Monday, August 22, 2005

Why Does It Still Matter?

Liberal hawks are saying that we need to debate what to do in Iraq now -- and that the issue of whether support for the war was justified (or even justifiable) in March 2003, and the issue of who-supported-what-when, is now moot. Those of us on the left side of the spectrum -- those who were always against the war, or who turned against it early and seriously (i.e. not with a quick, defensive, dismissive mea culpa but with genuine regret) -- tend, not monolithically but in general, to say that no, it still matters. (Though of course we also need to discuss what to do now.) So the question is why? Why does it still matter?

This is important in part because the desire (or even demand) for extended expressions of self-recrimination are at best unseemly, and at their worst have an air of communist-style "self-criticism" about them. Further, those on the pro-war left seem to think that some of the attitude of the left is akin to gloating -- we-were-right-and-you-were-wrong. And while I would emphatically deny the implications of "gloating" -- no one with the slightest bit of sense is in the least bit happy about the horrendous situation we have gotten ourselves into -- I do think that, at least in some cases, the desire for extended mea culpas is driven by a not-very-admirable desire to have them admit that they were wrong -- a desire that is not due to gloating but to helpless, heartbroken rage: damnit, if you had just seen this back in the day, maybe -- not likely but maybe -- we could have stopped this thing. I know this is true because it's true of me: it is frustrating and depressing that everything that has gone wrong was so clear, the size of the blunder so utterly evident, and yet that even people supposedly on our side aided and abetted it.

But there are other reasons -- good reasons -- that this still matters. Let me list some of them.

First of all, there is historical truth. I know, I know: that sounds quaint. Yet as a historian, an academic, a person who spends much of his life engaged with ideas, I find it important. Call me silly, but I do.

Second, there is the political issue. This war is, at this point, desperately unpopular. And, as much as any war has ever been, this is a war due to a single, particular individual: George W. Bush. This is an issue that should hang around the Republicans' neck like a loadstone for a generation. Yet this can't happen, won't happen, so long as many of the most prominent democrats still support the decision to go war -- even in retrospect. Insofar as this is a political issue, it is not an issue of having-to-have-been-right: but you need to be right now. Whether they say they were lied to or say that given the administration's now-evident incompetence they now think--, or whatever, democrats need to be united on the idea that this war was wrong. It seems crass to treat a horror of this magnitude as a political issue. But to prevent future horrors -- and ongoing policy disasters -- we need to do so. Certainly the other side has done so, and is doing so, a thousandfold more than we have (Bush evoked 9-11 as an excuse for Iraq most recently today.) So all the prominent democrats -- DLCers, Biden, Clinton, Kerry, the lot -- need to say, strongly and clear, that we should not have done this.

Third, there is the issue of avoiding future mistakes. This is really one we should have learned from Vietnam. While there are, of course, numerous differences -- there always are, in any two historical situations -- the similarities are so strong that we really should have seen this coming. If we can't now see that this was a mistake we'll just make it again in twenty years -- or whenever Bush decides to invade Iran -- which, I think, will be right after the next terrorist attack in this country (attacks that his Iraq policy have, of course, made more not less likely, and which his other policies have done little (certainly far, far less than they ought to have) to prevent). The mainstream, centrist, liberal establishment supported the Vietnam war for years; they were wrong, and should have known it at the beginning (certainly from the point of major escalation in 1965; and they should have asked questions that they did not of the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1964). The mainstream, centrist, liberal establishment supported the Iraq war, and they were wrong again: if we are to avoid another go-around of this, we need to make this very clear -- in the culture, in the Democratic party, and in leftist circles generally. This is all the more crucial because even those liberal hawks who have admitted that they were wrong seem, generally, to have not come to grips with why they were wrong (about which more in a moment), tending instead to focus on the safe ground of 'we should have known that the Administration would mess it up' -- true, but not the whole story.

Finally, and most crucially, there is the fact that they are still making the same mistakes today. Whether this is true of the various intellectuals, think-tanks and consultants who continue to support the war or not I'm not certain, although I suspect it is. But it seems unquestionably clear of the actual, front-line politicians, including most of the people who -- alas, alas -- are currently in the front of the running for the 2008 Democratic nomination. They are currently supporting policies for the same reason that they, disastrously, supported the war.

