This is a hard post to write, because everyone wants to be loved, and it’s not easy posting an opinion that I suspect will be unpopular with many readers. Now is the time though, to consider an almost unbearable question. For those of us who were Iraq hawks from a Left perspective, what policy should we now advocate, given that the intervention was handled with such ineptitude that we are now faced with a tragically narrowed range of options?
President Bush has a weird idea about what it means to be powerful or free. When you get more powerful, or more free, that should mean you have more options instead of fewer. Not so in Bush’s mind. He prefers to narrow the range of options so that a stream of events, even if it was not articulated in advance, becomes inevitable. For instance, he prefers to put the American government into profound debt so that there can’t be much social spending in the future. While that strategy does accomplish the goal, it also darkens possibilities in general for the nation, and in unpredictable ways. Bush and the neocons have adopted a “facts on the ground” style of getting things done. They hope to cause the future to be determined by “inevitability” instead of choice. They prioritize the blocking of alternatives to the responsibilities of power. They reduce their own freedom of motion in order to not risk being swayed. They want to put us all into a collective chastity belt and throw away the key.
There are already debates about Iraq similar to the ones following America’s horrific mistaken war in Viet Nam. Given what we are learning as the various scandals unfold, it looks like the Left’s story, that the administration lied in order to get its way, sanctioned torture, and helped cronies embezzle, will eventually be accepted by all reasonable people, even if it takes a generation. And yet, in all this misery there is still another story to remember, a story not told by anyone on the Right, by the way, about why some of us on the Left actually supported the war at the start, and still hope that some good might be salvaged from it.
Now let me address the screams. Yes, I know many of you, many of my friends, don’t accept the legitimacy of any Left Iraq Hawk position. (I have to point out that some people I know were openly supportive of the war at the time of the initial invasion, but are now pretending to have always been antiwar.)
Even if you don’t agree with me, please take me seriously, because there’s an opportunity here to think about how the antiwar community can communicate with people who might disagree on some points, but share values otherwise. I suspect that there are plenty of people in the country with beliefs somewhat like mine, somewhere in the middle, and that being able to address this group will be crucial in the political contests to come. This might also explain why some politicians and other influential figures have not endorsed the antiwar position, or have only done so with qualifications. Here are some of the reasons why I supported the Iraq invasion, but with a very heavy heart.
One reason, which proved to be mistaken, is that I trusted Colin Powell and some other public figures on matters of fact. Plamegate has taught me I should have been more cynical. I resent having to be cynical. No leader should demand cynicism from citizens. But even leaving aside the official justifications that turned out to be false, I had other reasons to support military intervention.
Broadly speaking, the Western industrial countries were partially to blame for the troubles in much of the Middle East. Not only were many of the awkward national borders the result of imposed colonial policies, but some of the worst figures of recent times, including Saddam and bin Laden, had received American support. Furthermore, our allies, the British, had lied to the Israelis and Arabs during Israel’s formation in ways that were convenient to the moment, but fostered long term enmity.
A common Western Left perspective on our past sins is that we ought to now just leave the Middle East alone. My perspective is that in theory that might sound attractive, but in practice it would be even more cruel. Some of the worst creeps, like Saddam, were so entrenched, by means of the most awful, sadistic, and murderous forms of mass blackmail, that the only plausible way to get rid of them in the near term was physical intervention. I interpret our shameful legacy as placing a moral responsibility on us to try to improve the situation.
The reason we should help is not only that we share blame for the problem, and certainly not that we’re better than anyone else, but that at this moment in world history we happen to be able to help in ways that others cannot. This reasoning is linked to arguments I agree with for why we should have sacrificed more and taken risks to prevent recent genocides in parts of Africa. Bush’s profound failure as a leader and communicator (who famously bragged that he was on a “Crusade”) has obscured the fact that with a better leader, the Iraq war might have been undertaken cooperatively with much of the world, including even the Arab and Muslim worlds, as was the case with the earlier eviction of Saddam from Kuwait.
Bush gave many early warning signs that he wasn’t the best man for the job, but it wasn’t yet clear at the beginning that he was almost the worst imaginable man for the job. Remember, his father had shown evidence of an ascendant moral compass, in that, for instance, the intervention in Somalia, while half-hearted and failed, did not seem to serve any strong American interest other than to promote peace and justice. I thought that surely the son couldn’t be as out of touch as he sometimes seemed.
Another point must be made, which is that the professional/volunteer American military is populated for the most part by remarkably good people these days, and I imagined them doing a great job in connecting with ordinary Iraqis. My impression comes from meeting a lot of military people via technology circles. The insurgency seems to agree, because it has prioritized preventing contact between ordinary Iraqis and Americans, by blowing up Iraqi children around an American soldier handing out candy, for instance. (One of the sadder elements of the war at home is that President Bush has placed the entire burden on our volunteer warriors and their families. He asks no one else to sacrifice or even spend a penny in the present moment, because he so fears he will not be loved anymore.)
