With one part of my family helping to document what’s not working right now about the Administration’s policy in Iraq, I figured it was time for me to hold up my end and go back once more with feeling over the history.

1) The Iraq War was conceptually flawed in its match of ends and means in a way that no policy, no matter how skilled, could ever have overcome. Many people who made this observation before the war started were otherwise supporters of the use of military power against al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan, and in other contexts. The difference between Iraq and Afghanistan was a difference in basic missions. If fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan led to a more liberal and democratic government, you could see that as an additional benefit of going to war there. But it wasn’t the point. The point was to deny al-Qaeda the opportunity to use that territory freely for their operations and to demonstrate a basic security doctrine, that “failed states” could not be allowed to open their territory to terrorist movements. Iraq, on the other hand, was from the outset described as a war with two missions: to stop Saddam Hussein from acquiring and disseminating WMDs and to create a stable, liberal, democratic ally in the region. We all know how the first objective turned out, and more importantly, we know why it turned out that way: because the intelligence was slanted, cooked, distorted and repackaged.

The second objective was always and inevitably a dog. You can’t occupy a country under the circumstances facing the U.S. in Iraq and create liberalism “from above”. That isn’t how liberalism has come into being in world history. There are only two arguable exceptions, post-WWII Germany and Japan, and those analogies were woefully, terribly abused by supporters of the war throughout 2002 as the preparations for invasion were made. The circumstances in both of those cases were completely, utterly unlike those facing the U.S. in Iraq.

I heard Michael Ledeen on Fresh Air a short while ago, and he protested to Terry Gross that he can’t understand why people would call him a conservative when in fact he’s a democratic revolutionary. Ledeen said, “I think a lot of people are confused about what we stand for”. Not at all: I understand perfectly that Ledeen, Wolfowitz and others are and were “democratic revolutionaries”. What they don’t understand is that revolutions are not made by occupiers. The enduring democratic transformations of our time have come from the people of the societies being transformed, in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, in South Korea, with their consent and understanding.

This is not to say that a major power like the United States cannot foster democratic revolutions. The U.S. helped force the pace and character of those transformations, particularly in South Korea and Eastern Europe. How? By keeping economic, moral, political and diplomatic pressure on, by isolating totalitarian societies as much as possible. By serving as an illustration of what a free and democratic society can be. By believing in liberty and living up to its promises. This is what is so strange about the fervor of the “democratic revolutionaries”: they have so little faith in the power and attractiveness of their goals, so much of a sense that if it’s not accomplished under military occupation, it cannot be accomplished at all.

I suppose in a way that this is rather like the debate between various fractions of Marxism before and after the Bolshevik Revolution. There were those who took revolutions to be largely inevitable and those who did not. But it is a harder thing for someone who believes in liberalism and democracy to be arguing that systems which depend upon the consent of the governed, on the rights of the autonomous subject, on the constraint of the power of the state, can be secured through means which substantially contradict those achievements.

2) So this could never have worked. Could it have failed less spectacularly, less grotesquely, and had more muted or negotiable consequences? Certainly. But here too, some of the failure is not just in the execution of the mission after the invasion. Some of it is in the conditions that preceded the attack, and in the way that the Bush Administration chose to go to war. The war in Iraq was a preordained disaster not just because of conceptual flaws, but because the Administration and its chief supporters chose to dissemble at home and abroad, treated the idea of diplomacy as if it were a communicable disease, relentlessly demonized all opposition as treason, and claimed the mantle of wartime leadership without any of the gravitas or responsibility that such a claim should entail. A more methodical build-up to war, a more careful pursuit of allies, a more serious and grown-up engagement of the American public all would have made the occupation a more robust affair.

More importantly, if George Bush wanted to lead in wartime, he would have put aside the relative pettiness of cultural conservatism. Abortion, creationism, the whole suite of issues that Bush turns to every time he needs to get the evangelical shock troops out for short-term political advantage: a stronger leader who was more determined to lead in war would have left that for a later date, another time, a different moment. Leave aside everything divisive that is not necessary or urgent. Be willing to propose measures which hurt your political base, such as tax increases, if they are tasked specifically to the larger military and diplomatic mission. Then when the inevitable contradictions in a top-down “democratic revolution” appear, at least you’ve got a far more united nation (and world) prepared to learn the lessons of the misadventure.

3) I don’t need to go over the specific post-occupation failures of policy, save to recall that they were and are enormous in scope, number and consequences, at every level of policy and every possible conjuncture of decision-making. But again, in this sense, failure was predictable, because this was an Administration which made it clear from the moment of its disputed election that it had total contempt for deliberative process. These were never the people who were going to consider all the options, look at all the information, face the hard truth of numbers and data, prepare alternative plans, make prudence a rule of their decision-making. These were never people who believed in consultation and respect for complexity and nuance even within their own ranks, let alone in relationship to any competing faction or interests. So of course they bungled, and bungled again. You can talk a line of political bullshit as long as you don’t really have to actually make policy, or as long as the consequences of failure are minor or easily politicized. In a military conflict with very high stakes, you can’t use Karl-Rovian trickery to just make the enemy vanish, or whistle past both literal and figurative graveyards. You can’t wag the dog if what you’ve actually done is stuck your head up an elephant’s anus.

