Sleepwalking toward Baghdad

As the sand runs out on peace, America drifts alone toward a strange and unjustified war.

Topics: Iraq war, Iraq, Middle East

Sleepwalking toward Baghdad

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

W.H. Auden’s “September 1st, 1939,” written after Hitler invaded Poland to start World War II, was much quoted in the United States after another terrible September day, 62 years later. The poet’s dread, as he stared into a darkness about to cover the world, had become our own. Just as Hitler’s invasion killed the cheap hopes of a “low dishonest decade,” so the savage destruction of the World Trade Center had wakened us from our dream world, where history no longer existed and hatred and death only touched others. The poem was eerily prescient: In a coincidence so strange it would scarcely be credible if such uncanny anticipations did not haunt the history of literature, Auden invoked skyscrapers not once but twice:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream [ ... ]

A few stanzas later, he was drawn back to the image, denouncing “the lie of Authority/Whose buildings grope the sky.”

Neither the strength of Collective Man nor of Authority was enough, on September 1st or Sept. 11, to prevent the worst from happening.

Perhaps the poem’s most arresting — and disturbing — synchronicity with Sept. 11, however, is found in the second stanza, when Auden writes of Hitler’s Germany:

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

“What huge imago made/ A psychopathic god”: the question echoed like an explosion, as the sight of the twin towers collapsing shocked the world. In America, however, it was not permitted to explore the final lines: to suggest that the evil unleashed by Osama bin Laden might actually be something that happened in history, and be susceptible to historical analysis, was immediately pronounced traitorous — as if the desire to understand somehow was the same as justifying this horror.



Some things, it was argued then and now, cannot and should not be understood. Some evils are cosmic obscenities, anomic, existing outside all reason and causation. President Bush’s declaration that the terrorists struck not for any reason but because “they hate our freedom” was a crude statement of this point. The impulse to declare that catastrophes are beyond the human order is as old as Job. And there is truth in it — but not the entire truth. If all evil is unfathomable, chaos would have engulfed civilization long ago, for catastrophes befall us all.

Auden himself grappled with this issue. As Alan Jacobs pointed out in a penetrating essay published last year, Auden later repudiated his poem — and he did so because he came to believe he had been too quick to explain away evil. The poem asserts that the harsh sanctions imposed by the Allies on Germany after World War I were one of the causes of Nazism. And he drew a moral comparison, perhaps even an equation, between those sanctions and Nazism: “Those to whom evil is done/ Do evil in return.”

Jacobs explains that as Auden came to understand the true nature of the Nazi regime, he realized that his lofty rhetoric, which implicitly posits that all have sinned equally and all are equally culpable, failed to distinguish between the sins of the Allies and the infinitely greater sin of Nazism.

In short, Auden came to believe that he had arrived too quickly at that moral-aesthetic height from which the varieties of human folly become indistinguishable.

Was Auden right to repudiate his poem? There is no single answer. But the fact that it still speaks to people indicates that he may not have been. In fact, the verses about Germany were never as crudely exculpatory of Nazism as he came to believe. In any case, as time passes, even the most dreadful horrors come to be seen sub specie aeternitatis: indeed, poetry that attempts to engage too specifically and polemically with politics is not usually the poetry that lasts. As an engaged work, a rallying cry of defiance to Hitler, “Sept. 1, 1939″ falls short; but as a meditation on the darkness that infects the human condition, and a haunting description of what it felt like to watch the world collapse from the “neutral air” of New York, it remains strange and alive.

The strange life that courses through Auden’s poem has made it, remarkably, relevant not once but three times: in 1939, after Sept. 11 and again today. Indeed, it may speak even more pointedly to us now, as we once again observe horror unfold in slow-motion — this time a horror of our own making.

By a terrible irony, the poem that so many Americans read after Sept. 11 to comfort themselves and their wounded and victimized nation now reads as an indictment of our folly — and an elegy for our lost reason. The “offense” is the terrorist attacks. And the culture that has been driven mad is our own.

This, at least, is the view of most of the people in the world — one forcefully expressed by the British novelist John le Carré, who wrote a piece in the Times of London called “The USA has gone mad.” It isn’t just the Security Council, or the U.N., although America’s isolation there is disturbing enough. That the overwhelming majority of people on earth — regardless of their paid-off or strategically-aligned governments’ official positions — believe that America is going down a terribly wrong path is something that should inspire far deeper reflection, and doubt, among American policymakers, and the general public, than it has. When millions of people — many of whom had wept and marched in solidarity with the great city of New York, capital of the modern world, just a year and a half earlier — took to the streets in dozens of cities around the globe, Bush dismissed them as a “focus group.” So much for the largest worldwide demonstrations in human history, a first stunning street plebiscite in a nascent global democracy.

