Thursday, June 25, 2015

Iraqi Reality and Conservative Denial

Jeb Bush cannot escape his brother's record

When Jeb Bush was asked on Fox News whether he would have ordered the invasion of Iraq knowing what we know now, he fumbled badly, but he crystallized a new conservative consensus on the issue.  That consensus consists of two points.  First, the intelligence available at the time was unmistakable that Saddam had an active WMD program and had ties to al Qaeda.  Second, the Bush administration’s acceptance of that faulty intelligence and its decision to invade was an honest mistake, a mistake that any reasonable person would have made given that intelligence.  The inescapable conclusion (though some still try to escape it) is that we should not have invaded, that the momentous cost did not cover the dubious benefit.  Other than pathological denialists, everyone now accepts that conclusion, and there’s a definite satisfaction in such a broad acceptance of a truth that had for so long been so strenuously denied.  This is big: movement conservatives now admit the war was wrong.

But despite conservative progress on this issue, there’s still a long way to go.  That is, the two points of the conservative consensus are simply false; they’re evasions, alibis that allow conservatives to concede the undeniable folly of the war without conceding that Bush and his advisors were the source of the folly.  But they were.  They deliberately pushed the country into war and misrepresented the facts to do so, and most conservatives were complicit in that dishonesty.  And if Bush was merely misled – instead of wrong or foolish or dishonest – then why weren’t we all misled?  Many people, most of them liberals, understood the weakness of the case against Saddam at the time, and tried desperately to stop the war before it began.  The new conservative consensus concedes those people were right, but it provides no explanation why.  More importantly, given that the wrongness, foolishness and dishonesty of the war were all too apparent at the time, why did anyone support the war?

Consider the different categories of supporters.  The naïve: those who trusted the president, as Americans generally do on questions of war and peace.  The cowed: those afraid to appear weak on defense issues.  The vengeful: those whose rage at the humiliation of 9/11 had not been assuaged by the war in Afghanistan.  The bullies: those eager to throw around American weight, to prove we’re still the big boys.  The obsessed: neo-conservatives and their ideological companions, who had been fixated on the destruction of Saddam since the First Iraq War of 1991.

But why were neo-cons, and conservatives in general, so obsessed with Saddam, so eager to go to war that they ignored the facts?  Many neo-cons had been making the case for years that America needed to reassert herself militarily, that American might, resolutely asserted, could help pacify a chaotic world.  And, more importantly, it would bring America back to those martial virtues – self-sacrifice, fortitude, resolve, assurance – that had made her great.

Those virtues had been undermined by the self-doubt and timidity that had overcome us after the failure of Vietnam.  Yes, Vietnam.  Other than the relatively minor Iraq war of ’91, we had not kicked ass in any serious way since the fall of Saigon.  Before Vietnam, almost no American doubted the manifest truths of American exceptionalism, that America and Americans were morally superior to other countries, that our military actions are always justified and always motivated by pure benevolence, that we were always victorious because we were good and God was on our side.  It’s all quite foolish, of course, but it’s not easy to give up the fairy tales of childhood, even our national childhood.

But conservatives are determined to never give them up.  And 9/11 afforded them the perfect opportunity to reassert them.  Our enemies were purely evil, our massacred countrymen were entirely innocent, and the barbaric and vicious attack on our homeland filled us with righteous wrath; the dead called out for justice and our wounded pride called out for vindication.  But, the subsequent destruction of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan that had protected and nurtured al Qaeda did not satisfy that wrath.  Why not?  Maybe it was because it didn’t include American troops marching into a defeated enemy capital and instituting honest American administration.  Nothing can compete with the sight of American boys confidently parading through the rubble of Tokyo and Berlin.  So Saddam could be the new Hitler and Baghdad the new Berlin.

A president looking tough
But somehow, inexplicably, it all went wrong.  The natives refused to be pacified.  They broke out in savage fighting, among themselves, and against those honest American boys.   Conservatives hadn’t buried Vietnam, they’d exhumed it.  Vietnam had been a study in hubris, but Iraq was a study in denial, the determined refusal to accept the lessons of Vietnam.  And long after the successful invasion turned into a failed counter-insurgency, conservatives refused to accept that a complex reality had defeated their simple dreams.  But now – thank God! – they’ve arrived at a way to think about the war that preserves their American mythology.  You see, it wasn’t just Bush who was misled by the intelligence.  The new consensus doesn’t just exonerate Bush, it exonerates America.  So much rests upon that thin reed of “faulty” intelligence!

