soldiers of the United States, Britain, and their allies have entered Iraq through the Baghdad airport.
The generals and the troops seem to depart with genuine pride and satisfaction, albeit tinged with reflectiveness about a war with a goal (removing “weapons of mass destruction”) that simply dissolved in the desert sun, a plan (quick victory and an Iraqi populace that welcomed its liberators) that became a bloody and chaotic endurance test, and an engagement that became one of the longest in American history with a grinding casualty rate that ended with more than 4,500 Americans dead—more than half under the age of 25—and more than 32,000 wounded, including one in five with serious brain and spinal injuries (that is, unlikely ever to be fully rehabilitated).
As I seek, on this day, to reach some judgment on the war—as I have hundreds of times over the years—my personal beginning point is a brief remark by Prof. George Walsh. It must have been about February, 1991; the exact date doesn’t matter. George and I were at a meeting of the trustees of the Institute for Objectivist Studies, the first name of today’s Atlas Society.
For those who don’t remember or didn’t know George Walsh, he was one of the handful of philosophers already established in their profession who recognized the intellectual revolution represented by Ayn Rand’s philosophy—and spoke out about it. He became a favorite of Ayn Rand’s and had many active exchanges with her on philosophy. He was a co-founder of the Ayn Rand Society of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association—the first foothold of Objectivism in mainstream professional philosophy. Prof. Walsh died in January 2002.
EXORCISING VIETNAM At this meeting of the trustees, America was on what only can be described as a “high” about the swift, decisive, and remarkably low-cost (in American and allied casualties) triumph of Desert Storm. Sanctioned by the United Nations, but spearheaded by the U.S. military, Desert Storm in less than a month had overcome the huge Iraqi army, and defied missiles and threats of attack with poison gas, to end the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and win surrender by Saddam Hussein. It was the first full display of American military technology, strategy, and morale that had been built but never deployed over the final decades of the Cold War. The “test” could not have been more gloriously successful.
In a sense, this was the “dream war” for my generation, which had watched the entire grueling war in Vietnam begin, bog down, escalate to a huge American commitment—and become the bitterest, darkest clash in our history between the commitment and sacrifices of our soldiers and popular and political opposition at home that attacked every goal, motive, and action of U.S. troops. A not-insignificant segment of the American public felt free to label America the aggressor, our troops random killers, the U.S. President a war criminal and baby killer, and the defeat of America the best thing that could happen.
When the United States finally used massive and relentless bombing to force a peace treaty with North Vietnam, and departed leaving a vast South Vietnamese defense force in place, it took only a year for the North Vietnamese Army to abandon the treaty and surge south in full force. By then, President Richard Nixon, who had won the treaty by his firm continuation of the bombing despite massive public protest, had been destroyed by his enemies and driven from office. Congress had passed a war powers act severely restricting a president’s initiative in deploying troops. Although the mighty U.S. Seventh Fleet lay in waters off Vietnam, and, for the first time in the war, could have delivered a crippling blow to the communist army finally “out of the jungle,” President Gerald Ford was helpless to act.
The ignominy of the final U.S. withdrawal, the disaster delivered on our South Vietnamese allies and hundreds of thousands who died trying to escape the invading communist dictatorship, and then the takeover of Cambodia by fanatical Khmer Rouge communist killers that resulted in more than a million deaths in that small country—all this became a crushing burden for decades on American morale, American military confidence, and American willingness to intervene militarily abroad.
AYN RAND ON "GETTING IN" VERSUS "GETTING OUT"Ayn Rand made a comment on the war in Vietnam that became, for me, a touchstone for judging much that followed, including the war just ended in Iraq. She argued that our military commitment and expenditure of life in Vietnam failed to meet the test of American self-interest. What, she asked, is the compelling American self-interest in South Vietnam that did not apply when we refrained from intervening as Eastern Europe fell to the Soviet Union and when Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 had genuine, popularly based revolutions against the communist dictatorship—revolutions we allowed to be crushed by Moscow?
What, she asked, is the compelling American self-interest in South Vietnam that did not apply when we refrained from intervening as Eastern Europe fell to the Soviet Union?