Tragically, Bush has proven to be the Great Anti-communicator. He can only speak to his own political base, using language internal to the American culture wars, which is unintelligible to outsiders. He is unable to speak to anyone else at all. He can’t bring most Europeans on board even for policies they might otherwise desire. He promotes ugly religious identity politics at home and abroad. The anti-science bias of the administration plays a role as well, since science is nature’s meeting ground for cultures that can’t agree on anything else. No matter what our soldiers might accomplish on the ground, the Great Anti-communicator is undoing the conceivable legitimate purposes of the war.
A core reason I was a Liberal Hawk was that I feared that without a successful intervention now, even worse wars would await us in the coming years. The Middle East is where the oil is, and it’s unfortunately a simple matter of logic, of game theory, if you will, that there will be an increasing incentive for all parties to fight over fossil fuels as the supply dwindles during the 21st century. Who might be able to topple the narrow, family-based regimes running countries like Saudi Arabia? The temptation will only build over time; a minority government guarding vast, easy wealth can’t last forever. There are other nightmare scenarios as well. Is it imaginable that China could someday use its military buildup to invade Iran instead of Taiwan? Certainly.
If there’s a chance to facilitate a popularly elected, legitimate, stable, and strong government on top of oil, that chance must be pursued, because it is the best way to forestall horrible future wars. I’d like to see reduced incentives for the USA or anyone else to go to war over fossil fuels in the future, and deposing Saddam was the least bad way to start to try to prevent the most ugly scenarios. The alternative was just waiting to see what would happen. Oil for Food was not working; it was corrupting everyone who had contact with Iraq, because it enabled Saddam to extend his starvation blackmail of his own people to anyone doing business with Iraq.
The Bush administration has created an ambient illusion that Iraq was directly connected with the 9/11 attacks. This lie has done great damage. There is a legitimate temporal link connecting the attacks and the Iraq war, however. It’s not that Iraq was responsible for the attacks, but that the overall situation in the Middle East was becoming intolerable to the world at large. Middle Easterners were as scared as we were about where the situation was headed.
At the same time, the fact that oil is part of the dynamic placed a profound moral burden on any supporter of the war to strenuously support conservation and research into better, sustainable energy technology. It is obscene, criminal, that the USA would make war in the Middle East while not also making war at home on energy waste. It’s a giant mistake of historic proportions that new energy cycles have not been made a top funding priority for American basic research.
Similarly, putting peace between Israel and the Palestinians on the back burner was obscene under the circumstances, and that’s exactly what Bush did at the time. It’s interesting to compare Sharon and Bush. Sharon is a hardliner by anyone’s definition, but ultimately he lives on planet Earth, so he withdraws from the Gaza Strip. I can live with hardliners who are forced into supporting enlightened positions they don’t like because of reality; in fact, I trust them more than people who rely only on beliefs.
I respect the antiwar position. Ultimately, any support of any war is either tragic or insane. I perceive my support of the Iraq war as tragic.
Unfortunately, the shifting public justifications of the war emanating from the administration started off being irrelevant and have descended into the macabre. No, we must not keep at war merely to honor people already killed in war.
As I explained, my sense during the time leading up to the invasion was that there was something to the WMD scare. But the reasons I outlined above represent the more important underlying logic that was active in my mind.
It seemed to me at the time that Rove and company had come up with a spin that emphasized WMDs because it would sell the war to the Republican base, the only people they care to talk to. When people are addressed intelligently they often rise to the occasion, and I think Bush ought to give that a try with his political base once in a while.
It was a weird time for Liberal Hawks. Writers like Tom Friedman came up with creative, generous guesses about what Bush was up to. It has become clear since that those speculations were overly charitable. While I never supported Bush as a candidate, I also was not ready to condemn his administration for incompetence absent proof, but that proof has since appeared many times over.
At this juncture, I must also say that the tenor of the antiwar movement can sometimes drift into territory that makes me cringe. There’s sometimes a tendency in Western Left circles to place all blame on our own countries and cultures. This might seem generous to other cultures, but it’s actually just another way of dehumanizing them. It’s a continuation of the fallacy of the Noble Savage. This world must eventually become a place of mutual respect, which also implies that people and peoples will demand responsibility from each other. Yes, the USA has supported reprehensible regimes. But that does not make us solely responsible for the rise of abhorrent doctrines like Sacred Murder by Suicide. The people who hold these beliefs do more damage to their own populations than we could ever do, and it is our moral duty to oppose them.
Some of the worst examples of the Noble Savage dynamic have been the occasional rationalizations given to suicide movements in the Islamic world. Successful liberation movements have not only existed, but triumphed without the doctrine of sacred suicide, even when the provocation of “humiliation” was at least as severe. The European Left sometimes seems to want the Palestinians to make themselves pathetic in order to earn sympathy, rather than see them proud and successful in any way that would make them equals. ANSWER International, the disgusting domestic organization we seem to be stuck with to lead street protests against the Iraq war, wants to whip up fights in Israel/Palestine and elsewhere to feed its own fantasies of violent neo-Marxist revival.
