I haven’t written about Iraq for a while, largely because I came to the conclusion that there were no remaining contingent pathways left: things were going to turn out however they were going to turn out. I especially came to feel that critics of the war itself might as well retreat from the public debate. Those who advocated the war are now and should remain wholly responsible for what happens next. Of course, they also should get some credit for good consequences of the war. At this juncture of the conflict, I think there is reason to hope that Iraq will eventually achieve some measure of stability and freedom. The signs are not all gloomy, far from it. And if Iraq tomorrow looks better by far than Iraq yesterday, that will be a good thing. It is important not to minimize or sneer at that good if it manifests. It is important to hope for the best.
What I still have to say as a matter of advocacy has to do with the collateral damage of the conflict, with the deeply unnecessary and unprincipled uses of the war to consolidate dangerous forms of federal power and political hysteria within the United States and foolhardy, counterproductive expressions of American power abroad. I still reel at the fact that the leaders of my government are waging a serious political effort to retain an official, sanctioned, legalized capacity to authorize torture. Please, don’t bother splitting hairs here about whether mock-drowning people or forcing them to stand without sitting for eight hours is torture or not. That’s a non-debate where the slippery slope doesn’t loom mistily up ahead somewhere, but instead appears beneath our feet as the wind whistles through our hair. As with so much else of the ancillary activities that surround the war, my problem doesn’t even come from a nose-in-the-air moral pulpit as much as it comes from the conviction that advocacy of the right to “mild” torture is a gigantic practical and geopolitical mistake. Before we even need to talk about whether it’s wrong or not (and it is), it’s wrong in the sense of being a profoundly bad strategy.
This becomes all the clearer now that the President is speaking with the faintest hint of an adult, responsible and subtle conception of the global struggle. We can talk about America’s war dead and their sacrifice, about our men and women in harm’s way, but we owe the Iraqi people (and the world) even more honor, and some straight talk about their sacrifice. They’re the ones who were committed to this battle without anything resembling a representative or consultative moment before the war commenced. Even if this all turns out in some sense “for the best”, none of the dead or living there had a moment where they faced that future possibility squarely, took a deep breath, and consented to become the “central front” in a global war.
Where was the sense of gravity and weariness about any of that up until now? Where was the seriousness of purpose, the haunted consciences, the sense of responsibility? Instead we got puppet-show patriotism and flag-waving done so instrumentally that it dishonors that symbol’s heritage far more than somebody chucking it in a bonfire. I don’t believe that this President and this Administration has suddenly developed that seriousness, but even the rhetorical simulation of it shows just how much it matters, how much it would have done to make this war unfold differently to date in its feel, in the way it has played and will play at home and abroad.
It’s not just the President: the same shallowness has been a staple feature of ardent pro-war (and yes, some equally ardent anti-war) public speakers from the outset. Slogans instead of ideas, meanness of spirit instead of a deepening and maturation of conscience. If war or crisis is a forge, then the leadership of this war has proven brittle metal. And that, I really think, was not inevitable. I can imagine a very different leadership and a very different mobilized public and even a different mobilized world (or at least parts of it) for almost the same war, and even if it played out on the ground in Iraq just as it has, the meaning of the war would have been very different, and its larger consequences as well. Maybe that too can still be avoided, but only if there is some house-cleaning over the next three years. That’s what it means to “take responsibility”, if the President is even remotely serious about that phrase. There are people and policies that need to be booted out of this White House if the Administration actually wants to lead this war rather than use it as a backdrop to domestic politics and as a justification for scarily out-of-control securocrat follies.