In Cairo in 1943, when the tide had turned in the war on Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, who had embraced Joseph Stalin as an ally and acceded to his every demand, had a premonition.
Conversing with Harold Macmillan, Churchill blurted:
“Cromwell was a great man, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, sir, a very great man,” Macmillan replied.
“Ah, but he made one terrible mistake,” Churchill continued. “Obsessed in his youth by fear of the power of Spain, he failed to observe the rise of France. Will that be said of me?”
Yes, history will say that of Churchill, who in 1946 delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Mo., to decry Stalin’s persecution of that half of Europe into which Churchill had welcomed the monster.
Of George W. Bush, it will be said that, after 9/11, he led his country on a utopian crusade for democracy in the Muslim world — and all but ignored the rise of a rival with a potential that Stalin never had to surpass and eclipse the United States as first power on earth.
Ten years after, what has 9/11 wrought?
Initially, Bush handled it masterfully. With his nation behind him, in three months, he effected the overthrow of the Taliban who had given sanctuary to Osama bin Laden and had al-Qaida on the run.
Then, full of hubris, the conquering hero went before the Congress to all but declare war on three “axis of evil” nations — Iran, Iraq, North Korea — not one of which had had anything to do with 9/11.
Instantly, Bush split his international and national coalitions. NATO allies Germany and France, who had followed us into Afghanistan, were now “an axis of weasels” to the blustering neoconservatives in Bush’s court.
“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” brayed Bush — with the terrorist sympathizers presumably including Pope John Paul II, who opposed an American war on Iraq.
And what was Bush’s rationale for war?
Though Iraq had not attacked us and did not threaten us, Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and could not be trusted not to use them in an attack on an America that could incinerate his family and country in an afternoon.
The U.S. arsenal had deterred Stalin and Mao Zedong, but apparently it could not deter such a monster as Saddam. A second 9/11 with nuclear, chemical or biological weapons was something we had to go to war to prevent.
So, with the indispensable support of a Democratic Senate including Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Edwards, John Kerry and Harry Reid, we went to war against Iraq.
After eight years, what are the costs and what are the rewards?
Some 4,400 U.S. dead, 35,000 wounded, a trillion dollars sunk.
Iraqi dead, soldiers and civilians alike in the near-decade of war, must number 100,000, with half a million widows and orphans. Iraqi wounded surely number in the hundreds of thousands.
The Christian community has been destroyed. Half the Iraqi Christians have been uprooted. Half of these have fled into exile, though Christians have lived in Iraq almost since the time of Christ.
Shia Iran, that other axis-of-evil nation, cheered on the U.S. invasion, the dethroning of the Sunni despot Saddam and the rise to power of the repressed Shia. Tehran, against whom Saddam had waged a long war, is now America’s rival for influence over Baghdad.
In the other theater, after 10 years in Afghanistan and Pakistan, we have virtually decapitated the al-Qaida leadership.
Downside: It has cost us almost 2,000 dead and thousands more wounded. And as we have decimated al-Qaida, the collateral damage we have done has recruited thousands of fighters for a Taliban that now awaits America’s impending departure to reassume power and do to Afghan collaborators of America what the North Vietnamese and Pol Pot did to collaborators in 1975.
And before we cauterized and cut it out in the subcontinent, the al-Qaida cancer metastasized. It is now in the Arabian Peninsula, Somalia, the Maghreb and “liberated” Libya. And across the Arab and Muslim world, America has never been more detested and reviled.
Politically, early battlefield victories in Afghanistan and Iraq gave Bush’s GOP victories in 2002 and 2004. But the turning of the tide cost the party both houses of Congress in 2006 and the White House in 2008. For the first time, an opponent of an ongoing war, Barack Obama, won the presidency, and over an uber-hawk, John McCain.
Economically, the U.S. share of world gross domestic product has shrunk dramatically in a decade, while China’s share has soared.
We won World War II and the Cold War. We did not win the post-Cold War era now ending. Looking back on the decade since 9/11, one appreciates Edmund Burke’s summary judgment of that generation of British leaders who lost the North American colonies.
“A great empire and little minds go ill together.”