06/21/2014 01:51 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What the History of the World Wars Can Tell Us About the Deeper Struggles at Work in Iraq

The very philosophy of the Axis powers is based on a profound contempt for the human race. If, in the formation of our future policy, we were guided by the same cynical contempt, then we should be surrendering to the philosophy of our enemies, and our victory would turn to defeat.

The issue of this war is the basic issue between those who believe in mankind and those who do not--the ancient issue between those who put their faith in the people and those who put their faith in dictators and tyrants. There have always been those who did not believe in the people, who attempted to block their forward movement across history, to force them back to servility and suffering and silence. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt 1943

As Franklin Roosevelt realized all too well, victory in the Second World War required much more than military power; it also involved the defeat of the extremist ideology of fascism that brought death and destruction to millions. Viewed from this perspective, the six-year struggle between 1939 and 1945 was as much a battle of ideas as it was a military conflict, and throughout the long years of fighting, FDR put as much effort into winning the peace as he did into winning the war.

Moreover, this determination did not just occur overnight. It came from a deep understanding of history and long years of experience, including the experience of having lived through America's first major engagement as a global power -- our entrance into the First World War, a move which President Wilson claimed was driven by America's desire "to make the world safe for democracy."  

The tragic events unfolding in Iraq today are not all that dissimilar to what took place in the 1930s and '40s. Once again, we face an extremist ideology that is bent on conquest and has little respect for human life. Once again we face an adversary that rejects the core set of values that stand at the root of Western civilization, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

To counter this threat, senior American policy-makers often speak -- as former Vice President Dick Cheney did yesterday in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal -- of the need to defend and secure America's "freedom," in part through the promotion of "freedom" abroad.

In recent years, the best and most dynamic example of this modern-day attempt "to make the world safe for democracy" can be seen in the 2003 invasion of Iraq -- a war of choice which was launched under the false assumption that the "Iraqi people" would respond to "freedom" in a manner similar to what happened in Japan and Germany after the Second World War. Hence, American strategy in this exercise in regime change was based on the idea that the people of Iraq would embrace democracy and Western values -- forgetting of course that Iraq -- unlike Germany or westernized Japan in 1945 -- was most emphatically not part of the West and that most of the Iraqi people had very little experience or interest in building a modern pluralistic state.

All of this points to a fundamental flaw that existed -- and still exists -- in the thinking of those like Vice President Cheney who base America's security on the promotion of what some recent analysts have termed "hard Wilsonianism" -- the idea that the post-Cold War world the United States can use its overwhelming military superiority to enforce a liberal international order.

It is true that what is happening in Iraq and Syria is a major international crisis. It is also true -- as Vice President Cheney and others have argued -- that America's withdrawal from Iraq at the end of 2011 has helped precipitate this crisis. What is largely missing from the current debate over Iraq and Syria -- as well as the equally dangerous crisis in Ukraine -- is the overwhelming need for American policy-makers and the American public to pay greater attention to the religious and ideological forces at work in these crises and the one tool perhaps more than any other that can help us avoid these sorts of catastrophes in the future: the study of history.

A rudimentary understanding of Iraq's history, for example, would have made clear that Iraq was carved out of the remnants of the Ottoman Empire in a secret treaty between the British and the French at the height of the First World War, and that modern Iraq is really three nations, one Sunni, one Shia and one Kurdish, held together in its initial years by the British Empire and for the rest of the 20th century by the brutal hand of dictators like Saddam Hussein.

In his criticism of the decision to withdraw all of America's combat forces from Iraq, Vice President Cheney accused President Obama of being "willfully blind to the impact of his policies." The recent history of Iraq indicates that President Bush and his advisors are equally guilty of this sin, if not more so. A deeper understanding of Iraqi as well as American history would have indicated to them that "wishful thinking about our adversaries," as Vice President Cheney put it, is indeed "folly," the sort of folly that led us to launch the 2003 invasion with far too few troops, based on the fatal assumption that U.S. forces would be universally welcomed in this deeply divided, semi-artificial state. Viewed from this perspective, the Bush administration's decision to not only take out Saddam Hussein but also destroy -- with a minimum of American force -- Iraq's bureaucracy and army borders on criminal negligence. For as we now know, the latter two moves, especially disbanding the Iraqi Army, were a grave mistake, releasing tens of thousands of armed men -- mostly Sunni armed men, who were convinced they had little or no future in a Shia-dominated Iraq -- into the general population. The result was near civil war and the need for a major surge of American troops, all of which made a mockery of President Bush's claim on May 1, 2003 that "major combat operations in Iraq" had ended.

Even if one believes that the toppling of Saddam Hussein was necessary, a closer reading of history might have led to a much more responsible and well-thought-out strategy: one that took cognizance of the deep ethnic and religious divisions within Iraq; understood -- as General MacArthur and President Truman did when they ordered the Japanese Army to keep order in Japan until American occupation troops arrived -- that the uncontrolled disbanding of a nation's armed forces is a recipe for disaster; and recognized -- as FDR did - -that the development of Western-style democracy involves much more than the highly over-used and over-rated concept of "freedom" or the right to vote. It also requires tolerance, a respect for the rule of law, and a willingness to build the necessary institutions that make up a modern democratic state.

In a little-known comment near the end of the tumultuous 1920s -- the decade which brought us a brutal civil war in Russia and a great deal of nationalist upheaval in Eastern Europe, including Ukraine -- British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin reflected that what was really required in the wake of the First World War was not so much the determination "to make the world safe for democracy," as President Wilson argued, but rather the determination "to make democracy safe for the world."

Franklin Roosevelt understood this. He recognized that it was the ideology of fascism -- inspired in part by the frustrations of the First World War -- that brought us the Second World War and all its concomitant horrors, including the Holocaust. As such, to win the military struggle -- made so much easier today by the advent of technologies like the predator drone -- was not enough. We also had to bring an end to the ideology of fascism, and to accomplish this we had to offer the people of the world not just "freedom" in the narrow sense of the word, but a much more expansive and all-inclusive concept, a definition of freedom that included, as FDR so eloquently put it, freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. These four concepts together, along with the creation of such institutions as the United Nations and America's willingness to embrace multilateralism, gave us the credibility to lead the world in the decades that followed. In this sense, FDR also learned from history, for having lived through the First World War and the failed peace that followed, he understood that our ultimate task was not so much to "make the world safe for democracy," but rather "to make democracy safe for the world." It is this lesson above all else that we need to embrace today if we are to entertain any hope of bringing an end to the crises in Iraq and Syria. 

This post was originally featured on Next New Deal