Twelve Whiffs of Failure

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Americans are notoriously good at moving on, which tends to amount to turning our backs on the messes we’ve made, and averting our noses from the stench of what our government likes to call foreign policy. Currently that government is taking pains to assure us that the mess in Iraq is improving, and hinting heavily that we lend our attention to the fresh hydra’s head of Iran. Time to move on. The President’s troop "surge" is doing the trick, Eden is just around the corner, the war really was the grand idea it was always billed to be. The decider, our war President, our own little Churchill, the brush-clearing virtuoso of the age is back on the case, ready to lead us to glory in Iran. Tempting as it is to think that the best thing for America to do at this point is bomb the Persians, let’s turn our eyes and noses back to Iraq for a moment. There’s enough rot there to turn the stomach of a blind man devoid of a sense of smell.

1. America’s good intentions, if it ever had them, are meaningless. Its motives have never been clear to either side. Why did we do it — from a burning desire to liberate the Iraqi people, a burning desire to burn oil, or just a tacky impulse to trash a place because we could? Americans and Iraqis alike go on wondering whether the planners of this war were primarily ignorant or primarily evil. Many of the war’s boosters have been playing the good intentions card, meanwhile. (If only we’d known then what we know today… Jonah Goldberg, Richard Perle, et al.) Whatever the reasons given for things not working out, they warrant that we meant well. Did we? "O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart," T.S. Eliot wrote, "for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." In the excellent Night Draws Near, Anthony Shadid notes that even those Iraqis who trusted our intentions and welcomed our war were soon left pondering whether the ensuing calamity was the result of "malicious inattention or inattentive malice." Was the wreckage deliberate? Were the architects of the invasion primarily stupid or primarily wicked? The questions won’t go away and there have been no satisfactory answers.

2. The U.S. government’s evident lack of concern for the Iraqi people is matched by its evident lack of concern for the American people. Are the Iraqi people better off after two American wars and the years of sanctions? Are the American people better off after the two wars waged on Iraq? Since the invasion, millions of Iraqis have fled their homes if not their country, and a recent study estimates that 1.2 million have been killed. Most Iraqis despised Saddam Hussein; it is hard to imagine an event that could make many of them nostalgic for the Saddam years. The occupation of Iraq has been such an event. To Americans, the war has brought debt, grief, and an inevitable sense of shame, whether we acknowledge it or not. It is hard to imagine an event that might make one nostalgic for the Vietnam years. The Iraq War is such an event.

3. The Bush Administration seems to be banking on a sequel to September 11, turning a national catastrophe into its golden calf. One would have thought that after the events of that day, the overwhelming response of a responsible government would be to do everything in its power to ensure that such events would not happen again. Why is it that one cannot shake the feeling that this government viewed September 11 as more of an opportunity than a tragedy? Why is it that one cannot shake the feeling that Bushworld’s response to that day has done more to ensure a repeat performance than to prevent one? Iraq had nothing to do with the last September 11. It might have something to do with the next one. The folly of occupation has helped see to that.

4. Inaction WAS an option. The Iraq War didn’t have to happen. Our leaders made it happen. There were plenty of informed, intelligent objections to the decision to go into Iraq. The Administration didn’t listen and didn’t so much as try. Bushworld insisted that action (meaning of course violent action) was the only way to solve a problem like Saddam. Even Jesus, the President’s favorite philosopher, couldn’t gain his ear, let alone Lao Tzu, who said: "The Way takes no action, but leaves nothing undone…. To conquer the world, accomplish nothing; if you must accomplish something the world remains beyond conquest…. He who acts, spoils; He who grasps, loses." The right kind of inaction was an option for Bush all along. All along he insisted on the wrong kind of action.

5. The United States made war on a country that couldn’t fight back, that posed less of a military threat to it than Cuba. Make that Andorra. There was "nothing truly epic" about America’s quick advance and entry into Baghdad notes Shadid, quoting Anthony C. Zinni’s analogy: "Ohio State beat Slippery Rock sixty-two to nothing. No s__t." Our war President was clearly banking on a flag-waving quickie, as his premature "Mission Accomplished" ejaculation made clear. The Administration got its sixty-two to nothing rout all right; then it got something more. Had it listened to military men like Anthony Zinni or Eric Shinseki, and made a few post-game plans, or not insisted on playing the ill-starred match in the first place…. But it didn’t listen. The romp was fun for a few weeks, less fun four years later.

