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 na├»ve: 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.

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