America is about to launch the first unprovoked war in its history (or the second, if you count what Neal Gabler called its true precedent, the Spanish-American War), and it will do it essentially alone. After Bush’s strangely robotic press conference last Thursday (the Washington Post’s Tom Shales and the Times’ Maureen Dowd spoke for many when they observed that the president appeared to be drugged), in which he was completely incapable of answering why a beefed-up inspections regime, backed by force, could not keep Saddam under control, there seems no hope that an invasion can be averted by diplomacy. Perhaps Britain will succeed in pushing back the date of the war resolution by a few days or weeks. But the hot weather is coming, the troops will soon lose their edge, and so very soon Bush will either press for a resolution authorizing force — which the Security Council will reject — or simply issue the invasion order. And soon thereafter thousands of tons of bombs will begin falling on Iraq, home of a vile and murderous tyrant and 23 million Iraqis, many of whom will die before their fellow citizens are released from Saddam’s bondage and into an unknown future.

That future will be determined by three things: the fortunes of war, American commitment, and fate. Of those three, it is impossible to say which is the most fickle.

It is equally impossible to say with certainty whether invading a large sovereign Arab state will make America safer or not. Unless the war and its aftermath unfold as smoothly as a game of Risk played against a 6-year-old, however, the odds are it will not.

As the United States stands in rigid and increasingly pathological isolation, prepared to take an incredible gamble for no good reason, Auden’s poem, with all its incredulity, bitterness, dread and humanity-lacerating guilt, resonates with uncanny power. It is music for the coming shadows.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

We have become all too familiar with “the lie of Authority,” which promulgates patriotic myths to ensure compliance with demands that the individual might reject: It is on Fox News and its imitator MSNBC nightly. But Auden’s audacity in this stanza is to link this familiar lie with the “lie in the brain” — a lie of which all humans, Americans and Iraqis and French alike, are guilty. This is the lie that we exist alone, the lie of egotism, the lie that we do not need to love our fellow man. In a brilliant stroke, Auden reveals that these two apparently separate untruths work in the same way, making us susceptible to demagoguery and fear-mongering, leaving us short of our full humanity. Indeed, they are identical. The resonance with Christianity is unmistakable: “Though I speak with the tongues of man and angels, if I have not love, I am but sounding brass and a clanging cymbal …”

What does any of this high-flown talk of love have to do with the looming war with a dangerous dictator? It would be absurd to interpret Auden’s famous injunction “We must love one another or die” (which he later denounced as a “lie” and amended to the darker “We must love one another and die,” before repudiating the entire poem) literally in this context — as did the human shield in Baghdad who told Salon that he wanted to bring “inner peace” to the Iraqis and his fellow activists. The Saddam Husseins of the world do not need a hug. But there is a link between the poet’s call for a revolution in every heart and the question of whether war is really needed to protect America.

That link is found in the high moral and intellectual seriousness needed to arrive at the decision to go to war. And the fact is that the administration’s deliberations and arguments have not even come close to the necessary threshold. Here the uncertainty of the American people, as well as the rest of the world, is a vital indicator. They are not afraid of Saddam Hussein: If they were, they would be clamoring for war. They recognize that he poses a threat, but it is a distant one. Their wisdom derives from the oldest human instinct: to believe that history is a guide, that events are predictable, that someone will not do something he has not done before. They recognize that they could be wrong: when dealing with hypotheticals, no arguments can be definitive. But they are also painfully aware of risk.

The Bush administration, and its faithful valet across the pond, insists that the threat to America posed by Saddam Hussein is so great and so imminent that we must kill thousands, perhaps tens or hundreds of thousands, of people to get rid of him. But they have not given compelling reasons for war. And although their crystal ball works perfectly when assessing the evil that Saddam will do, it suddenly goes dark when it comes to predicting the evil that removing him could do, or even how much money it will cost.

One cannot reach the place of honesty required to answer the question whether war is required if one does not first accept what war means, and look long and hard down that hellish road. Nor can one do so without examining one’s previous beliefs about the threat posed by Saddam. Those who simply transfer rage at the terrorists who struck on Sept. 11 onto Saddam are not acting in good faith.

