Spanning Conflict

Sanity Fair

Diplomacy works where force of arms fail.

The bridge over the Hudson River at Fort Lee loomed large in last week’s political news, but the traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge won’t reverberate for long. And if we do remember the incident on that bridge, all that might be harmed are New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s presidential ambitions.

Another bridge, this one over the Euphrates, came to mind with the news that militants belonging to al-Qaida had taken over the city of Fallujah, in the Iraqi province of Anbar. It was on that bridge nearly 10 years ago that four U.S. citizens employed by a company we had barely heard of, by the name of Blackwater, were killed in an ambush before the charred bodies of two of them were hung from the suspension bridge’s superstructure.

That incident shocked the U.S. public and confirmed that the Iraqi people were not interested in welcoming our troops as liberators. Fallujah resisted the occupying forces mightily and became the focus of a sectarian battle that ultimately cost the lives of thousands of Iraqis and nearly 100 U.S. troops (and an untold number of civilian contractors).

Researchers at Brown University earlier this year concluded that “the Iraq war has killed at least 190,000 people, including men and women in uniform, contractors and civilians, and will cost the United States $2.2 trillion–a figure that far exceeds the initial 2002 estimates by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget of $50 billion to $60 billion.” They went on to say that 70 percent of the dead were civilians. Among those lost were 4,488 members of the U.S. armed forces and 3,400 civilian contractors.

After all that, to see al-Qaida in control of Fallujah represents the ultimate confirmation of the folly of President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. There was no al-Qaida in Iraq before our troops were sent. Now, with the Middle East ever more fragmented and dangerous, this al-Qaida affiliate has control of Fallujah–the one place that American forces felt they had won a strategic victory–and the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al Maliki, has no intention of forcing them out. The United Nations reports that in the calendar year just concluded, 8,868 people were killed in Iraq, the highest toll in the past five years.

When we hear the clamor from left and right for us to “do something” in Syria, we should look long and hard at the photographs of al-Qaida patrolling the streets of Fallujah. When we hear the intermittent drumbeat from both Washington, D.C., and Tel Aviv for a military solution to our problems with Iran, we should remember the lesson of Fallujah. Years of war, with its blood and tears, and we have only emboldened our enemies, at the cost of so many of our finest sons and daughters, and so many more many Iraqi men, women, and children.

During the buildup to the war in Iraq, there was a debate that blended our collective trauma from 9/11 with (we later learned) a deliberate campaign of deception alleging that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and was ready to ship them to our enemies.

Looking to the west from Iraq today, we see the nastiest of civil wars raging in Syria. When Bashar al Assad used chemical weapons, the United States went to the edge of war, then backed up and initiated a diplomatic process that has begun to neutralize those weapons. To the east, in Iran, comes news that diplomats have brokered a preliminary agreement to reduce that country’s ability to make nuclear weapons. It is worth noting what can happen when cooler heads prevail.

Too often when we hear the cry that we have to do “something,” we think that “something” has to be a military response. What did we get from that war in Iraq?

Today, 10 years after the first battle of Fallujah, the bridge over the Euphrates leads into a town occupied by al-Qaida. And the bridge built by diplomacy, in Iran and in Syria, has, at least for the moment, kept the hope of peace alive.

Meanwhile, a traffic jam on the Hudson is what we see on the news.

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