And really, it exonerates conservatism.  Or rather, it’s a failed attempt to exonerate it.  Because, at bottom, the conservative instincts of unreflective assurance and belligerence – shared by elite neo-cons and grassroots conservatives – were the real source of the Iraq disaster.  Bush’s faults are the faults of conservatism itself: the elevation of action over reflection, brazenness over wisdom, toughness over prudence, appearing tough over being tough.  These are the faults of wounded adolescent pride, and they are the faults of American excess.  The real question that needs to be asked of presidential candidates and of anyone with any influence over American foreign policy is not, “What would you have done if you had know then what we know now?”, nor even “Why did you support the war at the time?”  The real question is “Do you share those foolish instincts and honor that discredited mythology?”  Because anyone who does, or surrounds himself with advisers who do, should be mistrusted and rebuked, and disqualified from high office.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Patriotism Unraveled

Military equipment left behind by the Iraqi Army as they fled from ISIS

No one is a better representative of old-time right-wing populism than Pat Buchanan, and no one understands better than an old-time right-wing populist why men are willing to fight and die in war.  When Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter bitterly complained that the city of Ramadi had fallen to vicious ISIS jihadis because the Iraqi Army lacked the “will to fight”, Buchanan jumped up with the explanation:

Why do these rebels seem willing to fight for what we see as antiquated beliefs, but all too often our friends do not fight? Perhaps the answer is found in Thomas Babington Macaulay: “And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods?”

Tribe and faith. Those are the causes for which Middle Eastern men will fight. Sunni and Shiite fundamentalists will die for the faith. Persians and Arabs will fight to defend their lands, as will Kurds and Turks.

People who’s primary loyalty is Sunni or Shiite will fight to promote or protect their faith, and people who’s primary loyalty is to their nation (Persians, Kurds, etc.) will fight to promote or protect their nation.  These are natural, visceral motivations; a society, or a gang, or a hunter-gatherer tribe, or a band of chimpanzees – each takes what it wants and keeps what it takes.  As a fundamentalist himself, Buchanan may wrestle with the facts of biological evolution, but he well understands the animal nature of man.

But do liberals?  Pat doesn’t think liberalism can really motivate anyone, or at least anyone in the Middle East:

But who among the tribes of the Middle East will fight and die for the secular American values of democracy, diversity, pluralism, sexual freedom, and marriage equality?

Rod Dreher takes the argument to its logical next step (his italics):

The more unsettling question is coming our way may well be: But who among the tribes of the United States will fight and die for the secular American values of democracy, diversity, pluralism, sexual freedom, and marriage equality?

Would anyone fight for modern liberalism, for the cult of individual expression, for the impoverished post-modern liberation from all commitment?  The question answers itself.  But what about the other side of modern liberalism, the social justice warriors brimming with idealistic commitments to racial and gender equality, etc.?  Those are wholly admirable and laudable ideals, but could that ideological commitment motivate the sacrifice and devotion that are required for an ideology’s survival in an eminently hostile world?  Consider that the objective of the social justice warriors is a world in which everyone, regardless of race, gender, etc., is openly admitted to that aforementioned empty freedom, that emaciated emancipation.  Of course, fighting for freedom is a cliché, but a misleading one.  Fighting for freedom typically means fighting to remove some outside domination over one’s group; it’s about collective freedom, not individual license. And freedom per se, freedom devoid of content or purpose, is just not something worth dying for. 

Is it conceivable that a society composed of only social justice warriors would take up arms to defend itself against military incursion by religious fundamentalists or Ayn Rand supporters or any other similarly retrograde group?  Barely.  But would they defend America if it were under attack?  How can we suppose that when it’s not clear that they would defend their own hypothetical Social Justice Utopia?  And they tend to be some version of pacifist.  And they generally consider national allegiance to be old-fashioned, foolish and destructive.  Some of them are skeptical that America is a place worth saving.  But some are not.

