On the eve of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 20 years ago this month, the anticipated war was accompanied by a sense of idealistic triumphalism. It was fueled by a still-righteous rage following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks and empowered by the U.S.’s recent early victories over the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The overriding sense of U.S. troops as they gathered in force across the border in the Kuwaiti desert was that they were the great liberators who would free the Iraqi people from Saddam Hussein just as their grandfathers liberated Paris from the Nazis.
As an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division at the time, I can attest that the enthusiasm was infectious and, frankly, inspiring.
But there was a bug in the system that, over time, devoured the system itself. That bug was reality. Americans had told themselves a story about Iraq and Iraqis that had nothing to do with Iraq or Iraqis.
Then-President George W. Bush and his top advisors were guided by an ideology of American messianism. By their lights, all men were latent Americans. Everyone aspired to the same freedoms that Americans enjoyed. Release the people of Iraq from the bondage of Saddam’s tyranny, so the thinking went, and freedom would reign from Nasiriya to Baghdad, Tikrit to Kirkuk, as Shi’ites, Sunnis, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis—Iraqis all—would join together and build a new American-style free Iraq.
After the initial exhilaration of being welcomed with smiles by Shiites at the sides of the highways, the brutal reality of the real Iraq and the non-universality of American ideals became ever clearer with each passing day. In the end, that reality consumed the American war effort.
Americans responded in different ways to the cold shower they received in Iraq. Some doubled down, clinging to their messianic faith in the curative powers of elections and pushing for repeats of the Iraqi ordeal in Egypt, the Palestinian Authority and beyond.
Others washed their hands of the world, embraced isolationism and said to hell with everyone.
Still others recoiled not from the world outside and its pathologies, but from America, which they blamed for the world’s pathologies. It was those Americans who rose to power in 2009.
Barack Obama was also a messianist. But his messianism was different from that of his neoconservative predecessors. The anti-colonialist worldview Obama shared with his advisors and supporters posited that the real “messiah,” such as it was, wasn’t America, but the “noble savages” of the non-Western world. Left to their own devices, far from American and Western imperialist predations, these non-Westerners were the purest, most authentic form of humanity.
Their violence, anti-Americanism and even their own cultural and military imperialism and war crimes were rooted in and justified by American excesses. The president who for 20 years sat in the pews of the preacher who responded to Sept. 11 by declaring triumphantly that “America’s chickens have come home to roost” could make excuses for everything and everyone opposed to America.
Aside from America itself, the first victim of both the neoconservative messianism and the anti-colonialist messianism was Israel. The Jewish state was the victim of neoconservative messianists because their universalist view of America meant that, from their perspective, there was nothing unique or intrinsically valuable about the Jewish state.
Neoconservatives popularized the notion that the basis for U.S. support for Israel was not their shared Judeo-Christian heritage and values, but the fact that the government of Israel, like the U.S. government, governed with the consent of the governed. Once Iraq was freed of Saddam and his Baathist goons, the neocons insisted that Iraqis would be allies just as good and reliable as the Israelis.
By the same token, there was nothing inherently wrong or negative about the Muslim Brotherhood and its terrorist spawn. As Bush insanely argued after Hamas won the Palestinian elections in 2006, the yoke of governing responsibility and public expectation of services would force the jihadist terror group to abjure terrorism and its dedication to Israel’s destruction and devote its energies to fixing potholes.
Guided by the belief that, like Americans themselves, Israelis, Palestinians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Saudis were all latent Jeffersonians (or, at worst, Hamiltonians), Bush, Condoleezza Rice and their team accepted at face value the pan-Arab claim that Israel is to blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Rather than look at the unique pathologies of Islamism and Arab imperialism, Jew-hatred and tribalism, and understand their role in shaping the societies of the Arab world, the Americans insisted that all things being equal, the Islamic and Palestinian Arab terror war against Israel was distinct from the Islamist terror war against the United States and the rest of the world.
Unlike the likes of Al-Qaeda, Palestinian terrorism and the rejection of Israel’s right to exist were somehow justified. It had to be. Otherwise, how could the United States expect the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world to act like Israelis once they held elections?
The Bush administration’s messianic blinders made it incapable of understanding the significance of Israel’s experience in Lebanon to its experience in Iraq. Had the Americans recognized that Israel is intrinsically their ally because of its shared particularistic values and heritage, and seen as such by its neighbors, Washington would have recognized that the society most similar to Iraq’s was Lebanon, and Israel’s experience in its 18-year war in Lebanon had the most to teach them as they prepared to topple Saddam Hussein.