Whatever we agree or disagree on, we now face the question of what to do next. Bush has worked his choice-reduction magic so that we seem to have only two choices. Either withdraw or stay.
An announced withdrawal would be a lousy choice. What awful mess would we leave behind and what ugly new power would emerge in Iraq? I know, I know, this is what we can expect to hear from Right Wing hacks when they argue for staying, even without a strategy. Just because they will probably say it doesn’t mean there is no truth to be found in the statement.
The American strategy seems to have been to fight insurgents around the country with an inadequate force, sponsor elections, and hope that the legitimacy of an elected government would be more psychologically powerful than terror. There was something sweet about that faith in elections, and I think it was worth testing. It failed. (Also, of course, there’s the problem that the whole world, including the citizens of Iraq, is aware of the problems with America’s own recent elections, and that makes our nation a poor advocate for the mystical power of elections.)
In the interest of being constructive instead of offering nothing but criticism in all directions, I am going to suggest a pale beginning of an idea for what might be done to overcome Bush’s legacy. I fully recognize that this is only a rough start, full of flaws, but I hope to convey the type of thinking the Left might engage in. Since the Left is emphatically not in power, there are few options for how we can actively contribute. One priority is to find a way to get power back, but maybe there are some other useful things to be done in the meantime. If the Administration has abdicated its duties to think strategically, maybe we can step in and help.
It would be nice if direct citizen action were possible, but individuals can’t currently go to try to reach out to Iraqis on the ground in Iraq to any significant degree. The insurgents prioritize the murder of exactly those well-meaning activists. Once again, as mad as we are at American policy, we must not be weak-minded and translate that anger into tolerance of suicidal mass-murder cultists.
If there’s a smarter alternative to blunt withdrawal from Iraq, I think it will have to involve trying to correct some things that were screwed up before. At the top of the list is international legitimacy and cooperation. Our goal should not be to make the Iraqi people love us. It’s too late for that. Our goal should be to prevent the most horrific tyrants or insane ideologues from taking over when we leave. Whether anyone loves us or not, that simple goal is one most of the world can agree on. It is in the whole world’s interest that Iraq not decay into a Taliban with oil.
What if the international participation that might otherwise have been present at the start could be energized now? What if nations that turned Bush down at the start of the war, or withdrew when the occupation became dismal, could be persuaded to reconsider now? The debate would shift from the question of when American troops should withdraw to, “Why is America refusing offers of help?”
America often gets blamed by Iraqis for not being able to end terror within Iraq, and that’s justified, because we put ourselves in charge. Unfortunately, a transitional Iraq is too big to manage as a whole with American, British, and the small additional “coalition” resources alone. An inadequate force on the ground has allowed insurgents to achieve a serendipitous reign of terror. They will continue to kill ordinary people without warning at mosques and markets. Thus they can spend very little and yet darken the prospects of everyone everywhere. By being destructive in all directions, they hope that their nihilistic idea of empire will eventually win by default.
But it’s possible to create zones that are safe, as the American military has demonstrated in places like the Green Zone in Baghdad. With a larger international force, new safe zones could perhaps be created for the benefit of Iraqis. As soon as some Iraqi individuals can safely make the choice to avoid the insurgency, almost all Iraqis will strive to be as fortunate by seeking to be able to make the same choice. As new safe zones emerge for Iraqis instead of Americans, terrorists will be perceived as being isolated. Thus will the logic of terror be undone.
What could persuade other countries to get involved after all that has happened? When the war started, supporting it also meant supporting President Bush, who was horrifically fabulous at alienating foreigners everywhere. Now, the situation is different, because the Bush administration is stuck. International involvement in Iraq at this time would present a chance to moderate the policy and power of an atypically insulated American administration. The American Left could play the role of reviving the idea of an international project in Iraq. No foreign government is going to initiate an offer to send in troops at this time, because the war is deeply unpopular almost everywhere. Instead of advocating mere withdrawal, one of Bush’s two false choices, the loyal opposition in the USA could reach out to reasonable citizens of foreign countries with the idea that we want their help to make Iraq better, instead of what Bush wants, which is fostering some inevitability or other.
An American citizens’ movement would reach out to the whole world, in order to say what Bush cannot say, even though he should. “We screwed up before, and we ask the world to be pragmatically forgetful. We request that other countries get involved, to put enough boots on the ground in Iraq to give democracy a chance. We don’t want our country to act like an empire, and the more you get involved, the less empire-like we’ll be.” Bush can’t and won’t do that, but a multinational citizens’ movement might be able to set the stage so that foreign governments would have the political backing from their own peoples to present reasonable offers of participation to Washington, especially because these actions would anticipate the Washington that will come to be run by a new Democratic administration in three years.
To repeat once again, this is nothing but a nascent sketch, not close to a well-developed idea. Whether this particular line of thinking leads anywhere useful or not, I hope the loyal, patriotic opposition in the US will not just be simplistically antiwar, but creatively engaged in finding a way out of the Bush “inevitability” trap in order to not leave an ultra-dangerous mess in Iraq.