June 14, 2006

Desperately Seeking Salvation

Late last night, just before going to bed, I read this editorial in the New York Times: "Too Soon to Cheer in Baghdad." It's a typical Times piece on the neverending catastrophe in Iraq, and it rehearses all the usual points. The only differences from innumerable earlier Times articles (and doubtless many future ones) are in the particular details.

The editorial notes the proffered excuse for Bush's surprise visit: "two modest pieces of encouraging news — the belated confirmation of the last three members of the Iraqi cabinet and the death of Iraq's top terrorist, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi." But it goes on to state that the trip was in fact a publicity stunt for the most part -- as even Republican consultants admit. Then the editorial declares in predictable Times-ian fashion that a few developments might provide some hope -- but on the other hand, they might not.

And then I came to the conclusion of the Times editorial. Something struck me about this passage, and I thought I glimpsed an unstated assumption underlying it that I hadn't yet identified to my satisfaction. Here's how the piece ends:
Beyond that, we have been repeatedly told that the already overstretched American forces will be pulled back from the cities and maybe from Iraq itself later this year. How are Americans supposed to square Mr. Maliki's grandiose announcement with Mr. Bush's message that the United States is preparing to reduce its military role?

Meanwhile, millions of Iraqis go without electricity at least part of the day, thousands of families have had to flee their homes, and Iraqi women have seen their rights to an independent life and livelihood significantly diminished.

After too many photo-ops aimed at giving Mr. Bush and his fellow Republicans a short-term lift in the domestic opinion polls at election time, Americans hunger more than ever for a realistic game plan for Iraq and some real progress.
Read that final paragraph again. We know in general terms what would constitute "real progress" for the Times, and others similarly situated: a significant diminishment in the terrible violence that is tearing Iraq apart; rebuilding of the country's wrecked infrastructure; an Iraqi government that is genuinely autonomous and can run the country on its own; and other related elements.

For the moment, let us set aside what some might consider the more cynical view, and let us accept that this kind of "real progress" is actually what the Bush administration wants. That the Bush administration may not want such progress, and that it might prefer Iraq to remain a U.S. dependent and a "client state" for the indefinite future -- particularly since the administration's designs on the greater Middle East are only begun, with Iran the most probable next target in its sights -- is, to me, much more plausible. It fits the facts much more completely, and explains events more satisfactorily. But as I say, let's assume for our purposes here that everyone sincerely wants "real progress" in Iraq, even the Bush administration.

Fine. We are more than three years into this catastrophe. So what on God's green earth is the "realistic game plan for Iraq" that will lead to "real progress"? Obviously, the Bush administration doesn't have one. They repeat the same stale, unconvincing talking points over and over, and engage in the same failed strategies. It is plain to even the most insensate of beings that it is the U.S. presence itself that is the source of much of the continuing and worsening instability and violence -- but of course, we can't leave, or so all the "experts" tell us. That would be cowardly; that would be weak; that would represent a "failure of will"; that would be un-American. (I note, with profound fatigue, that we've heard all this before, and without end. See my essay, They Are the Damned, where I examine Mark Steyn's revival of these claims with regard to Iraq now, and Vietnam then.)

Does the Times itself have a "realistic game plan"? If so, they might, in their infinite kindness, share it with the rest of us. They could save many thousands of lives, and prevent a great deal of needless suffering. But of course, they don't. No one does. And many of us know why, although almost no one in the political establishment or in the mainstream media will state it clearly: they have no "realistic game plan" because there isn't one, not in the way they mean it.

And here's the unstated assumption I glimpsed when I first read this editorial, an assumption which is actually an unstated, vague, inchoate hope. If we were to translate the last paragraph of the Times editorial into its actual meaning, and the only meaning it can have in this context, it would read something like this:
Because we supported the invasion of Iraq (and because we heavily propagandized for it, although we aren't about to admit that to the likes of you), and even though Bush and all his cohorts are political manipulators of the first order who can't do a single damned thing right, this incomprehensible disaster still has to work! There has to be some way to make it work! Iraq has to be saved! This has to have a happy ending, or at least a good one! Please, someone make it work!
This is a significant part of the diseased approach that has rotted the political and media establishment from the inside out, and that is destroying our country and large parts of the world. Even after all the lessons of history, even after all the warnings from people who opposed the Iraq invasion (and who are still marginalized and demonized by the governing class and our leading pundits), and even after the endless disasters of the last three years, these people absolutely refuse to face the facts, and to adjust their course accordingly.

