“Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq; either we hope for the vindication of Bush’s risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians.”
Of the many simple-minded statements made about the war in Iraq, this certainly comes in near the top.
This quotation isn’t from Mark Hyman (as the vocabulary itself suggests) but from Kurt Anderson, a writer for New York Magazine who authored an essay Hyman summarizes approvingly in his most recent “Point” commentary.
As the quotation above suggests, Anderson’s essay is dopey to begin with, and Hyman’s appropriation of it turns Anderson’s caricature into a cartoonish farce. The underlying point of both, however, is important to address.
Anderson argues that many of his fellow New York liberals have in the past and continue to secretly enjoy bad news coming from Iraq because it’s also bad news for George W. Bush. In the wake of elections in Iraq, Anderson suggests that “intellectual honesty” demands that even those who loathe Bush must admit that perhaps his policies in Iraq were justified. Otherwise, they are on the side of the insurgents.
As silly as this false dichotomy is, at least he qualifies it slightly, such as saying of his fellow liberals, “Of course, for all but a nutty fringe, it is not a matter of actually wishing for an insurgent victory, but rather of hating the idea of a victory presided over by the Bush team.” Anderson also points out that the same intellectual honesty he evokes in chastising liberal-minded New Yorkers necessitates that those who are pro-war “to admit that thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed or maimed or orphaned” (an admission that, to these eyes at least, seems far more rare than progressive acknowledgement of the smoothness of the Iraqi elections).
Such language is missing in Hyman’s piece, in which he invokes the “us/them” dichotomy between his audience and “New York liberals” (a phrase that always carries connotations of being code for those who don’t happen to be Christian, white, and straight) and says “wishing for tragedy to befall Americans and Iraqis just to prove a political point is not a position the rest of us would embrace.”
But what about the larger point here? Do liberals (New York or otherwise) take pleasure in bad news from Iraq? Perhaps Anderson and Hyman know such people, but I can’t say that I’ve run across any. The liberal who secretly cheers each roadside bomb or mutters disconsolately at pictures of Iraqis voting is little more than a classic straw man, conjured from the minds of those who are looking for a target to lambaste.
I do know liberals who weren’t all that excited about the recent Iraqi elections. For some, it was because they strongly believe that U.S. troops should be brought home now. They know that no matter how heartwarming the images of purple-fingered Iraqis emerging from the polls might be, American soldiers will continue to get killed for as long as they are in Iraq. For these folks, only events directly lead to getting U.S. servicemen and women out of harm’s way are worth celebrating. Gushing over Iraqi elections seems simply to stoke the fires of nation building, fires in which U.S. troops serves as the kindling.
Others don’t necessarily think we should pull our troops immediately. They feel that now we’re there, we are obliged to see things through. However, these people remember that democratizing Iraq wasn’t the reason we went to war. They remember the attempts of the administration to suggest Iraq was an imminent threat to Americans. They remember the administration lying about possible connections between Iraq and the attacks of September 11th. For them, having been drawn into a war is already a defeat. They believe we need to stay in Iraq for the time being, lest our defeat end up becoming more complete by throwing Iraq and the Middle East into chaos. But the elections themselves are little cause for rejoicing, and to the extent that the use of them to spin the Iraq conflict into a success story obscures the ugly facts about why and how we went to war, they are little more than a reminder of how incoherent our foreign policy has been.
Still others might celebrate the Iraqi elections if they in themselves were anything more than a pleasant symbol of a possible future for Iraq that’s still a long ways away. As I’ve noted in this space before, holding elections is the easiest part of democracy. Heck, even Saddam’s regime held elections. The trick is to make the elections meaningful and get those involved (particularly those whose candidates didn’t win) to abide by the results and work toward a true government. As of yet, there’s been little sign of that. So, yes, some of us groan a bit when we hear people waxing rhapsodic about the wonders of democracy after the elections, not because we don’t hope that democracy will in fact happen, but because we know all too well that holding elections is the first and easiest step in what must be a long and difficult process. To pretend that simply holding elections is itself a victory is a dangerous and misguided reading of the situation.
To return to the idea of “intellectual honesty,” given the string of events that have led us to the current situation, there seems to be only one intellectually honest point of view one can have. We all hope U.S. troops come home as soon as it’s practical for them to do so, and that they do so with as little loss of life as possible. Yes, we liberals also have spouses, brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, friends, students, and colleagues who are serving in Iraq. Every time we hear a news report that more U.S. troops have been killed, we get a knot in our stomach, wondering if we or someone we know will be getting visit from an Army chaplain. To suggest any American feels otherwise is the height of intellectual dishonesty.
But one cannot be intellectually honest and say that democratizing Iraq was the purpose of this invasion. One cannot be intellectually honest and claim that if the Bush administration had sold the war simply on the merits of bringing representative democracy to Iraqis that there would have been more than a smattering of support for the invasion. One cannot be intellectually honest and not admit that the focus on bringing “freedom” to the Iraqi people is a colossal rationalization for having lost 1,500 U.S. dead, thousands more wounded, and even more Iraqi innocent Iraqis killed. One cannot be intellectually honest and talk seriously about any future series of events, no matter how felicitous, “vindicating” the invasion of Iraq, which was premised on bogus intelligence and cynically sold to the nation and the world by people who did (or should have) known better. The best we can hope for (and we do hope for) is that the repercussions won’t be as hard as we fear they might be. If we somehow manage to leave the country in the hands of an actual democratic government with less than 2,000 U.S. dead, only 10 to 15 thousand wounded, and only having killed 20,000 innocent Iraqis, we can count ourselves lucky, but that’s a far cry from vindication.
And that’s The Counterpoint.