May 5, 2004

Primal Scream

“Stop with the hindsight”, says one writer. “Be patient,” says another.

Oh, no, let’s 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. Let’s 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.

That’s because the people who did what they did, said what they said, on Iraq, the people who ignored or belitted counsel to the contrary, didn’t 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 don’t 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 them most.

Noah 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. It’s just an empty slogan, and worse, one that makes no distinctions between political actors. Does Millman really think John Kerry—who he sees as inadequate to the task of leadership—is 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. That’s 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 squatter’s tent in Plato’s 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 don’t 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. I’m sure I’ll 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 debate—but 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 Hussein’s Iraq as a worse situation than many comparable others—and an arbitrary humanitarian claim damages the entire edifice of humanitarian concern".

There were plenty of people making arguments like these—perhaps 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 mismanagement—though there has been that, in spades. Not because of the misdeeds of individuals—though 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 wanted—it has had that, more than any US government in memory. But because of deep, irreparable flaws in the entire enterprise.

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.

Liberalism and 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 couldn’t.

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 law—but if you do, you can’t 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. That’s where the real costs of it come in. That’s where you have to sacrifice lives and burn dollars and be vulnerable to attack. That’s where you take your risks.

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 they’re largely untrained to do—to 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, too—it would just take joining us in the difficult messiness of social and historical reality.