Thirty-two months ago, on October 29, 2003, I wrote an essay entitled: "It's Your Goddamned Mess. You Be 'Constructive.'" Since it was lost when the blog archives were corrupted, and because it so relevant to these issues, I've reprinted it below. Some of us have been making these arguments for a long time, since well before the invasion began. And the point I made toward the beginning of that essay is the one that the Times, the Bush administration, and all those who support our foreign policy refuse to permit entrance into their consciousness: There is no good solution to the situation we have created in Iraq. None.

But they will not see it, and the tragedy intensifies with every day that passes. They insist that it be "made to work." There must be a solution. We just haven't figured out what it is yet. But there has to be a "realistic game plan." There has to be.

When it comes to matters of foreign policy, and with only a handful of exceptions, every member of our governing class and of the media elite is a fundamentalist: they are all looking for a miracle. They all seek salvation. If they are not saved, they will be forced to acknowledge that they were gravely, terribly, grievously wrong. And that can never be permitted to happen.

It is only when they finally admit, or when events force them to admit, that their approach is nothing but fantasy, that progress will begin to be made -- and that they will finally talk seriously about leaving Iraq. Given the near-impossibility of any kind of fundamentalist altering his most basic beliefs, that day will not arrive any time soon. And so the killing, and the dying, and the suffering will go on -- day after day, after endless day.

Here is the essay that I originally wrote and published on October 29, 2003. I admit that it pleased me to read this again after a very long time. I haven't changed a word; I didn't need to. If anything, and unfortunately and very tragically, it is more accurate now than it was 32 months ago.


October 29, 2003

It's Your Goddamned Mess. You Be "Constructive."

On certain matters, such as the following, I dislike being proven correct so quickly:
Senior Republicans have begun raising concerns about the administration’s strategy in Iraq amid daily attacks on U.S. forces there.

But congressional Republicans still echo President Bush’s overall positive assessment of reconstruction, even as some warn of political trouble unless signs of improvement become clearer fast.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recently compared aspects of the conflict to Vietnam, yesterday said U.S. forces need to be more proactive.

"To set up roadblocks after the bomb goes off is not the answer," he said. "We’ve got to get into prevention."

The number of attacks on U.S. forces has increased to about 30 a day in recent weeks, and a series of apparently coordinated attacks rocked Baghdad on Monday. Another attack targeted the a-Rashid Hotel in Baghdad, where Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was staying.

"We need more troops," said McCain. "We need more special forces. We need more marines. We need more intelligence capabilities."
Or, as I said just the other day:
The prowar hawks never address or consider the many lessons of history. They never address the systemic problems so intimately involved in our foreign policy. And, to judge from what they discuss and what they conspicuously fail ever to mention, they seem to have no concern for the terrible human costs of the policies and actions they support so fervently.

And so this is indeed nothing less than institutionalized insanity. These policies have failed over and over and over again, and over a very lengthy period of time. They have consumed an untold number of lives, have eaten up untold billions of dollars, and led us precisely to where we are today.

And yet, now, after all of this, the prowar hawks can only say, like an addict demanding his next fix: More! Faster! Do it even more intensely! Show them we really mean it this time!
Trent Lott's charming perspective should also be noted:
Asked whether he favored any policy changes in Iraq, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) responded: "We need to have a different mix of troops, is the key. We may need to move some troops around."

Lott suggested moving more troops from the relatively stable south closer to the region around Tikrit, where attacks on U.S. forces have been common. He said there was a need for more trained military police, adding that his comments were not a criticism.

"Honestly, it’s a little tougher than I thought it was going to be," Lott said. In a sign of frustration, he offered an unorthodox military solution: "If we have to, we just mow the whole place down, see what happens. You’re dealing with insane suicide bombers who are killing our people, and we need to be very aggressive in taking them out."
Which "whole place" is it that we should now "mow...down"? Iraq? Or perhaps just Baghdad. I seem to recall something along the lines of, "Iraq for the Iraqis." Well, I guess whatever is left once we're done "liberating" them.