And here Auden’s words are useful. What the poet is calling for is not quietism, not turning the other cheek, but making the painful attempt to see beyond oneself, to recognize the Other as fully human. This vision, to borrow Stendhal’s description of the temperament needed by the novelist, is clear, dry, without illusion. But if Auden rejects bleeding-heart sentimentality, the habitual pitfall of the left, he also rejects the variant favored by the right, brutal sentimentality. And it is precisely a species of brutal sentimentality that lies behind the bizarre, almost unnoticed sleight-of-hand trick successfully pulled off by Bush: transferring Americans’ rage at al-Qaida into rage at Saddam Hussein.

Behind the vulgar flag-waving bombast of the mass media, behind the pro-war chest-beating or too-little, too-late reservations of the nation’s leading newspapers, behind the embarrassing attempts to blame the Bush administration’s worldwide isolation on the French, there is a great hollowness — the sinking, empty feeling that follows the dissemination and absorption of a Big National Lie.

The lie is the claim that the threat to America posed by Saddam Hussein is so urgent that only immediate war can stop it. What is noteworthy about this lie is not just that there are no convincing arguments for it, not just that it depends on gross appeals to emotions stirred by a completely unrelated event, but that most of those who have accepted it have no intellectual justification in doing so.

I propose the following axiom: Those who did not believe and publicly state before Sept. 11 that Saddam Hussein represented an unacceptable threat to the United States have no credibility when they now argue that he does.

The reasoning behind this axiom is simple: The events of Sept. 11 have no relevance to the threat posed by Iraq, nor has any new information been unearthed since then about Iraqi threats. Therefore, all those who are only now calling for the U.S. to invade Iraq are basing their change of heart purely on an emotional reaction to Sept. 11, not a reasoned analysis of risk factors. This is an argument made in bad faith. For 10 years they were not afraid of Saddam Hussein. What changed their mind? The fiery spectacle of Sept. 11, they claim. Bush has invoked the date repeatedly as he has tried to scare Americans into supporting his war. But try as they might, none of these hawks in or out of the Bush government has been able to prove a connection between Osama bin Laden’s spectacular assaults and the Baghdad regime.

That this obvious point has scarcely been raised indicates the extent to which emotion, not argument, has come to dominate public discussion of this issue. The patriotic intimidation, the groupthink, the shunning and shaming of those who dared to raise unpopular perspectives — these reflexes still govern the national dialogue on Iraq.

This helps explain why it is not acceptable to question whether even al-Qaida, whose all-powerful, demonic nature must constantly be invoked to prop up war with Iraq, is as powerful, resourceful and threatening as is believed. Obviously, it represents a very serious threat, and all necessary resources must be devoted to hunting it down and destroying it. But it is not necessarily correct to assume that the true strength and significance of a terrorist movement is equal to the success it enjoys in a given operation.

Of course, emotional reactions can be valuable. U.S. intelligence agencies knew for years that bin Laden and his associates were responsible for terrorist attacks against U.S. targets; they failed to act effectively. Sept. 11 served as a wake-up call, and no one would argue that it should not have.

But Iraq, according to CIA analyst Kenneth Pollack, whose well-researched pro-war book “The Threatening Storm” has probably been cited by more born-again liberal hawks than any other, had nothing to do with Sept. 11, or indeed with al-Qaida, and very little to do with international terrorism in general. As Pollack and most other analysts have noted, handing weapons of mass destruction out to people he can’t control is not Saddam’s style. The position of the CIA itself, until director George Tenet was taken away and retrofitted with a new pro-war sound system, embarrassingly contradicted Bush’s agenda: The agency said it was unlikely that Saddam would use weapons of mass destruction unless an invasion forced him into a corner.

Let us be impolitic enough to recall the universal assessment of Saddam Hussein before 9/11 — an assessment borne out by studies of Iraq from Kanan Makiya’s “Republic of Fear” to Khidhir Hamza and Jeff Stein’s “Saddam’s Bombmaker.” The picture that emerges is of an appallingly vicious Stalinist thug, a murderous despot who has some pan-Arab leadership pretensions, and a vicious hatred of Jews and Israel, but whose overriding instincts are to expand and consolidate his own power and save his own skin. There is nothing in his sordid résumé to indicate that he would support an al-Qaida-like group in terror actions against the U.S.: He is too much of a survivor, too pragmatic and too secular to trade the messianic, apocalyptic joys of killing Americans for the likelihood that the connection would be discovered and his head consequently impaled by the 101st Airborne on the gates of Baghdad. (For that matter, in the current climate, even if no such connection was discovered, Saddam might well still answer for it. Which is why there is reason to believe that if he had anything to say about it, all terror actions against the U.S. would cease immediately.)

