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Do you remember about ten years ago when the so-called vulcans on Bush’s national security council rather contemptuously dismissed their opponents? The vulcans prided themselves on their hard-headed realism in international affairs. Their critics said that going to war in Iraq ignored the realities of politics in that part of the world. Cheney’s vulcans, who tried to make everyone who disagreed with them feel like a sissy, replied, “We create our own reality.”

Now you see the reality they made. The vulcans wanted a friendly, peaceful regime in Iraq, secure access to oil shipped through the Strait of Hormuz, a bulwark against sworn enemy Iran, no home anywhere for al Qaeda, and a stable environment that would sustain friendly countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Israel. Look what we have instead:

    • Civil war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Libya.
    • Refugees by the millions in Iraq, Kurdistan, Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon.
    • Iran’s power in the region on the rise.
    • Al Qaeda’s military activity, effectiveness and strength in the region on the rise.
    • Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Pakistan threatened and scared.
    • A large region from Baghdad to Aleppo and Damascus mobilized for war.
    • A proxy war in Lebanon and Syria between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
    • Israeli appeals to the United States for war against Iran.
    • Use of poison gas against civilians.
    • Virulent conflict between Sunnis and Shiites, including massacres and forced removal.
    • Effective breakup of Iraq into three parts: Anbar, Kurdistan, and a Shia rump state friendly to Iran.
    • Complete Balkanization of Syria in the civil war there, with the fiercest firefights now among rebel factions.

When the first nuclear weapon is used in the Middle East, we’ll look on in shock and helplessness. We’ll say, “What could we have done?” That’s correct: we cannot stop what we set in motion in 2003. Like a photograph in a darkroom, we see the reality we created develop before us. We don’t know what’s on the negative, and we certainly can’t control the outcome. We make our own reality, and we are helpless. Our influence is spent.

Of all human activity, war is the most unpredictable. Hitler, the twentieth century’s supreme gambler, said “the world will hold its breath” when he attacked Russia in June 1941. Hitler did not expect to lose the gamble; Churchill knew he would. For the vulcans, so sure were they of America’s military prowess, they did not even consider their agression against Baghdad as a gamble. In their ignorance and hubris, they saw nothing but light beyond the Mission Accomplished banner on the USS Lincoln, as the president strode across the flight deck with his flight suit on and his helmet under his arm. If you ever wanted an illustration of the saying, “Pride goeth before a fall,” that would be it.

Military historians will come to see the attack on Iraq in 2003 as the most consequential and catastrophic military move by a great power since Germany attacked Russia in 1941. We did not lose our army in Iraq, but we destroyed our prestige, influence, and ability to lead. We will not mount more military operations in the current environment, and other countries know it. Our unfulfilled threat to act against Assad after he gassed his people demonstrates our reluctance. Seeing the consequences of our past behavior, that reluctance may be well placed.

We now have warfare all the way from Pakistan in the east to Tunisia in the west. We can’t say how much of this conflict would have remained dormant had we not attacked Iraq in 2003. We can say confidently, however, that the current wars in Iraq and Syria would not have occurred if we had kept our hands off. We stirred that pot well, and we don’t know when the stew will stop boiling over.

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