Look, I don’t want this to turn into a longwinded political screed, so I’ll try to stick with a single (and yes, overly simplistic) premise: How did we not see this coming?
I didn’t. At least not in the very beginning, when I was an overly zealous collegiate champion of what President Bush was planning to do in Iraq. Back then I still held onto the naive (um…innocent?) notion that many of the world’s international quandaries could be remedied with a wholesale devotion to overarching ideals like “democracy” and “freedom.” It’s hard for me to admit now, but that’s the truth. I was, in many ways, immature in my political perspective. Perhaps a bit of a pollyanna. I wanted my version of truth to be true, because that’s the world I wanted to live in. There was comfort in it. But I was wrong. To those I may have offended along the way, I’m sorry. Truly.
But it wasn’t long after our so-called liberation of Iraq that I began to get wise to the folly of what we had done, along with the expectations of the entire premise. And it all began when I started delving into our own nation’s history, most specifically the American Civil War.
“Here’s the key thing about the Civil War,” I recall my good friend—and Civil War virtuoso—Joe Master telling me one night over Manhattans. “Before then people used to say the United States are. After the Civil War people started saying, for the first time, the United States is.”
See the distinction? Prior to the Civil War this country was perceived—both internally and externally—as a collection of individually sovereign states. Crazy, right?
The concept compels me to recall a moment from the brilliant HBO film adaptation of David McCullough’s John Adams. After recently arriving in Philadelphia for one of the first meetings of the Continental Congress, Adams and Benjamin Franklin are found walking through a courtyard with none other than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson seems perturbed about having to leave his home in Virginia, asking Franklin, “When will we escape this dreadful city, doctor?”
Adams then responds with a question. “Philadelphia is not to your liking, sir?”
“I’d rather be in my own country,” says Jefferson. “Would not you?”
“I would Mr. Jefferson,” says Adams. “Yes.”
Get it? To Jefferson (and Adams), Philadelphia was no more a part of his “country” than France or the moon. And even after a bloody revolution and the formation of a “unifying” constitution, the United States still had to endure the better part of a century (89 years to be precise) and the deadliest war in modern history before it could even begin to consider itself unified. We might even still be working on that one.
The moral of the story: Building a self-governing nation is hard fucking work. And guess what? It takes a hell of a lot of time.
To that end, what intellectually honest individual could have ever believed that building a unified, democratic, sovereign nation in Iraq (a country generationally rife with sectarian and ideological divides) would require little more than a few hundred billion U.S. dollars and the ouster of a single dictator? Oh sure. Let’s “free” the people of Iraq and then just sit back and watch the glory of democracy magically take hold. Simple as that.
Look, I know I’m treading through territory about which books have already been written, so I won’t belabor the point. But the bottom line is that anyone with half a sense should have seen today’s crisis in Iraq from miles away. And guess what? Sadly, this isn’t even the beginning of the end. If—and that’s a big if—Iraq ever forms itself into the nation upon which the entire U.S. invasion was predicated, it probably won’t be realized until after most of us have shuffled off this mortal coil. And this is not a political point I’m making here. At all. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or somewhere in between, you must acknowledge that this is a crisis of human nature; of our seeming inability to unite without violence and, perhaps more importantly, our continued ignorance of the lessons we should be learning from histories that have unfolded in our own backyards.
And so I leave you with two clips from the ever-prescient and peerless Jon Stewart. Bot clips are, as usual, both hilarious and insightful: