In the debate over whether we should bomb Syria, a name has come up that we hadn't heard in a while: Iraq. There are all kinds of overly simplistic comparisons you could make between 2003 and 2013, but they really are nothing alike, most particularly in that George Bush wanted and got a great big war, while Barack Obama plainly doesn't want any such thing. And of course, Iraq was just kind of sitting there, while today Syria is engulfed in a bloody civil war.
But this is a good time to remember that when we finally left Iraq two years ago, things didn't exactly become all unicorns and rainbows. Not that it would be any better if our troops were still there getting shot at, but the country remains awash in sectarian violence.
For some perspective, think about the Boston bombing—not just the reaction of the authorities, which included shutting down a major city for most of a day, but how much we talked and thought about it, learned about the victims, debated what it meant and didn't mean. As horrible as it was, these days that would be a quiet day in Baghdad. Here's an AP story from earlier this week:
A series of coordinated evening blasts in Baghdad and other violence killed at least 67 people in Iraq on Tuesday, officials said, the latest in a months-long surge of bloodshed that Iraqi security forces are struggling to contain.
Many of those killed were caught up in a string of car bombings that tore through the Iraqi capital early in the evening as residents were out shopping or heading to dinner. Those blasts struck 11 different neighborhoods and claimed more than 50 lives in a span of less than two hours.
The killing comes amid a spike in deadly violence in recent months as insurgents try to capitalize on rising sectarian and ethnic tensions. The scale of the bloodshed has risen to levels not seen since 2008, a time when Iraq was pulling back from the brink of civil war.
According to the UN, 804 Iraqis were killed in terrorist bombings in the month of August. That's an average of 26 every day; almost 5,000 have been killed in 2013.
What does the ongoing carnage in Iraq tell us about what we should do about Syria? Maybe nothing. And I suppose it's possible that if there had never been an invasion of Iraq, today it would look like Syria does: a rebellion eventually springs up, and the dictator attempts to hold on to power with all the ruthlessness he can muster. Maybe the sum total of human suffering would have ended up the same. We can't know.
But as we think about Syria, it's a reminder that one of the things brutal dictators seem to do well is silencing groups of people who would otherwise be at each other's throats. Perhaps through some hard-to-foresee series of events, Bashar Assad will be deposed and there will be a reconciliation process in Syria that can produce a democracy that allows people to express their differences through politics and not violence. But it isn't hard to imagine that even if the international community came together and did everything it could to help Syria make that transition, ten years from now we'll see something similar: a new government in place, trying to hold things together while the bloodshed just goes on and on.
Just like so much else, that possibility doesn't give us much guidance about whether we should go ahead with the strikes that the Obama administration is proposing. There are nothing but bad options.