Had the administration understood the true nature of the multiethnic, traditional, violent society they were entering, they would certainly have developed a different plan for victory than democratizing a land where the values of liberalism are as alien as UFOs.
For neoconservatives, Islamist violence was the product of local tyranny. For anti-Western colonialists, it was the product of American tyranny. In neither case did the American messianists view Islamists as the natural outgrowth of distinct national, religious or tribal cultures and traditions.
This brings us to Obama and Israel. Whereas the neoconservatives didn’t recognize the intrinsic similarity of Jewish-Israeli and American values or understand that those values served as the unique rather than universalist basis for the U.S.-Israel alliance, Obama and his followers did see Israel as a microcosm of America. And just as they recoiled from Americanism for what they viewed as its imperialist chauvinism, so they hated Israel.
Like America, they believed Israel was inherently racist because it was particularist. Just as Native Americans, South Americans, Iranians and others were victims of American “colonialism,” and right to hate it, so the Palestinians were victims of Israeli “colonialists” and justified in their “resistance.”
The neoconservatives’ messianic blindness to reality led to Iraq falling to Iran and Iran rising unopposed by an America sapped of self-confidence by its devastating experience in Iraq.
Obama’s anti-Western colonialist messianism, which has now been restored under President Joe Biden as the ideological basis of American foreign policy, brought about the restoration of Russian power in the Middle East and the rise of a near-nuclear Iran.
It brought revolution and counter-revolution to Egypt and destabilized the Sunni Arab world as a whole for the first time in 90 years, shaking the foundations of American power in the Middle East.
Donald Trump sought to right the ship of American statesmanship in the region and worldwide to one that abjured messianism in favor of national interests. His Middle East policies facilitated the Abraham Accords and the near collapse of the Iranian economy by the time he left office. Both achievements made clear that he was on to something.
But Trump was stymied and subverted at every turn by his messianic neoconservative and anti-colonialist predecessors and hemmed in by his isolationist supporters. The headway he made was insufficient to withstand the restoration of Obama’s anti-Western messianism under Biden two years ago.
Today, after eight years of neoconservative messianism and 10 years and counting of anti-colonialist, anti-Western messianism, America’s position in the region and the world topples and falls towards destruction.
Obama hated Israel because, to him, the Jewish state is a microcosm of the America he believed was responsible for the wars of the region. He turned against America’s Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf and against Egypt because they viewed the United States as a positive rather than a negative force in the region.
For failing to hate American power as he did, Obama determined that the Sunni regimes weren’t “authentic” and he worked to destabilize them by supporting the Iranian mullahs and their allies in the Muslim Brotherhood.
Since jihad was a reasoned response to American aggression, so the thinking went and still goes, by empowering jihadists at the expense of Israel and the Sunni regimes, America could convince them to leave America alone or provide it with moral exculpation.
America’s spurned Sunni allies responded to Washington’s betrayal by casting about for other options. First, they turned to Israel. Then they turned to Russia and China. China’s mediation of the Saudi-Iranian dispute is a testament to the Sunnis’ conviction that the United States can no longer be trusted.
The report this week that the UAE is considering downgrading its relations with Israel is a testament to the growing sense among the Arabs that Israel is going down with America.
The Biden administration’s open support for the revolt of Israel’s post-Zionist elites seems to support this assessment. Those elites have a long record of scuttling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to develop strategic independence and the means to physically destroy Iran’s nuclear program. Instead, they favor support for U.S.-led nuclear diplomacy and appeasement of the ayatollahs. If Israel will not serve as a counterweight to Iran, then it has no value to the threatened Sunnis.
Israel’s takeaway from a generation of failed U.S. messianism must be that the time has come to end Israel’s strategic dependence on Uncle Sam. A restored alliance can only be based on mutual respect and sovereign independence. The mutinous elites must be brought to heel.
America’s takeaway from its generational flight from reality must be to restore reality to its proper place as the basis for American foreign policy. This doesn’t mean that the mythmakers and dreamers should be sent off to pasture. But the image of America that will rebuild its power and vitality isn’t a crusading banner of universal freedom. It isn’t an LGBT flag with a Black Lives Matter fist in the middle.
A restored America will be one that presents an updated version of the icons of the past—Horatio Alger and the Lone Ranger. Theirs told the story of a free people who persevered and prospered because they were willing to pay the price for freedom. They stood up for themselves and succeeded through hard work, courage and grit.
That was the dream Americans had and the one they shared with the world. If it is restored, America may still return to greatness. If it remains elusive, the American dream for its people and the world will disappear.
Caroline Glick is an award-winning columnist and author of “The Israeli Solution: A One-State Plan for Peace in the Middle East.”
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