Fascists and communists in the inter-war years were also quite certain the liberal democrats would prove feckless when push came to shove, that they would not have the courage or determination to resist the totalitarian onslaught.  They were a little right at first – Chamberlain at Munich, 1938 – and very wrong later – Hitler in the Bunker, 1945.  So, hasn’t liberalism proven itself?  No, the liberalism that defeated fascism was a very different liberalism than the modern kind; or more precisely, it wasn’t just liberalism.  It’s true that the American leaders and American military men and women were fighting for liberal values like freedom and equality, but they were also fighting for their homeland and their people.  They fought because they loved their country, and a country is much more than just its political principles.  The British fought for their empire, the French fought to repel the Nazis, as did most of Europe.  Even the Soviets fought for Mother Russia.  Buchanan’s truth wins again. Liberalism alone without pre-liberal, pre-modern commitments of blood and soil is incapable of eliciting the devotion and sacrifice needed to withstand the invader’s onslaught.

Even now, most of the men and women in the American military are true patriots (and those who needed a career or a simply a steady job).  And patriots in America today are more likely to be conservative (sometimes excessively so).  So, if we can’t rely on liberals to fight for America, we always have conservatives to fall back on, right?

Well, maybe.  Rod Dreher, conservative but thoughtful Christian, worries that America, in becoming more liberal, more sexually liberated, is becoming hostile to traditional Christianity.  And he’s not happy at the thought of his own children fighting overseas for an America that no longer solidly represents him and his values:

And I don’t want them killing or dying to replace the very real evils of traditional societies with the evils of our own civilization — especially when our civilization, in law and custom, is in the process of turning on people of my religion, and seeing us as the enemy within. Put bluntly, I don’t want my children to risk death — their own or somebody else’s — for the secular American values of democracy, diversity, pluralism, sexual freedom, and marriage equality, especially when the most important American value — freedom of religion — is going into eclipse.

Dreher contends, not entirely without reason, that opposition to gay marriage (and other aspects of the sexual revolution) has evoked social condemnation of traditionalist Christians as homophobes and bigots.  He is, in effect, saying that traditionalists have become something of a persecuted minority in their own country, and it’s not fair to ask them to fight for a country that doesn’t treat them fairly.  That is, Christians now are a little like blacks were in the bad old days.  When Muhammed Ali refused to fight in Vietnam for a country that denied his equality at home he explained, “No Vietcong ever called me n----r.”  Dreher is saying, “No jihadi ever called me homophobe.”  Apparently, both he and Ali knew who their real enemies were.

Who's he talking to?
To be sure, Dreher’s hesitation to fight for America only applies to overseas missions; he would be only too eager to defend America herself from attack.  And it’s not clear how much Dreher’s pessimism regarding anti-Christian persecution is felt among the wider conservative Christian population.  But conservatives are becoming more and more aware that the America they thought they owned is slipping away from them.  What will happen when conservatives as a whole conclude that defending America is for them a losing proposition?  Will both sides disdain America as belonging to the other?  Is every version of American patriotism unraveling?

If it does come to pass that conservatives, in effect, opt out of American identity – as liberals have already substantially done – then almost no one will willingly fight for America in a foreign land.  Would our expeditionary forces then be only mercenary?  But there can be no doubt – can there? – that if America were being invaded almost every American would come to her rescue.  And we know that conservatives will.  That is, conservatives, being conservatives, will always love the land and their piece of it, and always be willing to fight and die for it.  Even if they no longer feel compelled by America as a whole, they will always be compelled by some version of Buchanan’s ties of tribe and faith.  That is their strength and their failing.

Modern liberals make truly admirable political and social and intellectual leaders, but terrible soldiers.  Just as conservatism un-moderated by liberal notions of individualism and equality slips too easily into parochialism and intolerance, liberalism unmoored from national affection and commitment slips too easily into cosmopolitan affectation and universalist uselessness.  We need each other.  And more to the point, America would be much better off under an intelligent synthesis of both world-views, alloyed with good amounts of pragmatism and conciliation.  Conservatives need to understand that America is more than a vessel and instrument of static conservatism.  It’s a growing, changing, evolving, living thing.  And liberals need to bring their idealism back down to earth.   They could think globally and act nationally, but only if the nation actually means something to them.  And all that really means is recognizing that they are Americans, essentially and irrevocably.  Liberalism is as much an organic outgrowth of American history as is conservatism.  We are all heirs of our common history.  But that history has hope of continuing only if we’re all willing to accept that inheritance, and the responsibilities it brings, and each other.