Look, returning to the point of my earlier post, here is an announcement which apparently comes as startling news to many prowar hawks. It's quite simple: there is no good solution to the situation we have created in Iraq. None.

This is what I mean. On the one hand, we can pour huge amounts of money into Iraq over the next five, 10, 20 or more years. Of course, given the manner in which the system currently operates, that means a great deal of that money will be lost through bureaucratic inefficiency, or through corporate-statist corruption. In addition, given a dominant long-term presence by the United States, it is very possible that that will lead only to more terrorists who hate the United States.

So, we can pour untold billions into Iraq, all in an effort which history demonstrates quite conclusively will not succeed. And, no, Iraq is not like Germany or Japan after World War II. In addition, all of that money belongs to U.S. taxpayers -- so this probably doomed effort will massively disrupt and distort our own economy for years to come.

Or we can simply leave as quickly as possible -- which means that Iraq is likely to become what it was not before our invasion and occupation: a state which serves as headquarters for those who wish to destroy us, and which is genuinely and in fact a grave threat to us. Which, I repeat, it was not before. That obviously is not a very good idea, either. So the only way out that I see at this point, which admittedly is not a good "solution" at all, is to bring the international community into a much more active role in rebuilding Iraq, and as quickly as possible. (That would mean, among other things, that we cease demanding that others pay for the reconstruction efforts, while maintaining almost all control ourselves.) That would serve several ends: it would lessen the financial burden on the United States; it would defuse at least some of the enmity currently directed toward us; and it might save some American and Iraqi lives. Not a good solution in my view, but markedly better than the others.

But there is one tactic the hawks ought to give up at this point. They should stop saying, as one of the commenters to my earlier post did, that none of those who opposed the war with Iraq are offering "constructive" proposals at this point. This is remarkably offensive for several reasons. First, it wasn't the opponents' policies that created this horrible dilemma. It was the hawks' policies. They are responsible for this nightmare, and no one else. They shouldn't expect -- and often demand -- others to offer solutions to the daunting problems their policies have created. Where is the justice in that? Or even the common sense? They got us all here; they ought to show some intellectual responsibility and creativity of their own, and get us out.

Moreover, I have been consistent in my advocacy of a foreign policy which is directed solely at protecting the United States from demonstrable, serious threats to our security -- not to the neofascist mirage of taking over huge areas of the world, in the delusion that we can impose our form of government, and our entire intellectual tradition, on peoples and countries who don't share our tradition or our history, and who may not even want what we have in the first place. To assume that everyone wants what we do demonstrates a rather astonishing ignorance of history, of culture, and of events from even the recent past. It was precisely such assumptions (and other factors) that led to the debacle in Vietnam, as Barbara Tuchman has shown in great detail.

In fact, I think my proposals -- which are shared by any number of other people -- are remarkably "constructive." They would have avoided this entire nightmarish dilemma, by focusing our foreign policy on our own defense -- and they would abandon our goals of "nation building" and reconstructing the world in our own image. Such Utopian delusions have always failed -- and, as Hayek has shown, they have led to nothing but destruction and bloodshed. If people learned nothing else from the twentieth century, surely they ought to have learned that.

But in this context, the hawks' demand that all the rest of us be "constructive" means only that they demand we adopt their terms of debate, and their premises: that we sign on to an agenda of "saving" the rest of the world, of draining our own resources, of killing our own people, of killing those we say we want to save -- and all for a scheme which is doomed from the start, barring an unprecedented stream of miracles.

I, and others like me, have been constructive. I, and others like me, have offered alternatives. The hawks, and those who fashion and implement our foreign policy, rejected them. The problems we now face are their doing, the result of their actions, and their responsibility.

No one else's. It's their mess. There is no good way out. And we probably have given the terrorists' recruiting efforts the biggest boost that can be imagined. Well done.

But there is one thing the hawks should not expect or be allowed to get away with: avoiding responsibility for the tragedy that is now unfolding. They brought it about. Now they should have the decency to deal with it.

But it is certainly all of us who will pay the price, probably for decades to come. And for that, I would suggest that the hawks should stop expecting our gratitude.