I find it almost impossible to write another post about our nauseatingly immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq. I’ve made my views clear, and offered numerous reasons for my conclusions. See, for example, “No Way Out But Out,” “A Genuine Mission Impossible,” and “Get Out Now: Just Do It.” And “The Missing Moral Center: Murdering the Innocent” concerns the moral dimension that almost every pundit, and the vast majority of Americans, adamantly refuse to acknowledge to this day.
I offer the following comments about the Symposium of Wise People offered by The New Republic only as an exercise in what perhaps should be called the sociology of the banality of evil. These are the Wise People who make murderous catastrophes of this kind possible. Even at this late date, they are incapable of acknowledging and admitting what they have done. For some additional commentary on this TNR collection of abominables, see Spencer Ackerman here and here, and IOZ.
I want to make a few observations about Peter Beinart’s piece, since Beinart is one of the so-called “opinion leaders” endlessly encouraging the Democrats to adopt a more “muscular” foreign policy. One might be pardoned for having thought that the Democrats hardly needed encouragement on this point: from World War I (from which sprang the endless train of horrors that still consumes us today), through Korea, Vietnam, and Clinton’s beloved, “humanitarian” bombing campaigns and their attendant lies, the Democrats have never been shy about murdering people who don’t threaten us. Today, we have a number of prominent Democrats who are more hawkish about Iran than even Bush can credibly be at the moment (including Hillary “Bomb ‘Em Yesterday, aka Torture” Clinton). I still think it almost certain that Bush will find his warmongering groove in the next year, and Bombs Over Iran will shortly follow. No national Democrat will oppose him, not in any way that matters or deters him. Ah, but Beinart isn’t concerned with the facts or the reality of the matter, you see. Oh, no: he is concerned, as are all such Establishment types, with how Democrats are perceived. Too many people think of the Democrats as “weak,” and that needs fixing. For a discussion of some of Beinart’s deeper analytic inadequacies and dishonesties, see this earlier piece.
Beinart was, of course, a major booster of the invasion of Iraq. Let us be precise: Beinart strongly urged the invasion of a country that had not attacked us, and that did not threaten us. This is the advocacy of illegitimate, immoral, and illegal aggressive war. Let us always remember the exact nature of the crime involved.
But now Beinart’s heart breaks: I can’t even imagine Iraq anymore. It exceeds my capacity to visualize horror. In a recent interview with The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid, a woman named Fatima put it this way: “One-third of us are dying, one-third of us are fleeing, and one-third of us will be widows.” At the Baghdad morgue, they distinguish Shia from Sunnis because the former are beheaded and the latter are killed with power drills. Moqtada Al Sadr has actually grown afraid of his own men. I came of age believing the United States had a mission to stop such evil. And now, not only isn’t the United States stopping it in some important sense, we are its cause. No, Beinart: not “in some important sense.” The United States government and its military are the cause in every “important sense.” And the U.S. government was aided and abetted by Beinart and his fellow warmongers. But the collective “we” is critical to Beinart’s purposes, since he is determined to avoid accountability at every turn. That “we” carries profound meaning. As Hannah Arendt observes: “[W]here all are guilty, no one is.” The “we” washes Beinart clean of sin, or so he hopes.
See if you can follow the ludicrous desperation of Beinart’s argument. He moves from this statement: “In a particularly cruel twist, the events of recent months have demolished the best arguments both for staying and for leaving” to this one: “Today, the honest arguments for staying or leaving are simply that we can’t do the opposite.” This irrefutable chain of logic leads to his recommendation: At this late date, the United States has only one card left to play in Iraq: the threat to leave immediately. Except for Sadr, virtually no one in Iraq’s political class wants that to happen. We must wield that threat as dramatically as possible, and, if Iraq’s leaders don’t respond, leave as fast as we humanly can. This is surpassingly, stupendously stupid. I discussed the ridiculousness of this idea just last week: if we threaten to leave and if we convince the Iraqis that we really, really, really mean it a miracle will occur. No, it won’t and neither Beinart nor anyone else can provide even the smallest piece of evidence to make the possibility of the required miracle believable to any degree at all.