The other half of her assessment was equally or more important. Once the United States had committed to defend South Vietnam, committed to oppose communist expansion in Southeast Asia, and spent years pursing the battle, it would have been disastrous to give up…cut and run…concede defeat. The United States was (and still is) the world’s chief guarantor against aggression—by treaty as in NATO or SEATO, by long commitment as to Taiwan, South Korea, and Israel, by actual presence of troops as in Japan. And that is only the beginning. For the United States to provide the world with a demonstration that guerillas in the jungles of Vietnam could resist all American military power and, ultimately, break the will of the U.S. and drive it out, would undercut every single commitment of the United States around the world and offer the lesson, everywhere in the world, that if opposition were determined and bloody enough, America would quit.
DESERT STORM: THE GLORY AND THE DOUBT
After a couple decades of U.S. depression, remorse, and phobia of foreign military involvement—the bruised psyche left by the Vietnam disaster—came Desert Storm: a heroic exercise of American military might to turn back a clear-cut aggression, a seemingly rapid and efficient exercise of American power, and, above all, an action greeted with enormous American pride in and support for its military forces. For the Vietnam generation, especially those of us who had never blamed or condemned the U.S. military itself for its role in Vietnam, Desert Storm felt like redemption, a new sunrise over America.
For the Vietnam generation, especially those of us who had never blamed or condemned the U.S. military itself for its role in Vietnam, Desert Storm felt like redemption.
In that spirit, I arrived at the meeting of the trustees, and, in the chatting before the business of the meeting began—all conversation those days was about Desert Storm—said, “Of course, we all support the invasion of Iraq.” George Walsh slowly looked around, frowning, but mild and thoughtful as ever, and asked, “We do? It’s in America’s self-interest?”
That’s it. Nothing profound. The meeting began. I harbored considerable annoyance. I was not unfamiliar with his question, of course, and I shared its premise, but my high had been deflated. The exchange could be seen as the enactment, in purest essence, of the dilemma of war: the inevitable sense of urgency and the need to act when lives, international order, and peace are threatened or trampled; the vision of what military victory would accomplish and the prospect of satisfaction at coming to the rescue; and, then, the challenge to reason and context-holding in the question: “Is it in our country’s self-interest to such a consistent and compelling extent that it justifies 4500 lives, 32,000 crippling injuries, and $850 billion in our taxes or debt passed to the next generations?
I have used here the statistics from the war in Iraq, of course, but the problem in every single instance will be that we cannot even vaguely estimate what a war will cost until it is over. And the naked statistics are only a small part of the calculus. Because we never can know what a war, even if we assume victory, will achieve. Nor can we ever know the other, completely unforeseen consequences that a war inevitably will produce.
Desert Storm ended with victory in less than a month, very few casualties, the liberation of Kuwait (albeit back to its autocratic rulers), and a treaty between Iraq and the United Nations.
DESERT STORM: THE UNPREDICTABLE CONSEQUENCES It also led to an extended U.S. military presence in the region, including “Southern Watch,” a program of flights over Iraq to try to protect from Saddam Hussein’s revenge certain minorities in the country who had favored the United States invasion. It initiated a long series of difficult inspections of Iraq by United Nations personnel overseeing elimination of certain Iraqi weapons, such as the Scud missiles fired at Israel during the conflict, but also inspections to ensure that the Iraqi regime did not begin building weapons of mass destruction that could be used to retaliate against the United States or attack neighbors.
Both operations came into continual conflict with the Iraqi regime, which opposed, blocked, and undercut the inspections in a long series of confrontations. This interference in violation of the treaty was condemned over and over in United Nations resolutions. Concern, then alarm, grew over inability to conduct reliable inspections and suspicions about what Iraq was trying to hide. During the last years of the administration of President William Clinton, a consensus was developing in the U.S. government and the United Nations that decisive action would have to be taken against Iraq for its repeated defiance of the treaty. It is important to realize that this consensus existed before George W. Bush became president.
