Wednesday, October 05, 2005

A Foolish Consistency

Mark Hyman has finally conceded defeat in the debate over the war in Iraq. No, he hasn’t admitted that he or the Bush administration was wrong to go to war—not in so many words. But he might as well have, given his most recent defense of the war.

Reaching the absolute bottom of the philosophical barrel when it comes to rationalizations for the war, Hyman’s argument is simply that since we started the war, we should keep at it. It is, Hyman suggests, the only American thing to do.

Likening the war in Iraq with World War I, World War II, and the battles against cancer and AIDS, Hyman says Americans are “known for committing to causes and seeing them to successful outcomes” and therefore we need to keep the war up in Iraq because “our heritage demands we follow through and see our tasks to successful completion.”

So it’s come to this, has it Mark?

Let’s table for now the fallacious parallels between the causes Hyman mentions and the war in Iraq. I’d like to focus on the presumption that our “heritage” demands that we not abandon a cause.

Perhaps Americans are known for their determination to see things through, but we also have a collective heritage of recognizing and correcting egregious ethical, moral, and practical mistakes (albeit often much later than would have been ideal). Here are just a handful of causes that Americans have embraced in the past that we’ve abandoned, and for good reason:

hanging women for witchcraft
male-only voting
child labor
the systematic murder of Native Americans (although this was mainly abandoned because it was all but completed)
government sponsored segregation
the war in Vietnam
arming and supporting Saddam Hussein
arming and supporting Osama bin Laden
arming and supporting the Taliban

The list could go on and on.

Needless to say, many of these causes were abandoned only when the issue was forced, but the larger issue is that a couple of other qualities Americans pride themselves on in addition to stick-to-it-ivness are a sense of decency and a sense of pragmatism. These have both gone a long way in halting and undoing some of our more colossal collective blunders. We don’t think of ourselves as a people who continue to do something simply because “that’s the way it’s done.” We like to think that we learn from our mistakes and don’t continue to do things that are both dumb and wrong.

The war in Iraq is both dumb and wrong, and for many of the same reasons the war in Vietnam was dumb and wrong. Take for example Hyman’s assertion that we need to “follow through” with the war to attain a “free Iraq.” Free to do what? From the beginning, I’ve always found it incredible that the Bush administration has simultaneously invoked “democracy” and “self-determination” as ideals we are bringing to the Iraqi people. But these are not synonymous. What if what most Iraqis want is a theocracy? What if what most Iraqis want is a legal system based on a strict interpretation of the Koran? What if what most Iraqis want is to ally themselves with Iran? What if most Iraqis want a highly nationalistic economy that doesn’t do business with (e.g., sell oil to) non-Muslim countries? What if what most Iraqis want is to systematically oppress their Kurdish population? Are we only bringing “self-determination” and “freedom” to the Iraqis to the extent that these conform to the desires of the United States?

Once upon a time, I thought that, as much as I was against getting into the war to begin with, once we had put more than 100,000 troops on the ground, we needed to stay in Iraq until the country created a self-sustaining, stable government (even if that meant being there for decades).

It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that the American presence is something that will always stand in the way of Iraq (or whatever combination of states emerges from it) becoming its own country. At this point, American forces are playing the role of a socio-political anti-coagulant, preventing any real healing from happening.

Of course, the risk (and it’s actually a likelihood, in my opinion) is that the removal of American forces will cause the country to fall into a civil war once the artificial stability (such as it is) imposed by the military presence in Iraq is gone. And if that indeed happens, we will collectively bear the moral responsibility for creating the mess.

But the only chance Iraq has to create itself anew is if we allow them to do it without our interference. As long as we’re their, we’ll continue to have this low-grade fever of a conflict going on ad infinitum, with innocent Iraqis paying the heaviest price.

It’s not a terribly hopeful scenario any way you look at it, but the argument that we need to keep sacrificing American lives in a pig-headed attempt to “see things through” is the height of idiocy (particularly when there’s quite a bit of evidence that this continual sacrifice is actually counterproductive to our stated goals). The fact that Hyman trots out this argument speaks to the absolute philosophical and moral bankruptcy of the pro-war position.

Rather than get led along by those who tell us it’s “un-American” to do anything other than continue to send young people to kill and die half a world away, let’s listen to the very American voices from our past that remind us that it is no sin to acknowledge a mistake, and it is often both the practical and ethical thing to do to remedy an error once it’s obvious (or to at least cease continuing to make the mistake).

Hyman suggests that to not “follow through” in Iraq is to be inconsistent in some way that is un-American.

But let’s remember the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that great voice of the American way of looking at things, who said, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And that’s The Counterpoint.

Hyman Index: 3.57


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