Beinart appears to have become confused about where and when his hero FDR employed the various tactics that Beinart so admires. Beinart is still wedded to his “carrot” that will enable the miracle: “a temporary troop increase and a dramatically larger, World Bank-overseen development effort.” If you should think he doesn’t mean this, Beinart spells out these details should the Iraqis bow to our demands: If the Iraqis really strike a constitutional deal that the prominent leaders in all three major communities publicly support, the United States must try to make it stick. That would mean temporarily sending more troops to secure key Baghdad neighborhoods and then flooding those neighborhoods with public-works programs that put young Sunni and Shia men to work. Now, I could be wrong about this, and I’m sure someone will tell me if I am. But I don’t think FDR used TVA-like projects in Germany and Japan while World War II was still raging across the world. No, I’m certain he didn’t. If Beinart’s views weren’t so repugnant and literally insane, I might give him a point or two for creativity. A New Deal for Iraq! Well, I suppose “creative” is one word for it.
Beinart and all hawks of similar inclination refuse to give up the idea that “we meant well,” just as he refuses to surrender the myth that American willpower can still make this work, even at this late date. As I’ve discussed in detail, one of Beinart’s fundamental problems is not that “[he] can’t even imagine Iraq anymore.” His problem is that the reality of Iraq never was clear to him. Iraq, its own history, peoples, cultures and aspirations never assumed solid shape before his eyes, so Beinart, just like those driving the Bush administration’s foreign policy, deluded himself that we could shape Iraq in our own image. The presumptuousness, arrogance and colonialist condescension of this view cannot be allowed into Beinart’s consciousness.
Given his still unshakable basic beliefs, to say that Beinart’s concluding paragraph is inadequate and unsatisfactory hardly captures the nature of the errors involved: “Were not those right who held that it was self-contradictory to try to further the permanent ideals of peace by recourse to war?” wrote John Dewey in The New Republic in 1919, confessing his despondency at the outcome of World War I. Yes, they were right then, and they are right now. War can be necessary, but, in the decade between the liberation of Kuwait and the liberation of Kabul, it became the repository for too many of our hopes for a better world. Now that we have seen the liberation and destruction of Baghdad, it won’t be again for a long, long time. Beinart still insists that his advocacy of non-defensive war was a “repository” for “our hopes for a better world.” He still refuses to admit that he “hoped” to bring about “a better world” by “travel[ing] long distances in order to kill foreigners,” in Jim Henley’s entirely accurate phrase. [I should add that Beinart’s mention of Dewey’s “despondency at the outcome of World War I” carries especially heavy irony since The New Republic was a particularly influential force in dragging the United States into World War I, especially through the writings of Herbert Croly. I discussed that history in the second half of this essay.]
People with views like Beinart’s will never acknowledge the true nature of their mistake. Given even less than half a chance, they will do it all again. So take this warning: whenever any of these unreconstructed hawks again announce their abiding love of war, and be assured they will, condemn them, ridicule them and, most of all, ignore them. They will lie, as they always do, and tell you, for example, that a nuclear Iran is “unacceptable” and “intolerable” even though any threat an Iran with nuclear weapons might represent still lies years in the future, and even then, it would be capable of being contained and deterred.
Beinart and his fellow warlovers are filled with regret now, only because the devastation and horror are so immense they cannot be denied. But most Americans have an attention span measured in months and, in the very best case, perhaps a year. Moreover, the horrors of Iraq still have no reality for most Americans, least of all with regard to how those horrors affect Iraqis. To the extent they are aware of them at all, that awareness will fade quickly enough.
And then the stage will be set for the next war, and Beinart and his crowd will propagandize for it once more. For pity’s sake, don’t let them get away with it again. Remember, and I mean this literally: they will be getting away with murder.
Just as they did this time, and as they do every time.
November 29, 2006