May 5, 2004
the hindsight, says one writer. Be patient, says another.
Oh, no, lets
not stop with the hindsight. Not when so many remain so profoundly, dangerously,
incomprehensibly unable to acknowledge that the hindsight shows many people
of good faith and reasonable mien predicting what has come to pass in Iraq.
Lets not be patient: after all, the people counseling patience now showed
a remarkable lack of it before the war.
One of my great pleasures in life, I am ashamed to say, is saying I told you so when I give prudential advice and it is ignored. In the greatest I told you so of my life, I gain no pleasure at all in saying it. It makes me dizzy with sickness to say it, incandescent with rage to say it. It sticks in my throat like vomit. It makes me want to punch some abstract somebody in the mouth. It makes me want to scrawl profane insults in this space and abandon all hope of reasonable conversation.
the people who did what they did, said what they said, on Iraq, the people who
ignored or belitted counsel to the contrary, didnt just screw themselves.
They screwed me and my family and my people and my nation and the world. They
screwed a very big pooch and they mostly dont even have the courage to
admit it. They pissed away assets and destroyed tools of diplomacy and persuasion
that will take a generation to reacquire at precisely the moment that we need
Millman, for one example, is a very smart person who says many useful and
valid things, but I find it impossible to understand how he can give George
Bush the credit for being right on big principles like the principled
need to defend liberty, while conceding that Bush appears unable to understand
the complicated constraints of real life. The principled defense of liberty
is nothing if it cannot be enunciated within the terms of social reality. Its
just an empty slogan, and worse, one that makes no distinctions between political
actors. Does Millman really think John Kerrywho he sees as inadequate
to the task of leadershipis a principled critic of liberty? Just about
everyone besides Robert Mugabe, Kim Il-Jong, ANSWER and Doctor Doom believes
in the principled defense of liberty. George Bush gets no credit for being right
in this respect, and deserves to be soundly rejected for being so, so wrong
where it really counts, in the muck and mire of real life. Thats the only
principled defense that counts: the one whose principles can be meaningfully
reconciled with human truths. A policy that insists on living in a squatters
tent in Platos Cave is a non-policy.
There is a struggle
against terror, injustice, illiberalism. It is real. It will be with us all
our lives. We must fight it as best we can. The people who backed the war in
Iraq, especially the people who backed it uncritically, unskeptically, ideologically,
who still refuse to be skeptical, who refuse to exact a political price for
it, who refuse to learn the lessons it has taught, sabotaged that struggle.
Some of them like to accuse their critics of giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Right back at you, then. You bungled, and you dont even have the grace
or authentic commitment to your alleged aims to confess your error.
After 9/11, I wrote
about my disenchantment with one very particular and relatively small segment
of the American left and its dead-end attachment to a particular and valorized
vision of sovereignity and national self-determination, seeing those as the
only moral aims of international politics. I criticized the need to see the
United States as a uniquely demonic actor in world affairs. I still hold to
that criticism, and I still think it addresses a real tendency. Im sure
Ill say it again in the future. I do regret saying it as much or as prominently
as I did. That was about my own journey, my own arc of intellectual travel from
my origins, not about a national need to smack down a powerful ideology. The
subject of my criticisms was not especially powerful or widespread in general,
and is even less so now.
I regret it because
I and others like me helped the blindly naive Wilsonian proponents of the Iraq
War to caricature their critics as Chomskyites all. The Bush Administration
had its fixation on WMD; Andrew Sullivan, James Lileks, Michael Totten and a
supporting cast of thousands had a fixation with the loony left.
That allowed them to conduct echo-chamber debates with straw men, in which the
proponents of the war were defenders of liberty and democracy and opponents
were in favor of oppression, torture and autocracy.
Small wonder that
they won that debatebut constructing it as such allowed them to miss the
very substantial arguments by other critics, who said, "The war on Iraq
cannot accomplish what you would like it to accomplish in producing a democratic
and liberal state in Iraq, no matter how noble your aims are. The war on Iraq
will not enhance the war on terror, in fact, it will severely damage it. The
war on Iraq cannot be justified on humanitarian grounds without arbitrarily
and inaccurately defining Husseins Iraq as a worse situation than many
comparable othersand an arbitrary humanitarian claim damages the entire
edifice of humanitarian concern".
There were plenty
of people making arguments like theseperhaps even within the Administration--and
they were shouted down or completely ignored before the war and even early in
the occupation. From these arguments, most of what has come to pass was predicted.
Not because of mismanagementthough there has been that, in spades. Not
because of the misdeeds of individualsthough there has been that a-plenty,
both within the Beltway and on the ground in Iraq. Not because the Bush Administration
lacked a free hand to do what it wantedit has had that, more than any
US government in memory. But because of deep, irreparable flaws in the entire
A war on Iraq where
the build-up was handled much more intelligently and gradually, with much more
attention to building international consensus steadily. An Administration not
addicted to strident purity tests and not irremediably hostile to both internal
and external dissent. An argument for the war that took pains to build bridges
rather than burn them, and that accepted gracefully constraints on its own claims
and objectives. An occupation that was methodically planned and clear about
the challenges ahead. These are the preconditions for even imagining the ghost
of a hope that the war could succeed in its humanitarian purposes. In their
evident absence from the first moment, the war could not overcome its handicaps.
democracy do not come from formalisms slapped down on top of social landscape:
they come from the small covenants of everyday life, and rise from those towards
formalisms which guarantee and extend their benefits rigorously and predictably.
Constitutions, laws, procedures: these are important. But they cannot be unpacked
from a box alongside a shipment of MREs and dispensed by soldiers. They do not
make a liberal society by themselves.
To be midwives
to a liberal and democratic society, occupiers have to blend in to that society,
to become a part of it, to work from below, to gain a rich anthropological sense
of its workings and everyday logics. To do that, occupiers must become vulnerable
to insurgents and terrorists; they must hesitate to use violence. The two imperatives
pull in opposite directions, as they must do so. Smart management can ameliorate
or cope with that tension for a while, and there have been success stories of
individual American commanders who effectively straddled for a while. But the
whole enterprise has not, could not, and DAMN IT, some of us knew that it couldnt.
So now the oscillations
grow more extreme. To fight insurgents, one must sabotage liberty, become not
just occupiers but oppressors. To promote liberty, one must be vulnerable to
insurgents, and even risk losing the struggle outright to them. You can have
the rule of lawbut if you do, you cant have prisoners kept forever
as enemy combatants or handed over to military intelligence for
reasons of expediency. The law must bind the king as well as the commoner or
it is worth nothing, teaches no lessons about how a liberal society works. Yes,
the enemies of liberty will use that freedom against you. Thats where
the real costs of it come in. Thats where you have to sacrifice lives
and burn dollars and be vulnerable to attack. Thats where you take your
That this administration,
and most of the proponents of the war, would be risk-averse in this way was
predictable, inevitable, and not altogether ridiculous. It is hard to explain
to military commanders why their troops cannot defend themselves behind barbed
wire and walls. It is hard to explain to soldiers why they have to do jobs theyre
largely untrained to doto administer, to anthropologically investigate
and understand another society, to bow to the cultural norms and sensibilities
of others, to advocate and practice democracy. To be risk-averse about liberty
is to lose the war, as we are losing it. Not just the war in Iraq, but the broader
war on terror. You can achieve liberalism only with liberalism.
Hindsight is 20/20, but some of us had 20/20 foresight. You could have it, tooit would just take joining us in the difficult messiness of social and historical reality.