OSAMA BIN LADEN: THE MAKING OF A TERRORIST To go back a moment to Desert Storm, Saudi Arabia as well as Kuwait had been threatened by Iraqi forces and became the staging ground and base for the massive Desert Storm military build-up and invasion. Dissent is rare in Saudi Arabia, but the prospect of the huge U.S. presence drew open criticism from one young Saudi, born to an enormously wealthy family, reportedly well-educated in business and engineering, and a hero of the successful resistance that drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan and hastened the downfall of the Soviet communist
empire. This man, Osama bin Laden, urged the Saudi rulers not to admit what he saw as another major military power, the United States, to Saudi Arabia. He volunteered to assemble the forces that had fought in Afghanistan to help defend Saudi Arabia from Iraq. A religious fundamentalist who dubbed even Shia Muslims heretics, an anti-Semite who condemned both Israel and Jews worldwide, and an advocate of strict and repressive Sharia law in every Muslim state, he viewed Saudi Arabia as the land of the two most sacred mosques, Mecca and Medina. His protest that the arrival of heretic and infidel armies on Saudi soil was a profanation of sacred Muslim soil was brushed off by the Saudi rulers.
Osama bin Laden’s subsequent, outspoken criticism of the Saudi rulers led to his expulsion from the country, then his disowning by his family, and then withdrawal of his Saudi citizenship. It was then that he began to build upon a secret organization created during the war in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda, to attack the United States in countries throughout the Middle East and Africa. The declaration of war (Fatwa) by Al-Qaeda was specifically on the grounds of the profanation of the land of two sacred mosques by the United States. Later, he added to his justification for terrorist attacks on Americans anywhere in the world the United States support of Israel, especially Israel's incursions into Lebanon in response to shelling and guerrilla attacks from Lebonese territory, and United States actions against Iraq.
It was a crusade that culminated in the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, that destroyed the World Trade Center towers in New York City, damaged the Pentagon, crashed four civilian airplanes full of passengers, and thus killed 2,974 innocent men, women, and children—many of them Americans but many others from all over the world.
I briefly summarize the origins of Osama bin Laden’s terrorist crusade not to mitigate the evil of the deliberate attack on civilians, or to downplay the importance of radical Islamist philosophy in making the West as well as most Muslims targets of attack and repression, or to suggest that the United States in any moral sense “brought on” the Al-Qaeda attacks.
But even recognizing the wider context of Islamist hostility to Western values, and, indeed, values of the Western Enlightenment, it remains true that Osama bin Laden’s crusade and the attacks of September 11, were a direct and entirely unforeseen consequence of Desert Storm. Nor can we downplay Desert Storm as a force that created a sense of violation and outrage in the Muslim world that made the rapid spread of Al-Qaeda possible.
George W. Bush, by then president of the United States, made a telling announcement to his White House cabinet the day after September 11. He had come to office focused on domestic issues, including—in the usual somewhat ritualistic Republican way——reducing federal spending, reducing regulation, and stemming the growth of government. The day after September 11, he told his top White House staff that the goal of his administration now had completely changed.
The focus, now, was the War on Terror. Any possibility that the Bush administration—at a critical tipping piont—might achieve some of its goals in reducing the budget, getting welfare state programs under control, and shrinking government died on September 11. And would we have had the huge surge of bureaucracy, regulation, and spending justified in the name of the War on Terror without the September 11 attacks? It is very unlikely.
By October 2011, the United States had begun bombing of Afghanistan and a war against guerrilla fighters that continues to this day—outlasting even the nine-year war in Iraq. The reason for the invasion was Osama bin Laden. Driven out of country after country, ever-moving to avoid capture and assassination, he had been taken under the protection of the radical Islamist Taliban regime in Afghanistan. After September 11, the United States pressed demands, already made by the Clinton administration, that Afghanistan hand over the man already strongly suspected of master-minding the terrorist atrocity against the United States. The Taliban refused and the bombing, then the invasion, of Afghanistan began. Even after the failure to capture Osama bin Laden in the vast mountainous reaches of Afghanistan, and the conclusion that he had departed to Pakistan, the American war in Afghanistan, joined by many of its NATO allies, continued—and does to this day.
GETTING INTO IRAQ #2
By now, the confrontation with Iraq over its refusal to abide by the inspections required by the treaty that came out of Desert Storm had become a constant, front-page issue. And the debate had begun over the need to invade Iraq a second time to uphold the treaty and find and destroy weapons of mass destruction. The arguments are recent and well-known, as are the divisions between America and its allies in joining or refusing to join the second invasion.