4) So what now? If there is anything which makes me bitter, it’s to know that we’ve gone from a situation that was painful and offered few satisfying alternatives (Saddam Hussein in power, tormenting his own people) to a situation which is pretty much a colossal fuck-up no matter what we do, where the consequences that flow from our failure regardless of what we do next are far graver than the consequences that would have followed on restraint in the matter of Iraq. Bush isn’t half-wrong when he says that there’s a danger of a renewed totalitarianism in the world, and not just as an accidental self-indictment. It’s bad no matter whether leave or we stay. That’s why many of us with prudential concerns before the war so desperately wanted it not to happen, because we could see the trap waiting for us down the road. The pro-war voices are, as Matthew Yglesias observed with deadly accuracy, trapped in a weird utopian fantasy about power that makes them sound like Green Lantern, believing that all we need is more will. Just kill with greater abandon and brutality, don’t worry about civilians, don’t be concerned about rights at home or abroad, don’t fret about the Constitution. All you have to do is show that you won’t be beat (but do show that you’re very much afraid to die, so afraid that you’ll do everything you can to avoid a terrorist attack no matter what you have to do in order to prevent it), and somehow it’ll all turn out well, the bad guys will go away. Will as a utopian fantasy of male bravado and determination can see you through a single tough confrontation or a session at the negotiating table, it can help a wounded man crawl a hundred yards to safety or give someone the courage to chop off his own arm in order to save his life, but it doesn’t win wars, change history, solve the unsolvable.

Right now, the Administration is roughly like someone who has been playing carefully, has a big stack at a Texas Hold’em poker table, got overconfident, and put a big bluff down on the flop. The other guy called the bet. That either means he knows you don’t have anything, or that he’s got something really good. Or both. At that point, it’s better by far to fold. Why? You’re not giving anybody any information about whether you’re careful or crazy, about whether you bluff from nothing or play from strength. Plus you save your stake for another day, a better chance. If you put down an even bigger bet, an even bigger bluff, your desperation often becomes clear, and you’re heading for the river without a life preserver in your hand. The thing an empire ought to fear most is exposure of its limits.

That’s what has happened to the United States, whatever we do next. I’m indifferent as to whether we go or stay: the damage is done. Now the job in front of the American people is to clean house, to exact a price for failure and fecklessness, to reawaken to our ownership of our own nation and futures. A slim majority of Americans were willing, twice over, to act as absentees, allowing our employees to make a mess of our common property and heritage, to steal and cheat and lie their way through the jobs that we and we alone permit them to undertake on our behalf. Maybe the next employees won’t do that much better a job, especially given what a disaster they will have to fix, but they can’t possibly do a worse one.

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5 Responses to Recap

  1. hestal says:

    I scanned the Iraq report over at Third Way and it was terrific.

    Is this history recap going somewhere? I mean do you have a project of some sort in mind of which this is a part?

    Anyhow I agree with your recap, but it depresses me somewhat to think that all we can do to change things is hope that our elections sytem operates properly and that the electorate will do the right things.

    It is just on the edge of possibility now, but I think that by 2012 we will see major polling organizations handicapping their state-wide projections in the Presidential election by including a factor for votes cast but not counted. I predicted, on the record, that such an element should have been included in 2004. The equipment we have in the field, the ease of hacker manipulation, and the corrupt officials we have here and there make it increasingly possible that we will have a failure of the system soon.

  2. hestal says:

    I went over to DailyKos (self-proclaimed progressive heaven) and did a three-month search on “third way” and found nothing except one diary in August that was about Clinton and Lieberman. There was a list of organizations that “had their chance,” and “Third Way” was in the list. Nothing else was said. In any case Dkos folks would love to produce a report as good as the one on Third Way. Dkos is interesting to me — it seems so elfin.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    Just “recap” in the sense that I’ve said most of this before. I don’t like to flog the same message too many times.

    As a concept, “third way” has kind of a complicated history. It was drawn in part out of the work of British sociologist Anthony Giddens, and cited by Tony Blair as a model. Clinton also liked the term and the concept, and to some extent it was seen as the operating approach of the Democratic Leadership Council. I suppose that in a nutshell is the issue that progressives might have. Giddens, as I read him, was really trying to think about some way to approach a set of intractable problems that divided the left and right in new ways. As Blair and Clinton used the term, it sometimes just meant the kind of centrism where you borrow a little of this and a little of that, to balance out your poll numbers. The organization in question I know a little bit about at this point: my sense of it is that it is somewhat like the New America Foundation in a lot of its ambitions–more of what Jonathan Rauch has called “radical centrism”, a centrist program that is intended to be more principled, more based on a consistent set of underlying ideas.

  4. bbenzon says:

    The above “South Park” tribute to Steve Irwin ends with an image the evokes your “head up an elephant’s anus” line. But it’s not an elephant. It’s more domestic.

  5. Wondering how many in the Bush admin during the Iraq War planning stages read John Dower’s *Embracing Defeat*, an exhaustive survey of the American occupation of Japan. (Maybe Cheney and Rumfeld had, which could explain why they systematically marginalized experts on Iraq, just as MacArthur did to most of that era’s Japan specialists.) Also wondering how many academics are planning comparative studies of modern US occupations (Reconstruction, Philippines, Haiti, Japan) as the Iraq occupation drags on w/no end in sight.

    Stratfor, for what it’s worth, reads Iraq/Lebanon as two fronts in a regional war between the US and Iranian proxies that the US is badly losing….

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