6. Washington’s interest in democracy is mainly in its resilience as a catchword. Similarly, it approves of freedom when this seems to serve the narrow political agenda referred to by our leaders as the national interest. Beyond that, it distrusts freedom or outright despises it. When countries whose affairs our leaders have fiddled with in the name of democracy vote for someone they don’t like, they fiddle further. When people we fiddle with in the name of freedom say or think things we don’t like, we fiddle further. Rome burns, meanwhile, as surely as Iraq.

7. The war’s architects perpetually knew best. They have yet to make a mistake. They seem incapable of shame. The best Donald Rumsfeld could manage in response to the plundering of Baghdad while American troops looked on was the infamous: "Stuff happens. Freedom is messy." And while Rumsfeld seemed distressed when the Abu Ghreib scandal broke, the distress was clearly more in response to the fact that it broke than to the fact that it occurred. The war’s sponsors didn’t do shame. Nor did they ever bother much to try to understand the people they’d selected to be the enemy. True, they came to a series of superficial conclusions of the "Aggression is All the Arabs Understand" stripe, but they were remarkably, consistently ignorant of the people they’d pledged to liberate, and remarkably, consistently unconcerned about their ignorance.

8. Bushworld has turned lying from an occasional piece of political craftwork into an institutional torrent of cheap assembly-line fabrication. The Iraq War rests on a series of cheap, deliberate, bald-faced lies. Even the Administration’s occasional flirtations with truth haven’t come over well. As Blake said, "A truth that’s told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent." Is it any wonder this government is so often accused of running a rigged game?

9. The "privileges" our leaders have shown such passion to acquire are indicative. Since September 11, the Bush League’s wish-list has read: "Please, can we do preemptive strikes? Ignore the Geneva Conventions? Intimidate and mislead the press? Use nukes, just little ones? Torture? Spy? Fire people who aren’t as compassionately conservative as we are? Promote people who are, however incompetent? Invade and occupy other countries? Spend your money digging ourselves into a hole? Please, pretty please?"

10. The Administration has done for religion what the people it terms Islamo-fascists have done for it. The President’s suggestion that the Iraq War is the fruit of collaborations with a "Higher Father" or "Favorite Philosopher" deserve to be greeted with skepticism, if not nausea. "I’ve got God’s shoulder to cry on, and I cry a lot," Bush has recently been quoted as saying. "I’ll bet I’ve shed more tears than you can count." It’s a safe bet that we all (including God) have shed more tears than the President can count.

11. The preeminence some of our leaders boast of feels more like decadence. There’s a smell of decay about America, and the occupation of Iraq has made it sharper. If we’re really the brightest and best and freest and finest people on the planet, we’ll give off talking about it and start proving it. Keeping this putrescent administration out of Iran would be a worthy start.

12. Washington casts the blame for what is in large part its own irresponsible, provocative behavior at everyone’s feet but its own. Our leaders are models of decency, tirelessly promoting peace, democracy, freedom, and economic growth. That they in fact end up promoting an indecent amount of ill will and bad faith is exclusively the fault of the Chinese, the French, the Arabs, Islam, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Osama, Fidel, Old Europe, the Rogue States, the Axis of Evil, the liberal press, Satan, and sometimes Canada.

Saddam Hussein was a despicable leader, and dislodging him by force perhaps seemed an honestly noble pursuit to some, an idealistic effort to "tackle a darkness." However, it does not appear to have been a wise pursuit, or an efficient one. And in all too many respects, it does not appear to have been an honest or noble one. What were America’s intentions? To liberate or to conquer? The words of Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness are depressingly relevant: "They [the colonial presence in the Belgian Congo] were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force — nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind — as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much."

Robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, men going at it blind? It is disheartening to consider to what extent the "They" in this passage sounds like the "Us" in Iraq. But Americans better consider it as their President attempts to move on to Iran. If America’s motives in Iraq have been unclear from the start, one thing is sure: the Iraq War is "not a pretty thing if you look into it too much." This is not the time to be debating whether "the surge" is working or not. It is not the time to be debating whether we should be attacking another country or not. It is a time to be acknowledging that the Iraq Project was a failure before it started, to end it as quickly and graciously as possible, and to forbid an Iran Project from following suit. It is a time to consider the words of T.S. Eliot in East Coker: "The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility." That is the best we can move on to at this point. But another thing is sure: there is no reason under the sun to expect our government to help us get there. We’d better help ourselves.

John Liechty [send him mail] currently teaches in Muscat, Oman.

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