On March 19, 2003, the bombing of Iraq by U.S. forces and its coalition of willing allies began and the initial surge to victory, this time, was if anything more thunderously decisive than the first time around. All the massed forces, weapons, and threatened opposition with which Saddam Hussein had defied U.S. demands were swept away in days. The Iraqi defense collapsed, Saddam Hussein and his sons disappeared into hiding, and another display of U.S. military “shock and awe” was offered to the world.
Was the invasion in the national self-interest of the United States? Soon after the bombing of Baghdad began on March 19, President Bush addressed the nation: “"The people of the United States and our friends and allies will not live at the mercy of an outlaw regime that threatens the peace with weapons of mass murder.”
No weapons of mass destruction were found in the first desperate search as the invasion proceeded. None have been found to this day, and no credible facilities for creating such weapons. But America was “in it,” so to speak, and the goal changed rather abruptly from disarming an enemy of America to bringing freedom, democracy, and peace to Iraq. Were such a goal to be achieved, Iraq would become the first Arab country ever to achieve it. Would this then spark an unquenchable urge for freedom across the Middle East, reduce the hostility to Israel perpetuated by Arab dictators, and bring a whole roster of countries into the camp of freedom and democracy? And should the United States be at war, sacrificing American lives and hundreds of billions in taxpayer money, to bring this to pass? Was it in our national self-interest?
That became a burning question as the initial victory led to the U.S. and coalition battle against a widespread, ruthless, and seemingly unstoppable insurgency against American occupation. For several years, U.S. soldiers faced perilous and deadly streets, sneak attacks, and ambushes from every direction—including bomb after bomb that blew up U.S. armored vehicles, killing and maiming soldiers. At the peak of the American involvement, 170,000 American troops were in Iraq: at bay, their casualties mounting exactly as in Vietnam, and with daily deaths and terrible injuries. With a war also going in Afghanistan, U.S. troops and reserves were forced to [accept? endure?] hugely extended tours of duty.
The inevitable accompaniments of war began: scandals in the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, the death of U.S. troops by friendly fire, millions of refugees driven from Iraq to Jordan and other countries, the insurgent bombing of friendly or neutral Iraqis in their mosques and homes with terrible casualties, large percentages of the population without food or services.
TESTING THE COMMITMENT TO IRAQ After initial fairly substantial support for the war in the early stages (although nothing like the support for Desert Storm), opposition in the United States began to soar. It is easy to forget the tide of bitter denunciation of President Bush, the media extravaganzas about abuse of Iraqi prisoners by our troops, the daily hammering by the media on scenes of blood and slaughter, and the seemingly almost pervasive sense of disaster and defeat. It was Vietnam, again.
But by then, the whole calculation had changed. Just as in Vietnam, we had made a solemn commitment, backed by full-scale military involvement.
With the United States already fighting in Afghanistan, American forces stretched to the utmost and beyond, the country dealing with ever-larger deficits now swollen by billions a week in Iraq, and no weapons of mass destruction—and not much seeming movement toward freedom and democracy in Iraq—was it in America’s national self-interest to be there?
But by then, the whole calculation had changed. Just as in Vietnam, we had made a solemn commitment, backed by full-scale military involvement, assured our Iraqi allies and the world that we would never give in to the insurgency, and already paid a high price in lives and injuries and suffering. Al-Qaeda, a sworn and active enemy of the United States, had become involved. Now, to give up, to declare that we could not defeat the insurgents, that we made a commitment but could not and would not keep it, would give credence and staying power to every attack and potential attack on the United States and its allies all over the world. It would become much more costly to fulfill our role as the world’s defender of freedom and peace if our threat to become involved no longer spelled certain defeat of our opponents. As Ayn Rand had said, a policeman keeps the peace not by his constant exercise of force but by his firmness.