What do I mean by that? (Since obviously they are not now saying that Iraq has/had WMD and is/was a threat!) To answer that, we need to get at the root of why they supported the Iraq war in the first place. I can't bring myself to believe that, at root, it was about WMDs, or any of the other myriad reasons that were given for supporting the war. I can't believe that because it was so clearly wrong at the time, as was evident by the fact that damn-near 40% of the country (and most of the civilized world outside of it) opposed the war, stating clearly that it was wrong: that, fundamentally, Iraq was no threat to us. (We may have thought Iraq had some minor WMDs (i.e. not nukes, not smallpox) lying around, but we thought that Iraq was not a threat -- particularly given the genuine threat that other countries, to say nothing of Al Queada, presented.) If a large group of people are saying something, and it turns out to be true, then it is hard to credit those who say that they could not have known it at the time. We are entitled, I think, to look elsewhere for an explanation.

And I think the explanation is, in a nutshell, to look tough. They were afraid, post-9/11, of looking weak -- to the public, to other policymakers, pundits, establishment intellectuals, and so forth -- and thus supported this war without thinking it through. They ignored the reasons to think it would be a mistake -- probably less in the sense of deliberately and consciously turning away from them, but more in the manner of never looking at them with unjaundiced eyes in the first place. They dismissed those who made the arguments that have turned out to be right as peaceniks, or weak, or even anti-American -- and thus did not see the truth of what we were saying.

A big part of this is what Publius insightfully called "the other Vietnam syndrome", which he described as follows:

The original “Vietnam syndrome” referred to the reluctance of Americans to send troops to war after the fall of Saigon. The critique that many conservatives and hawkish liberals made was that this reluctance morphed into irrational knee-jerk hostility to the use of any and all military force. What I call the “other Vietnam syndrome” is precisely the opposite. It refers to the mindset of those who are so anxious to distance themselves from the anti-war movement of the 60s that they have developed an irrational and knee-jerk acceptance of any and all exercises of military force.

What is crazy about this, as Publius goes on to note, is that this "other Vietnam syndrome" persists in spite of the fact that -- as most Americans as well as most historians and policymakers (or at least centrist and liberal policymakers) now believe -- the anti-war movement was right about Vietnam: we should have gotten out long before we did; it was a mistake to be there in the first place. This is mirrored in the fact that, in Timothy Noah's words (quoted by Publius in his post), mainstream Democrats continue to make "support for a mistaken policy [invading Iraq] a litmus test" because "it shows that the person in question is willing to project U.S. force abroad" -- which Noah calls the D.C. consensus and "completely insane". (Indeed, some people are still arguing for reading people out of the party on essentially this basis!)

In other words, people, even those who now admit it was a mistake, are still only listening to those who supported the invasion of Iraq because it makes them look tough.

But I fear that this is the main motivation behind the centrist Democratic support for Bush's non-policy policy of "staying the course" -- certainly for the (essentially cowardly) politicians of the DLC-persuasion who support the war out of a pathological fear of looking weak, despite the fact that majorities of Americans now think it was a mistake (to say nothing of the fact that it has clearly made the U.S. far less secure in numerous ways), but probably also for the pundit/consultant/intellectual class as well.

Now, people are right that we need to have a debate about what to do now. (This seems like a good opening salvo to me.) I'm not saying that people have to support a withdraw-now position to be taken seriously. I am saying that people have to recognize that a concern for American security sometimes leads to not using force to be taken seriously. Even aside from the historical, political and future-policy necessity of seeing and openly saying that this war was wrong which I outline above, I -- and many on the left -- find it almost impossible to take seriously anything that establishment, centrist, pro-war liberals have to say on the 'what-should-we-do-now' issue without some sense that they have gotten over this "other Vietnam syndrome". Until liberal hawks see not only that they were wrong but why they were wrong, they will continue to distort their policy recommendations out of a misguided desire to look tough. Until they make it clear that they see why they were wrong, those of us who were right about this war are, I think, justified in distrusting their judgment on the what-to-do-now issue -- since they are still looking at this war with jaundiced eyes.

The country should never again blindly support a war out of a desire to be tough. But I would hope that, above all, liberal hawks would see that they in particular should never again dismiss those who question the use of military force as unconcerned with American security, as knee-jerk pacifist or weak or antiwar or anti-American, given that they have themselves shown themselves to be knee-jerk prowar, blindly in favor of a policy which has made America less safe. Let their mistake in supporting this disastrous war teach them that at least, lest we continue making the same mistakes over and over again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow. You really are a far lefty. I had no idea!