I have in my possession a special issue of WORLD magazine, dated April 19, 2003: “Free at last” is the title, speaking of Iraq. The double-size issue contained pages of photographs: smoke-filled Baghdad, dust-hazed roads, burning vehicles, fleeing civilians, a grieving father, coalition soldiers offering water and first aid to men they had earlier wounded—and rejoicing Iraqis pounding to bits the toppled statue of Saddam Hussein. That issue offered cautious optimism: hope that if the United States, along with its allies and the Iraqis themselves, could hold the line against potential threats and uprisings, a beachhead of freedom (relatively, anyway) might be established in a perilous corner of the world. Marvin Olasky best described the attitude as skeptical but not cynical.
By the end of the decade, even after the 2007 troop surge had stamped out insurgent fires, former war hawks abandoned the cause. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea after all. Could these people hold on to freedom? Did they even want it? As WORLD editor Mindy Belz has chronicled over the years, Christians ended up in a worse situation than before. The defeat of a single tyrant allowed a dozen little tyrannies to flame, and Christians caught the worst of it. Now, as Nina Shea speculates, the Muslim “end game” is quickly approaching. Iraqi Christians, marked for total expulsion if not extinction, are jamming the borders. Iraqi Muslims who “collaborated” with the Americans face a retribution horrible to contemplate. An ignominious image from 1975 comes to mind: helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, with desperate Vietnamese clinging to the skids.
True cynics will say we went to war for the oil, or for Wall Street, or for George W’s wounded psyche. Not one for labyrinthine conspiracy plots, I think we did it in response to 9/11, with a generous twist of that unique American impulse to try to make friends of enemies. It worked with Germany and Japan, after all—but only after those nations had been ruthlessly crushed. Ruthlessness was not so much a war strategy this time; we tried to win their freedom-loving hearts. But hearts are deceptive, and not all of them yearn for freedom. Most are paralyzed with fear, and some are downright savage.
Is Iraq a lesson for future wars, or a lesson of future-war? That is, not mighty nations arrayed against each other, but a perpetual bloody hide-and-seek carried on behind political smokescreens, waged by delusional fanatics who now have their hands on an unprecedented stash of assets and weapons. I had never heard of the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq (ISIS) until last week, and how they’re storming Baghdad. Is the world less safe than if we had done nothing in 2003? Looks like it. I’m thankful that none of this takes God by surprise or thwarts His purpose, but I find myself longing for Jesus to come back soon.