President Bush distinguished himself and his presidency by persisting through a true fire-storm of opposition to the war and dark days of casualties and reverses—and a virtual media campaign on the theme that America's position in Iraq was hopeless—and by consistently supporting and reinforcing the military effort until it turned the corner. Today, the United States withdraws from Iraq on its own schedule, largely on its own terms, largely without the pressure of attack, and having spent months and months preparing Iraqi soldiers and police to take over the defense of Iraqi civilians and institutions. These forces do not face an opposing army as did the forces we left in South Vietnam, and the United States has far fewer obstacles to returning if progress seems to begin to be reversed. The Iraqis have been holding elections and experimenting with political deadlock (just as does the U.S. Congress) for years.
COUNTING THE IRAQ WAR COSTS: KNOWN AND UNKNOWNAnd so perhaps it is all over—except for the doubts.
Was this nine-year, hugely costly war, bluntly dismissed by Mr. Obama during the election campaign as the “dumb war,” in America’s national self-interest?
We don’t know, as yet, the consequences of this war—as we know some consequences of Desert Storm, which to some extent include Al-Qaeda, the September 11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan, and the second war in Iraq.
One consequence of the second war in Iraq, quite probably, was the election of Barrack Obama to the U.S. presidency. Mr. Obama built his campaign on opposition to the war, by then at a fever pitch, and it is unlikely that any Republican candidate had a chance with the burden of justifying the war. Certainly another consequence was a huge expenditure at a time when the United States was sinking into recession and what appears to be a fatal bog of spending, deficits, and debt.
And so back to George Walsh’s plain but perfectly timed question during the euphoria over Desert Storm: Is it in our national self-interest? The question seems almost beside the point, now, with the American flag being lowered in Iraq by proud and seemingly successful U.S. troops.
But we have had many years to watch the unfolding of the consequences of Desert Storm, and no time, as yet, to witness the unexpected and unpredictable developments set in motion by the war just ended. Of course, there is the all-too-evident price being paid by thousands of parents whose sons and daughters were shipped home from Iraq in body bags, and the many thousands whose sons and daughters came home permanently crippled. And it is reported than an estimated one-out-of-three U.S. soldiers displayed serious mental problems within four months of returning from duty in Iraq. They, and, to some extent, we, will have to live with that.
OBJECTIVISM AND PREMISES OF "NATIONAL SELF-INTEREST"
I am fresh out of dramatic or heroic titles for this essay, and fresh out of decisive conclusions and recommendations. I am confident of the principles involved, chief among them that any war must meet the test of national self-interest. But that principle is as broad as the question: What kind of country should America be? Or: What type of governments and world order benefit us most? And: What are the special demands on the world’s only military super power? And: How does the protection of human rights, including property rights, apply when one country invades another?
I see us in no better position, today, to avoid unnecessary wars, and identify necessary ones, than we were in the Vietnam era.
We are so far from agreement on these related broad questions of principle that it is obvious no general agreement on our national self-interest exists, and certainly no accepted approach to discerning that interest in a complex world.
Therefore, I see us in no better position, today, to avoid unnecessary wars, and identify necessary ones, that we were in the Vietnam era. I know from experience that even individuals committed to the philosophy of Objectivism, and who understand it, cannot agree on the standards for applying the standard of our national self-interest to the decision to go to war.
One pivotal point in the decision-making process that we should demand is to abide by the U.S. Constitution: an official declaration of war requested by the president and approved by Congress. There should be absolutely no substitutes of the kind we have had in every war following WWII. If Congress went on record approving an official declaration of war, the hurdle for entering war would be higher, public support for the war more reliable, and shameless political disowning of a war when the going got tough less easy for politicians.
It would be wise, in the aftermath of the war in Iraq, with a minimum of public recrimination in the air, to begin a sustained intellectual debate over the standards and tests to be applied to the decision that a war is in our national self-interest. This debate can occur only among those who already accept the broad principle of national self-interest as the only justification for going to war—not sacrifice for others, not the heart-break of war’s victims, not American duty to spread its principles (although American self-interest in spreading its principles seems a valid issue).
Because national self-interest is derived entirely from individual self-interest, and that principle itself is best and most consistently understood by Objectivists, Objectivists have the best philosophical basis for defining the tests that should be met before a free country, with political power proceeding from the consent of the people, and the protection of rights government’s only legitimate function, arrives at the fateful decision to ask its sons and daughters to fight and die for their country.
Walter Donway is a trustee of The Atlas Society and is the retired director of the Dana Press, Dana Foundation.