The news from Afghanistan this morning is devastating: at least 80 killed and hundreds wounded following a massive explosion in Kabul. The violence, of course, is hardly limited to Afghanistan.
Earlier this week, two attacks in the space of 12 hours, one at a well-known ice cream parlor, killed at least 27 people in Baghdad. Hitting an summer ice cream spot in the Iraqi capital was, once again, a deliberate choice to target children. Last week, it was a deadly suicide bombing attack at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, where the prime objective was to kill teenage and pre-teen girls.
Faced with such evil intentions, outrage directed at the perpetrators and their patrons — almost exclusively radical Islamist terrorist groups — is utterly justified. But it is also insufficient. Understanding the context also means pointing to the repercussions of the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and later Iraq, in 2001 and 2003, which continue to be felt in those two countries, and beyond.
Vietnam was supposed to have taught America a lesson
With the successive wars, launched by then U.S. President George W. Bush, "All hell broke loose," Richard Engel, the chief foreign correspondent for NBC News argued in a recent memoir of his two decades in the Middle East (1996-2016). Engel is particularly critical of the Iraq invasion, a policy he originally supported but came to see as being built on false premises. The U.S. government, under Bush, thought it could plant "the seeds of democracy." It failed.
"This is why refugees have been flowing out of the Middle East by the millions for Europe," Engel wrote in his 2016 book. "If President Bush's seeds of democracy or the Arab Spring had bloomed, these families wouldn't be risking everything to leave. Many in the region have simply lost all hope."
America's tragic misadventure in Vietnam, in the 1960s and 1970s, was supposed to have taught the country a lesson about launching faraway, ideologically-driven wars. And it did, for a while at least. Little by little, though, memories of that quagmire were superseded by a new vision of U.S. military might, and by a shifting geopolitical picture that left America as the world's sole superpower.
Some note that one of the turning points toward this new era came from a country also in the news this week: Panama. The former dictator of the small Central American nation Manuel Noriega, who died Monday at 83, shared something with Saddam Hussein in Iraq: Gen. Noriega was a useful ally of the United States — until he wasn't. In December 1989, the father of "W.", President George H.W. Bush, launched Operation Just Cause, an all-out invasion of Panama involving nearly 28,000 American troops. In just over a month, U.S. forces seized control of the country and ousted Noriega, who was later jailed on drugs trafficking charges.
From the U.S. perspective, the war in Panama was a rousing success. American casualties were limited to 23. Democratic elections were held shortly afterwards. And it all took place in a blink of an eye. Never mind that as many as 3,000 Panamanian civilians are believed to have died: America was great again.
It was the kind of success the U.S. military, still trying to live down the stain of Vietnam, was happy to build upon. And it did — starting less than a year later — with Operation Desert Shield, better known as the First Gulf War. Together the two conflicts made U.S. forces seem unstoppable, an idea the younger Bush took to heart a decade later. It would be a unique kind of American heroism, he thought. Looking back, it looks more like the most dangerous brand of American hubri