Saddam is delusional, not mad: He strikes when he thinks he can get away with it. He believed he could defeat Iran, not least because the U.S. was backing him. (In 1983 the United States knew Saddam was using chemical weapons against Iran: The Reagan administration not only raised no objection, it sought closer ties and soon restored diplomatic relations. Reagan’s Middle East envoy at the time: Donald Rumsfeld. They can be seen amiably shaking hands in an old news photo in wide circulation on the Web. These kinds of facts make it difficult to have complete faith in the high humanitarian pronouncements of the Bush administration — which is not to say that the liberation of the Iraqi people would not be a great good.) Saddam thought he could get away with invading Kuwait (which he regarded, with some reason, as a part of historic Iraq that was artificially broken off by the British when they carved up the Ottoman Empire) in part because of the infamous “yellow light” given him by the senior Bush’s ambassador, April Glaspie, and in part because of his own megalomaniacal fantasies and shaky grasp of external political realities.

The most dangerous things about this rather classic paranoid, sociopathic despot are his delusions and his lack of good information about the outside world. But there is no reason to believe either of these things makes him an imminent threat to the U.S. His delusions are those of a cunning man, too cunning to assure his own doom by handing weapons to terrorists; his lack of information leads him to do stupid things like drag his feet on inspections, but not self-destructive ones like attacking the U.S. For me, the most scary scenario in Pollack’s book is that on his deathbed, Saddam might launch missiles at Tel Aviv. But a nation cannot base its foreign policy on trying to stave off theoretically possible future threats. Nor is it America’s duty to make war on Iraq, and risk its own national self-interest, to protect Israel: Israel has shown itself quite capable of dealing with him in the past.

The administration has made crude, increasingly desperate attempts to tout connections between Saddam and al-Qaida, including wildly overdrawn claims that his sketchy relationship with the anti-Kurdish Islamist group Ansar Al-Islam proves his connection to al-Qaida. (The campaign may have reached its humiliating nadir when Colin Powell tried to use Osama bin Laden’s latest tape, in which he called for Muslims to rally around Iraq against America while denouncing Saddam as godless, to connect the two — a line of argument worthy of the Michael Savage show, but one that may be effective with that large percentage of Americans who believe that Osama is Saddam.)

So why, absent any connection between Osama and Saddam, would Sept. 11 have served as a wake-up call about Iraq? It apparently had that effect on many influential voices in the media, including the New York Times’ editorial page, their influential foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman, and the editorial page of the Washington Post. (The Times, which was calling for war just a few weeks ago, has since reversed course. Alarmed by the world’s rejection of the plan, and perhaps having second thoughts about the national security arguments it had earlier accepted, in the last few weeks the editors went first into an awkward semi-retreat, then reversed course and explicitly came out against it Sunday. Friedman, too, has been changing his tune, although his case is slightly different because his enthusiasm for the war has been based less on national security arguments than on the idealistic hope that a democratic Iraq could help rebuild the region. Why it took Friedman so long to realize that the Bush administration was not a trustworthy instrument to execute this noble goal is a mystery.) In any case, the fact remains that these extraordinarily important commentators all accepted Bush’s plan to invade Iraq — a position none of them had held before Sept. 11. The only logical explanation for their change of heart is that only after Sept. 11 did they realize the gravity of Saddam’s threat. Sept. 11, by this line of reasoning, was just a catalyst: somehow the arsonist who tossed a firebomb through the front window made them remember that they had left a convicted murderer in the unlocked basement.

If this is actually what happened to the reborn hawks, it’s at least a defensible position. And perhaps it is — although none of them, as far as I know, have issued any mea culpas for ignoring, for 10 years, a threat to America’s security so great that only launching an incredibly risky war right now, without any delay, can remove it.

It seems more likely that what really happened, not just to the media but to the spineless Democratic Party and to the country as a whole, was a little less respectable. The fact is that the rush to invade Iraq simply exemplifies, on a huge, international scale, that old slogan “A neoconservative is a liberal who got mugged.” We got mugged on Sept. 11, so we have to lock up all those criminal bastards, whether they were the ones who stole our wallet or not. War on Iraq is like California’s barbaric, yet so gratifying, “three strikes” law, just upheld by the five justices on the Supreme Court who brought us the Bush presidency. You shoplifted three golf clubs — 25 years. Al-Qaida is scaring us — invade Baghdad.

