I’m trying to keep a clear head about the current political news from a number of directions, and that sometimes keeps me from dumping a quick rant in this space and hitting the post button. However, I also think that there isn’t much of a space left in this society for any kind of reasoned discussion of the major issues of the day among the punditry and intelligentsia.
There a few people out there who support the current administration and its policies, including its conduct of the war in Iraq, who can at least be said to have a consistent, philosophically coherent basis for that support. This is not much of a compliment, given that most of the consistent arguments for that support are repellant to me and I think to most Americans, not just “liberals”. For example, you could argue that the time has come for unrestrained executive power in the United States and that most constitutional protections and balances are outmoded luxuries. You could argue that the United States needs to act like a brutalist imperial power in order to preserve its own narrowly construed national interests, that we need the 21st Century equivalent of Roman crucifixions and punitive massacres. You could argue on behalf of a fundamentalist Christian putsch over the government and culture of the United States because of a belief that God Himself demands it. These are all consistent views that I would oppose with all my heart and mind, but at least it would make sense for someone holding them to look at the current situation and give it a thumb’s up.
Mostly, it’s something grubbier and more depressing. People who argue that perjury is a grave crime against the rule of law, until it’s their own guy getting caught. People who have two completely different standards for reasonable judgements about evidence: absurdly stringent when the political opposition seems to favor a claim, promiscuously loose when it’s a case that favors their own perspective. People who have one view of what constitutes unwholesomely “political” interference with good governance when it’s the other guys (or some “corrupt” regime in the Third World) and another view when it’s the home team.
I don’t know what to say in those kinds of conversations any longer. I can’t just keep coming back to them with faith and hope that men and women who have the capacity to think clearly and behave ethically will eventually reconcile their political commitments with some kind of consistently held standards. All I need is even a small sign that this could happen to keep thinking it’s worth it to look for a way to talk. But I’m precisely the chump that I have been accused of being if I continue to agree that (for example) perjury is indeed a serious crime, and that Bill Clinton’s perjury was a serious issue if all that gets is derisive laughter when it’s time for others to pay off their own prior declarations of serious, serious concern with that crime.
Another example. Saturday, a Marine corporal testified at a trial at Camp Pendleton that:
a) his unit and others were told to “crank up the violence”, which they took to mean increasing the frequency and ubiquity of beatings
b) he saw nothing wrong with killing a random Iraqi man and framing him as a jihadi because “of the way they live, the clans, they’re all in it together”, that the Marines he knows basically view all Iraqi men as insurgents
c) that the Marines employ a procedure that they are formally trained to use at Camp Pendleton called “dead-checking”: if they enter a house and there’s a wounded male inside the house, they kill him without any further investigation and without taking him prisoner.
I can hear the political ripostes already. The guy testifying has been accused of crimes (though he’s not on trial in this particular instance), so he’s a bad egg and atypical, plus isn’t it a good sign that there’s a trial at all? Well, maybe there’s nuances to policy that aren’t coming out in the testimony. Besides, from a certain point of view, isn’t it right to view all Iraqi men as possible insurgents? Doesn’t “dead-checking” make good military sense?
I’m not going to go into moral hysterics here. I’m simply going to suggest that if you’re engaged in a counter-insurgency with the alleged end goal of creating a stable and reasonably liberal and democratic state that brings together three different religious/ethnic groups under a single government, when it becomes clear that these kinds of actions are normal military doctrine, the conflict is over and you lost. It doesn’t matter any longer whether or not withdrawing is going to be a disaster. Of course it is going to be a disaster. The key point is that there is no way to win the conflict once even a significant proportion of your troops view the entire male population as the enemy and are capable of acting on that belief. If your troops are arbitrarily beating, framing, killing, harassing the population, it doesn’t matter if the insurgents are also killing, torturing, or abusing the population. When ordinary people are caught in between an insurgency and a counter-insurgency that both abuse them, but the latter is composed of foreigners who don’t speak the language or know the culture, then the latter lose on points, period. The only way the foreign occupier can win is by being markedly, definitively, unambiguously better than the alternative. We maybe could have been, but we’re not at this point and there’s no way to get back to that, no matter what anyone tries to do to salvage the situation.
As for whether this Marine is an isolated case, I guess that’s where I’m thinking it’s time to stop the coy political dancing around evidence. At this point, there’s plenty of reason to think that while this soldier’s views are articulated in extreme ways, he’s probably giving a fairly good description of ordinary practices and attitudes among many serving in Iraq. More importantly, even if such practices and beliefs are not the official doctrine or are held by a relative minority of soldiers, I think it’s safe to say that this is how many Iraqis perceive the occupation to operate.
This is not the fault of the soldiers, either. This is the consequence of a botched, unwinnable occupation that has been run with zero foresight or vision by a crew of naive idealists and swaggering bullies.
I’m willing to table potentially debatable moral arguments if that buys an honest consensus discussion about some kind of agreed-upon standards about war objectives, about when we would all know that the war wasn’t worth it or was lost, about methods, purposes, aspirations. Or about what we’re entitled to expect from our public servants in terms of their political or partisan even-handedness, their commitment to their office before their party.
I’m not saying those moral claims aren’t important to me: they’re vital. Precisely because I believe in the spread of classic liberalism–something that at least some of the backers of the war professed to support as well–I know that those moral claims can’t be tabled indefinitely. Liberalism requires the rule of law, respect for the sovereign rights of the individual, responsible and transparent government.
It’s hard for me to put those commitments aside. Why should I? What’s the good of refraining from unrestrained polemic at this point? Almost none of the supporters of the war in the public sphere or the conduct of the Bush Administration have ever been willing to commit to clear, transparently declared standards for what would represent victory and what would represent defeat, what would be a mistake and would would be a success, what government should try to do and what it should not try to do. The yardstick has been infinitely adjustable. Or it gets set way out in Absurdistan, where every political wish comes with ponies and Green Lantern-level willpower always wins the day. So what’s the point? Who would be at the political table to have that conversation honestly?
I’m going to go on calling things as I see them. If I think I was wrong about something I thought or said earlier, I’m going to say so. I’m going to be as skeptical as I can manage about my own claims and commitments. But none of that is a politics at this point: it’s just a personal aesthetic, a quirk, a habitus. It’s not a public conversation that I feel myself to be part of, with some precious, treasured exceptions.
We can’t get back to any kind of consensus politics until people who have made mistakes are prepared to admit them. Without caveats, without evasions, without double standards. That goes for the war in Iraq. It goes for attempting to turn the government of the United States into a personality cult driven entirely by the objective of structurally locking in partisan advantage for the foreseeable future. It goes for most of what has happened in the last six years.