12/18/2011 05:59 pm ET Updated Feb 17, 2012

Iraq, Free Trade and America's Efforts to Remake the World

With the end of the war in Iraq, one chapter of the Neoconservative history is ended. Its outcome will not be known for decades to come.

In his famous 2003 interview in Vanity Fair magazine, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz was forthright in explaining that while their public case for going to war in Iraq was based on weapons of mass destruction, they chose the WMD argument because it was the most salable. It was the rationale for the war, but not the reason.

Some, such as Dick Cheney, saw the war in Iraq was a means to achieve American control over oil fields whose development Saddam was ceding to Russian, Chinese and French companies, and putting boots on the ground within striking distance of both Saudi and Kuwaiti oil fields, to deter future threats to America's interests in the region.

Others, such as Donald Rumsfeld, saw Saddam as a proven threat to the region, who would be increasingly allied with international terrorism as a strategic threat to America's interests. That group -- that garnered sympathy in the outgoing Clinton administration -- viewed action in Iraq as imperative both to forestall further aggression by Saddam, and to prevent an alliance with terrorist groups that had declared war on America and the West years earlier.

For Wolfowitz and his Neocon brothers-in-arms, however, the motivation was more idealistic. Iraq was an opportunity to bring a reformation to the Arab world -- to end centuries of oppression and dictatorship dating back through the Ottoman Empire and the Caliphates, and set it on a path toward modernization, democracy and freedom.

It is ironic that a decade later -- after a cost of thousands of American and Iraqi lives and trillions of dollars of total projected costs -- the argument that was chosen to sell the war was the easiest to have been proven wrong. For Wolfowitz and his brethren that is OK, because WMD was never really the reason. It was simply the rationale.

Today, as winter sets in following the Arab Spring, it is hard not to reflect on the Neoconservative casus belli. One cannot point to the evolving democracy in Iraq and suggest a direct cause for democratically inspired movements that have shaken the Arab world. The contemporaneous evolution of communications technologies that have been so evident in media coverage of the Arab Spring certainly suggests a range of changes in the world that might have been causal factors. Yet, images of Iraqis exercising their new-found rights of suffrage had to have an effect.

The devolution of the Arab Spring as the early excitement gave way to the increasing violence in Iraq should have been anticipated. Even as the commentariat pronounced a new world order, real world factors were bound to counter the idealism of the moment -- whether the military in Egypt or the tribalism in Libya, or the Algerian history of one man-one vote-one time that looms in the background as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties loom to seize power in a matter of months through the ballot that they failed to achieve after decades of armed struggle.

This is a dissatisfying outcome. In an era of instant news and communication, the notion that it may take generations for new political and social dynamics to evolve is hard to accept. Through the Iraq war, we have created turmoil in the region. We have let the jinni out of the bottle and when things begin to look worse for it -- when new regimes become hostile, when women's rights are suppressed, when all those leaders across the Muslim crescent who graduated from American universities take power and rail against us to play to their local electorate -- there will be little we can do.

But we already know that living in a world of increased freedom is a bitch. We have been down this road before.

If our experiment in spreading democratic freedom across the Muslim world seems like it may have rough moments, we need only look back at our now-decades old experiment in spreading economic freedom, known as free trade.

Just as the Neoconservative vision held that building democratic institutions across the Muslim world was critical to addressing the long-term threats that emanated from that region, Richard Nixon's openings to China and the Soviet Union began a process of bridging the west and the Communist world through economic engagement as a strategy to mute the risks of military -- and ultimately nuclear -- conflict.

While we may have to wait fifty or a hundred years to see how the Neocon strategy of democratization of the Muslim world pans out, we are beginning to see the impact of our free trade strategy.

By and large, free trade has worked. At least with respect to the muting of military and nuclear conflict. Russians are now deeply engaged in their own economic and political development, even as they struggle to migrate toward a system based on laws in lieu of tsars and commissars. China, meanwhile, has embraced free trade with a vengeance -- or a free trade world to be more specific. A quarter century ago, according to U.S. Census data, our trade with China was negligible. Since that time, through an unrelenting mercantilist strategy, China has seized the advantages available to a provider of low-cost labor to become our largest trading partner -- and each year our trade deficit and job losses have grown.

The price of our free trade policy on the American worker and middle class was not unanticipated. Most famously, 1992 presidential candidate Ross Perot described the "giant sucking sound" of jobs that would be drained from this country with the advent of free trade agreements supported by Democrats and Republicans alike. And the economics of his statement were unarguable. Lower labor costs, lower regulation and reduced enforcement of environmental laws had been the basis of the rise of the Sunbelt and the decline of the industrial Midwest domestically, and Perot was suggesting nothing other than the same dynamics would lead to the internationalization of the deindustrialization of America.

But few warned the American people. Across the punditocracy of the time Ross Perot was roundly derided as a crank and a scold. But Perot's followers, the political antecedents of the Tea Party, knew a con job when they heard one.

Many may not care for Paul Wolfowitz and his friends that imposed a bloody and costly war upon the Iraqi and American people. But in his ideological fervor Wolfowitz is part of a uniquely American tradition. Few empires have offered their lives and treasure that other nations might be lifted up. And in that sense, the Neoconservative aspirations were an outgrowth of the highest rhetoric of John F. Kennedy.

With the advent of free trade, America willingly and deliberately sacrificed the livelihoods of its working class as the price of raising people out of poverty from Xinjiang to Sochi. With the Iraq war young American men and women gave their lives that future generations from Mosul to Tunis might see their lives transformed. But like free trade, there will likely be more pain yet to come, and the next chapters of the story will play out over decades. A remarkably unsatisfying outcome.