This is the triumph of brutal sentimentality: the boozy appeal of raw anger, unreflective rage — a populist version of what Nietzsche called ressentiment. It has long been the favorite rally-the-troops appeal of the right wing of the Republican Party. And, dressed up as “moral clarity,” it worked: America is pursuing a war policy that could have been drawn up by those yahoos who chant and sing “Burn ‘em!” while executions take place. It is a commonplace that the reason we have laws is so that the injured parties, whose passions understandably cloud their judgment, do not decide the fate of the accused. But we now have a policy that enacts the psychological fantasies of, and draws much of its support from, the angry-victim wing of the Republican right — red-faced white men filled with rage, slavering and clamoring to hang ‘em high.

Revenge, of course, is not the principal motive driving Bush. There are several. With his domestic agenda a disaster, his popularity plummeting (the latest poll has him losing to an “unnamed Democrat” by four points), and his administration slowly bleeding to death in the Security Council, he has no political choice except to roll the dice on war. He seems to have convinced himself that Saddam really does pose a threat. And he has big geopolitical ambitions in the Middle East — some concerning oil, some about defending Israel and placing it in a stronger position to dictate terms to the Palestinians, and perhaps some genuinely well-meaning ones about freeing the Iraqi people from tyranny and setting the region on a better course. Nonetheless, revenge disguised as self-defense (or, in down-market Republican circles, self-defense dressed up as revenge) is what he’s using to sell the war. It helps that Bush is from Texas, home of all-American ressentiment.

By definition, victim rage is abandoned, luxurious, orgiastic: It wallows in its emotions in a kind of sexual frenzy. Not surprisingly, it rubs up against racism and tribalism: once all repressive constraints are thrown off, it is irresistible to indulge in forbidden thoughts, whose “truth” is only confirmed by the taboo that has been shattered. The usual litany: Black people are oversexed criminals; Latinos are lazy and stupid; Americans are corrupt, godless infidels; Jews are greedy and deceitful; Arabs are dirty, unscrupulous liars.

A tincture of genteel racism, usually though not always masquerading under the respectable cloak of a “clash of civilizations,” is part of the crusade against Iraq. To describe this impulse as “Kill all the ragheads and let God sort them out” would be too simplistic, but a crude leveling impulse related to that kind of bigotry surely explains, at least in part, the inability of so many Americans to grasp the profound differences between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden — or to mention the group upon whose fate the outcome of Bush’s whole gigantic gamble may rest, the Palestinians.

The Bush administration’s reactionary policies with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis have given this unacknowledged racism an official imprimatur. By framing the entire crisis in terms of Palestinian terrorism, rather than Israeli occupation and Palestinian terrorism, Bush has subtly equated the Palestinians with al-Qaida. In Bush’s view, as in Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s, the Palestinians have no history, no grievances, no claims of any kind on the world’s conscience: Their acts of violence are completely evil, exactly like those of al-Qaida. All Arabs, it seems, must pay the price of 9/11.

Bush has done something no American president has ever done: He has pushed U.S. policy so far to the right on the Middle East that it is now virtually indistinguishable from that of Sharon, the father of the settlements, whose Cabinet includes Israeli politicians who openly advocate ethnic cleansing, aka “transfer.”

That extraordinary fact, and its possible consequences, are only just now dawning on people in Israel and America alike. His empty recent speech about a Palestinian state notwithstanding, it is becoming more and more clear that Bush not only shares Sharon’s vision of how to solve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis — slaughter and starve the Palestinians until they are prepared to accept whatever wretched Bantustan Israel offers them — he intends to approach the Arab world the same way.

For those Israelis who dream of a way out of the hell Sharon and Hamas have led them into, the parallels have become too painful to ignore. In Ha’aretz on March 6, Gideon Samet wrote, “Sharon’s continuing success also includes the enlistment of the American president in the cause to prevent any initiative for a peace process. Indeed, there’s something hypnotic and almost horrifying about George Bush Jr.’s behavior. He’s becoming a kind of American Arik [Sharon], leading his country, against stiff opposition, into a war for which seemingly there’s no alternative.”

An American Arik:Those words should send shudders down the spine of every American — and every Israeli and every Palestinian. The nightmare scenario since 9/11 has always been that Bush, led by the rabidly pro-Likud members of his inner circle, guided by his fervent Christian affinity for Israel, plotting to strip critical Jewish votes and money from the Democrats in the runup to the ’04 elections, filled with a genuine hatred for Yasser Arafat, ignorant of the history of the conflict, angry at traitorous, pro-Palestinian Europe, and supported by a public whipped up into an anti-Arab frenzy by war against Iraq, abandons the peace process and the “road map” (which last week he once again refused to accept, out of deference to Israeli sensibilities) and refuses to challenge even a single one of Sharon’s repressive policies.

