With Iraq coming apart and American sacrifices in Fallujah and Ramadi seeming to have been in vain, it is worth asking the larger question of whether the United States sufficiently understood the Arab Middle East enough to put troops on the ground there and, more important for the future, whether it should ever do so again. The answer to the question about the past is clearly "no." Whatever we may have thought of Saddam Hussein, we had no real idea of the implications of occupying a state that was artificial from birth. Our desire to foster good governance in Iraq presupposed that good governance was even possible in a state whose citizens did not want to live alongside one another, unless they were forced to. Indeed, few such states have remained stable over the long run: Witness the seemingly never-ending wars in central Africa, whose constituent states are, like Iraq, the product of bureaucrats drawing maps that suited their own country's needs, not those of the people on the ground that those maps delineated.
Perhaps it is time Washington realized that it cannot mold other states in its own image. If America is truly exceptional, then, by definition, other states cannot be made into knockoff Americas. It is indeed ironic that President Barack Obama, who denies American exceptionalism, seems less inclined to intervene in other states than those for whom that exceptionalism is an article of faith. His motivations may be entirely misplaced, but his instincts may not be.
To argue that America should be far more cautious about intervening abroad is not to say that it should never intervene. The willingness to intervene in support of a beleaguered ally is a sine qua non for maintaining alliances. Without a credible willingness to do so, America will find it has no allies. But it was one thing to intervene on behalf of Kuwait when Iraq actually had invaded that small country, and quite another to invade Iraq when it not only had not taken any action against its neighbors, but had not even a mounted a credible threat to do so.
Again, it is one thing to attack a putative aggressor from the air or sea, as was the case with Libya in 1986 and again a quarter-century later, or, for that matter, in the 1990s, with the no-fly zones over Iraq, and quite another to deploy troops on the ground. It is the latter that provokes the greatest outrage among the largest number of people in the targeted country, in part because it is so much easier to insert troops into a country than to withdraw them. Put simply, while advocates of nation-building argue that most people want to live in a free society, it is even more the case that most people don't want foreigners telling them how to live, especially if those foreigners wear uniforms and carry guns down their streets and alleys.
It is easy in retrospect to regret the launching of Operation Iraqi Freedom, especially since it is arguable that Iraq is hardly free today. Still, the case for intervention at that time looked far more compelling than it does today, and caution is always recommended when applying hindsight to any situation. Nevertheless, it is undeniable (except for the most partisan administration supporters whose job it is to make silk purses out of sow's ears) that America's standing in the Middle East is nothing short of a disaster. Iraq is falling apart. Syria is falling apart. Libya is falling apart. Lebanon, ever fragile, may once again revert to civil war. Egypt has gone through multiple convulsions. American intervention in Iraq was not the sole or proximate cause of all these developments, but it surely was a contributory cause. Another American intervention in the region would only make matters worse.
Whatever one's view of whether America should or should not have invaded Iraq in 2003, there is no excuse for not learning the lesson of Iraq that should be clear to all today. It is a lesson first enunciated in a different Asian context by Gen. Douglas MacArthur and ignored ever since: The United States should not become enmeshed in a land war in Asia. What made sense in the late 1940s makes sense in the contemporary Middle East for the same reason: Ancient peoples, with ancient hatreds, will not pay much heed to well-intentioned Americans who come to tell them what to do with their polities; and sadly, all too often, they will shoot at them as well.
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