Why did I feel déjà vu all over again while reading Niall Ferguson’s much-discussed Newsweek column from earlier in the week? Simple: not merely because it was wrong, but because it was wrong in such familiar-sounding and well-worn ways. I might have thought that some number of years would pass before we’d be having these arguments all over again.
Among the false claims made to us in 2002 and 2003, as the pounding of the war drums grew more incessant, was that “containment” had failed in Iraq. George H.W. Bush, this argument went, had committed the moral lapse of not permitting our troops to march into Baghdad from the freshly liberated “Province 19” (Kuwait) and had settled instead for the idea that we could keep Saddam Hussein hemmed in. The latter’s use of chemical warfare on the Kurds, his ever-expanding arsenal of WMD, and his nuclear weaponry, which was as little as six months away from becoming cold physical reality, demonstrated that the idea of containment with regard to so lethal a madman was itself madness.
The intent was not merely to bang those drums, but, as was the wont of those History-obsessed neocons, something larger: to argue more broadly that a fundamental idea of American foreign policy of the last 50 years was now outdated, dead. “Containment,” it was allowed, had been all well and good when we were talking about the lethargic Soviet Union of Brezhnev. But an uncaged tyrant like Saddam demanded a posture at once more nimble and aggressive. That two of the three justifications for this new posture turned out to be lies (WMD, the infamous mushroom cloud) was something we learned later, and so they didn’t manage to get in the way of the mendacious case for war at the time.
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