Coupled with the possible dire fallout from the Iraq war in the Arab world, this would have the effect of making the U.S.’s relations with the Arab world finally and definitively indistinguishable from Israel’s — an outcome dreamed of by hardcore Likudniks and their American supporters, but a nightmare for everyone else.

Despite these fears, and even accepting that Saddam poses no threat whatsoever to the U.S., the peculiar thing about the war we are about to undertake is that it could end up being completely successful and completely justified. Freeing the Iraqi people from Saddam is a worthy goal (unless we kill so many that the benefit is lost). The war could, as Christopher Hitchens predicted in a debate with Mark Danner, be “rapid, accurate and dazzling.” Iraqis could greet us in the streets. And if the U.S. doesn’t cut and run, postwar Iraq could become stable and prosperous, and help move the region toward democracy. The war might not serve as a recruiting tool for thousands of bin Ladens. The precedent established by the launching of a preventive war is troubling, but it could prove harmless. It might even deter rogue states from seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Despite the blow to its power and prestige, the U.N. could recover. Our allies could work with us again.

No critic of the war who reflexively denies that these outcomes are possible, on the grounds that America has ugly aims (or has an ugly history), can be taken seriously. Good results can follow from bad intentions — and in this case America’s intentions are not even uniformly bad.

But the war could also go completely wrong, in ways more horrifying to contemplate than it is satisfying to imagine the ways it could go right.

A reasonable alternative to war exists, and key elements of it are already in place. A beefed-up inspections regime should be installed, with a diminished but still significant military force offshore, paid for by the allies. The allies would reserve the right to use air strikes to punish Saddam if he fails to make sites available to inspectors or otherwise flouts the process. Recalcitrant neighbors like Saudi Arabia could be persuaded to sign off on using their territory, since the alternative is war. (The most cogent argument for war, Pollack’s “The Threatening Storm,” argues that containment has failed — but Pollack does not discuss containment of this magnitude, backed by force.) This allied pressure would keep Saddam boxed up — and could point the way to a new form of international conflict resolution along a kind of SWAT team model, stronger than police action but less catastrophic than war.

That the Bush administration is not willing even to try this approach reveals that it sees value in using its unparalleled military machine simply for the sake of using it. This approach may cow some potential rivals, but it will alienate more. Above all, it will open the ultimate Pandora’s box — war.

“September 1, 1939″ is a great poem about history, a less great one about politics. This is why, in many ways, it sums up our present dangerous and ambiguous moment better than it did the aftermath of 9/11. For we have gone from being in a political moment to a historical one.

I use the words somewhat eccentrically, to distinguish between events that are simple enough to be fully explicable (“political”) and those that are too complex to be defined (“historical”). The war against Afghanistan took place in what I am calling the political realm: It had a clear, limited and achievable goal, one understood by all — and widely supported around the world. The impending war against Iraq, on the other hand, is a historical event. It cannot be explained or defined. When it comes, it will simply exist, with the opacity of history. Its outcome is not foreseeable.

The distinction also has a moral dimension. To exist in history is to have passed beyond the pieties and slogans of the political. History is tragic: politics is not. History is glorious. It is also fatal.

The two great competing ideologies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, were both self-consciously historical movements. As Czeslaw Milosz brilliantly noted in his classic study “The Captive Mind,” it was precisely the abstraction of communism, its claim to have attained the summit of morality and to have incorporated into itself all possible contradictions, that made it so meticulously horrifying. In similar fashion, fascism contained a kind of blankness at its core: the self-glorifying violence of the state simultaneously concealed and revealed the emptiness of its founding concept, the national tribe.

The lesson every government should have learned from the bloody 20th century, one written in blood across the tortured soil of old, very old Europe, is very simple: Avoid history at all costs. History is too big, too abstract, too dangerous. Avoid men with Big Ideas — especially stupid men with Big Ideas. Take care of politics: let history take care of itself. In a word, don’t play God.

George Bush is a deeply religious man, and he deeply believes in the God-given mission of the United States to shed light — Auden’s “affirming flame” — upon the world. But as we wait for the bombs to fall, we can only pray that he does not release darkness.

“September 1st, 1939″
By W.H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Gary Kamiya is a Salon contributing writer.

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