Operation Hubris

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For months, for over a year, non-leftist opponents of the American invasion of Iraq were treated as vermin — isolated and calumniated, when not ignored. Their questions were not only unanswered, they were forbidden. The thrust to war went relentlessly forward, invoking the mantras that George Bush could be trusted to repeat endlessly in lieu of thoughtful persuasion: “he gassed his own people,” “WMD,” and “regime change.”

This approach to the Iraq enterprise represents a sharp departure from the normal conduct of foreign policy. Politics usually involves long and serious discussions of various approaches to the world, debates over the pro’s and con’s, and the determination of a final course of action that most often reflects careful compromise. But none of this has happened in the war with Iraq.

Since long before 9-11, the attack on Iraq has been the paramount goal of a powerful and ultimately successful group inside and outside of the US government. Grim determination, not debate and compromise, was their method. In fact, any aroma of debate was contemptuously denounced as a sign of “going wobbly,” of “navel contemplation,” or, when all else failed, of despicable ethnic bias. True debate was simply not possible, not permitted. It was feared, because of what it might reveal.

To play his part, George Bush adopted not only the verbal mantras, but the physical demeanor required by the grim countenance of control. Lacking the actor’s grace of Ronald Reagan, Bush struggled to adopt a stiff, officious strut and cadenced monotone that his handlers no doubt designed to broadcast a sense of serious and principled resolve. Here and there, however, they undoubtedly cringed, like the parents of the youngster in the high school play who fumbles his lines and lets the cat come scrambling out of the bag. Bush’s most famous blurt, “this is scripted,” became the bumper sticker for this aspect of the Iraq campaign, complete with all the forbidden questions and the pretense of persuasion that replaced the possibility of genuine debate.

But all that changed, once the tanks began to roll. With the war irrevocably under way, the public has witnessed a series of unexpected epiphanies: first of all, the mantra goals of the American invasion were suddenly changed, in what William Stearns has called a classic “Bait and Switch.” Removal of Saddam and of WMD were now only the first steps in a long, arduous march. The cat scrambled out of the bag in the prestige press with a detailed Wall Street Journal March 21 story. It described how Bush’s 2003 Iraq policy was actually formulated by the same advisors that first proposed it to Israel’s Prime Minister Sharon in the 1990s. “Bush Dreams of Changing Not Just Regime but Region — A Pro-US, Democratic Area Is a Goal That Has Israeli, Neoconservative Roots,” wrote veteran foreign affairs correspondent Robert S. Greenberger:

As he sends American troops and planes into Iraq, President Bush has in mind more than changing a country. His dream is to make the entire Middle East a different place, and one safer for American interests.

The vision is appealing: a region that, after a regime change in Baghdad, has pro-American governments in the Arab world’s three most important countries, Egypt, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In the long run, that changes the dynamic of the region, making it more friendly to Washington and spreading democracy. Reducing the influence of radicals helps make Palestinians more amenable to an agreement with Israel.

It’s a dream that has grown slowly over the last half-dozen years, from seeds first sown by a small group of neoconservative thinkers laboring in the quiet vineyards of policy think tanks during the Clinton administration. President Bush has come to embrace it in the traumatic days since the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, so that he now sees disarming Iraq as only the beginning of the good that can come from ousting Saddam Hussein.

Only time will tell just what this dream consists of, because the Bush Administration emphatically refuses to. Just days before the war began, Senator Richard Lugar, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked the State Department and Defense Department to testify before the committee on U.S. plans for postwar Iraq. Both refused.

We can now understand why. As Harold Myserson writes in the Washington Post,

Now, while the debate is just beginning over the nature of the interim government in postwar Iraq, they [Defense] have dispatched a postwar government of their choosing to the Kuwait Hilton.

With the assistance of Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush has emerged as an apt pupil of Nathan Bedford Forrest. In war and now in peace, he gets there first with the most men. Deployment precedes — and damn near obviates — debate.…

Former [State Department] ambassadors to other Arab nations, for instance, who can actually speak Arabic — have been vetoed by Donald Rumsfeld. The neoconservatives have their team in place, complete with their opposition group of choice: the Iraqi National Congress.

At least this war is good for something: Finally, at long last, one can utter the word “neoconservative” without being bludgeoned with an indignant ethnic slur.

The reader must be advised that this raging battle does not represent mere bureaucratic infighting. In Greenberger’s words, these grim gauleiters who will reap the postwar powers are “dreamers,” visionaries. All of them seek a future on which they can make their indelible mark, changing the world forever. And Greenberger’s menu is incomplete: several members of the neocon brain trust have called for American “liberations” of Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and even Egypt.

What will we find in the Brave New World? Well, in the words of one of its intellectual leaders, Martin Peretz, intimate of Al Gore and publisher of the New Republic, two days after 9-11: “We are all Israelis now.”

Good idea? Maybe. Let’s discuss it, submit it to debate. Oops — too late — first the verdict, then the trial.

Similarly, when Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed to an American radio audience the day after 9-11 that “Israel is an outpost of America,” it was undoubtedly news to millions of Rush Limbaugh’s listeners. Perhaps we should have discussed the possible impact of that choice on American homeland security. No dice.

Without debate or discussion, the “dream team” now prepares to move into Iraq and complete the first step in America’s glorious conquest and remaking of the entire Middle East.

Of course, competing views (including Peretz’s, Limbaugh’s, and Netanyahu’s) of America’s role in the world and its relationship to its allies constitute serious elements of our foreign policy that we should debate long and hard — because the consequences will be long and enduring. Normally, they would represent valid options, among others, for the political process to address. Instead, this administration has attempted to make them mandatory impositions that we are permitted neither to discuss nor to reject.

Perhaps the neocon “dreamers” considered their plans too precious, too visionary, too drenched in power lust to be debated in the grimy trenches of everyday politics. Indeed, the notion of representative government has been an illusion — both in the sleight of hand involved in developing America’s Iraq war policy and in the secret neocon concoction of Iraq’s “legitimate” future.

No matter. The mantra of “democracy” is a necessary bauble that the dreamers must dangle from time before the credulous masses.

After all, “this is scripted.”

Christopher Manion [send him mail] writes from the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.

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