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Name That War

In November of 2003, Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times used his column to announce a contest to rename the Iraq war, which the military had dubbed Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was my entry. I don’t remember what the winner was, nor any of the other top contenders, but none of my suggestions merited a mention.

20 November 2003

Ref: Solicitations of new names for Operation Iraqi Freedom:

I gather your preference would be for names along the lines of The Mistaken War, or The Unnecessary War, or The War of Fraud, or even Bush’s Folly.

But I would contend that is was initiated with the highest of hopes, if perhaps with the lowest of means. The “war on terrorism”, of which George W. Bush contends Iraq is a part, is not a conventional war in any sense:

  • In principle it is a war of moral vision, in which there is no potential for compromise or for a negotiated peace.
  • In practice it is a war of attrition, drawn out and anxious — the kind of war for which democracies are the least prepared and the least tolerant.
  • It is a war against shadows and emotions, not enemies, in which military might is impotent without a target against which to expend it.

The genesis of terrorism — and the social and political pathologies in which it breeds — may well be rooted in the history of American foreign policy. But that foreign policy spans decades and the rule of both conservatives and liberals in American politics. We cannot change it now. We can only start from what it has left us and try to dig out from under its implications.

Whether you agree or disagree with the decision to invade Iraq to overthrow a despot — and it is a matter of disputable judgment, not fact, whether the long-term threat made it worthwhile and justified — it was a course taken with the highest of hopes: of fundamentally changing the game instead of merely again dragging out play under the old rules in an interminable and futile effort at accommodation.

Whether or not there were specific ties between Al Quaeda and Iraq it was certainly a typical example of the dead-end of previous policies that leads to hopelessness, anger, and, ultimately, terrorism — and one in which we’ve had a long-standing concern about nationalist dreams and extreme weapons. If Iraq wasn’t a specific sponsor of the particular terrorist acts in New York, it was a breeding ground and haven for the attitudes that spawned them, a potential armorer for larger future acts once the UN and Europe finally and inevitably grew tired of diligence in keeping Saddam Hussein’s aspirations in check, and an open-sore example of the grievances for which the Arab world holds us accountable. The specific Islamic fundamentalists who flew planes into the World Trade Center don’t give a damn about Iraq — they have a more visionary agenda — but it is the misery typified by Iraq that allows them to be more the mainstream than the fringe within the Arab and Islamic worlds.

We hear cries to “address the root causes of terrorism”. OK. Trying to change attitudes through dialogue and social investments and economic ties with existing Arab despots is one way; overthrowing and rebuilding Iraq along more democratic lines with the hope of spreading the results farther is another. I won’t pretend to know for sure which approach is more promising, but I strongly suspect that what we’ve done, if we can pull it off, will be more timely and more effective. Iraq wasn’t the direct cause of the terrorism that has happened so far but it was a supporting agent, and its unique position as a militant rogue made it the most likely candidate for direct action. Iraq is our beachhead for attempting to undo the sins of our past: it is both an opportunity to create a better model for the Arab world than the one we’ve left them with after 50 year of Cold War, and a warning to other countries that our patience and forbearance is not unbounded. Whether or not either the opportunity or the warning will serve us well remains in doubt — and the planning for the peace has been, to be kind, less than inspiring — but it was a bold attempt and I would argue that the six months since the end of the invasion is not sufficient time to judge the end of it. I am as uneasy as anyone but I don’t presume that what we see now is necessarily the future.

In that regard I would propose naming this war The War of Bold Hope or The War for the Soul of Iraq or, given our role in creating the current Arab world, Operation Atonement. Or perhaps, if it works out, The Renaissance War, or The War of Transformation.

Or perhaps we should dispense with sound bites and simply call it our current attempt at long-term peace. Perhaps not the best possible attempt, but an honest one with flaws.

© Copyright 2003, 2005, Augustus P. Lowell

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