Do our best instincts cause our worst failures?
Consider Iraq. Granted, some not-so-great instincts brought us there in 2003 -- but it was our best instincts that kept us there. Remember "you break it, you own it?" We took the Pottery Barn Rule seriously enough to stick around for the next eight years, trying earnestly to glue the shattered pieces back together.
The glue never stuck. We couldn't bring ourselves to believe gloomy predictions that looting might take place, and we convinced ourselves the Iraqis would be better off if we could just get the Baathists out of government and disband Saddam Hussein's army. But instead of bringing peace and democracy, early U.S. decisions in Iraq led to chaos, revenge killings, a government that could no longer provide the most basic services, and millions of angry, armed, and unemployed young men.
It only got worse. The continued U.S. presence sparked an insurgency and brought al Qaeda to Iraq. While the Iraq War's civilian death toll remains disputed, it was certainly high: during the eight years of U.S. military engagement, an estimated 162,000 Iraqis were killed, mostly civilians. Violence began gradually to subside after 2006, for reasons most analysts suspect had little to do with the U.S. troop surge. In 2011, we finally slunk off, tails between our legs. Behind us, we left a squabbling, barely functional government, an economy still in shambles, and a level of civil violence that remains astronomically high.
My point here is not that the Iraq War was a bad idea in the first place (though it certainly was). It's more depressing than that. My point is that this cynical, foolish, arguably illegal war might still have come right in the end if we had tried a little less hard to fix everything. I remember Iraq in summer 2003, before the bombing of the U.N. building, before suicide bombs and IEDs became near daily occurrences. There was a brief window that spring and summer, a window in which the mood in Baghdad was cautiously celebratory. People spoke freely. NGOs and human rights groups popped up out of nowhere. Saddam was out; hope was in. We should have left then.
What would have happened if the U.S. government had been less determined to fix Iraq's broken parts? What would have happened if we'd brought our troops back home in summer 2003? What if we'd quelled our national do-gooder instincts, and left the Iraqi army and all but a handful of top Baathist officials in place, offering the rest their lives, liberty, and some generous economic assistance in exchange for genuine cooperation on weapons inspections?
There's no way to know for sure, but I have an uneasy feeling that a more cynical U.S. government approach from the get-go -- an approach that never even contemplated the restoration of democracy -- might ultimately have caused less bloodshed.