War advocates like Anne-Marie Slaughter demand that you forget the past

The same people who authored the Iraq disaster insist that they are the ones uniquely able to fix it.

Published March 21, 2008 2:19PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III)

Anne-Marie Slaughter -- a supporter of the Iraq invasion, a member of the hawkish wing of the Democratic Party Foreign Policy Community, and the Dean of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs -- has written an amazingly petulant and self-pitying piece at The Huffington Post that is worth looking at because her mindset is now the norm for our political and media elite. Much of her post is devoted to complaining that Tom Hayden and others have unfairly distorted her 2004 observation that "the biggest problem with the Bush preemption strategy may be that it does not go far enough." As she notes, that sentence has been widely debated and I'll leave it to others to decide what she really meant by it.

I want to focus instead on her other complaint -- that the debate over Iraq is focused too much on assigning blame to those who were wrong in the past, and not focused enough on what to do now:

Hayden's post and many other commentaries surrounding the fifth anniversary of the invasion are a microcosm of the problem with our Iraq policy as a whole. The debate is still far too much about who was right and who was wrong on the initial invasion and far too little about how, in Obama's formulation, to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in. That does not mean that those of us who were wrong about Iraq -- with whatever nuances, explanations, and justifications we might care to offer -- do not have a great deal to answer for. We do. But it does mean that until we can fix the mess we are in, everyone who cares about what happens both to our troops and to the Iraqi people should force themselves to face up to the hard issues on the ground rather than indulging in the easy game of gotcha.

She goes on to warn that the desire to withdraw troops as soon as possible must be tempered by the need to "achiev[e] the most progress on the goals that the administration stated publicly as a justification for invading in the first place" -- including the extremely ambitious objectives of weakening terrorist groups, "improv[ing] the human rights of the Iraqi people"; and "establish[ing] a government in Iraq that could help stabilize and liberalize the Middle East." Waiting for those things to happen is a recipe for staying forever, which is completely unsurprising coming from someone like Slaughter who thought invading Iraq was a good idea in the first place.

And that's the point. This plea that we all just forget about the unpleasant past -- stop trying to figure out who was responsible for the Iraq War -- has become the principal self-defense weapon of the pro-war political establishment. That's their only hope for evading responsibility for what they've done. It's also the central hope on which the entire McCain campaign rests -- that we should just all forget about the painfully wrong and misleading things John McCain said and did in making himself into the prime cheerleader for the most disastrous and unpopular war in American history, and focus instead on how he (somehow) has the experience and judgment to lead us to glorious Victory.

But why would we, and why should we, just ignore the question of who spawned this disaster? In trying to determine what to do now, isn't it rather important to know whose judgment and knowledge can be trusted and whose should be considered worthless? From the perspective of their own-self interest, the demand by war advocates like Slaughter and McCain that everyone forget about what they said and did in the past is understandable -- it's natural to hope that one's own wretched and destructive conduct would be forgotten -- but for the country, doing that would be completely irrational.

Imagine if you went to a hospital to have an operation on your knee, and your surgeon completely botched it, permanently shattering your knee instead of fixing it and, in the process, needlessly removed your healthy kidney and recklessly damaged your heart and lungs. Then, as you tried to decide what you should do to rectify the damage -- and you sought out the advice of doctors who presciently warned you not to have that doctor operate -- the guilty surgeon insisted that he be allowed to operate again to fix it and that you listen to him regarding what should be done.

And when you screamed at the guilty surgeon -- as every sane person would -- to stay as far away from you as possible and that he was the last person from whom you wanted advice, he kept telling you: "Oh, forget about the past. This isn't about assigning blame. What matters is figuring out what to do now, how to fix this." You would think such a person insane for that line of thought. But that's exactly what war advocates like Anne-Marie Slaughter -- and John McCain -- are insisting that we do. That's how the establishment can insist that the Iraq War is an asset for John McCain even though Americans overwhelmingly think that his support for it was a grave mistake. "Forget the past."

Slaughter in particular has been an establishment pioneer in voicing this nakedly self-interested demand. Last July, she wrote an Op-Ed for The Washington Post praising the Bush administration for "reaching across the aisle" -- seriously -- and said that, as a result, "some sanity may actually be returning to American politics." By sad contrast, she complained, elements in the blogosphere -- those "on the left" -- have "responded to the foreign policy failures of the Bush administration by trying to purge their fellow liberals" -- meaning those, like her, who supported the Iraq War and who constantly enabled the worst aspects of the Bush presidency. Everything would be perfect if all the mean partisan people stopped harping so negatively on their war cheerleading and started treating them again as the Wise and Serious Experts that they are.

Making matters worse, the overwhelming majority of war advocates have not, as I outlined yesterday, changed the way they think. Indeed, here is Slaughter, just like McCain, showing that she has learned absolutely nothing. She still thinks we can fix other countries by controlling and ruling over them, that we're going to spread human rights around the world like magic fairy dust by occupying and bombing them with our military, that wise and magnanimous American political leaders are both able and eager to navigate complex, foreign ethnic and religious conflicts and impose our will on other countries in order to bring Good to the world.

Those are the same rotted premises that led them to support the invasion in the first place. Why would any rational person even consider listening to them now as they insist that they're the ones best qualified to fix the mess they unleashed -- through the same exact religious faith in war and military occupation that drove them five years ago? Forgetting about what people like Slaughter and McCain did and ignoring their complete lack of judgment would be the absolute worst thing we could do.

That's the lesson imparted by George Santayana's now-cliched though still wise insight: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." Having us forget, and therefore repeat, the past is what the Anne-Marie Slaughters and John McCains -- and the Fred Hiatts and Joe Liebermans -- are hoping for most. That's their only chance for continuing to maintain their unwarranted influence and credibility, their baseless status as Wise and Just Experts.

UPDATE: Andrew Sullivan has now added his "What-I-got-Wrong" essay onto the growing Slate pile. In my view (one not shared by many, I realize), Sullivan deserves credit for being one of the earliest and most candid acknowledgers of error with regard to his war advocacy. That candor allows for not-unwarranted mockery of his original views, but at least -- unlike the Slaughters and the rest of the Slate ilk, to say nothing of John McCain -- he has re-thought and repudiated some of the core premises that led him to endorse the invasion:

[Saddam] was a monster, as we discovered. But what I failed to grasp is that war is also a monster, and that unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn't really engaged in anything much but self-righteousness. I saw war's unknowable consequences far too glibly.

Granted, this is still a utilitarian calculus (war is justified when the benefits outweigh the costs, and I erred by assigning insufficient costs to war), but at least it acknowledges and expresses remorse for one of the central failures of war advocates: namely, the failure to regard war with horror (due largely to the lack of personal costs incurred by most war advocates) and thus to oppose it reflexively except in those extremely rare instances where it is necessary for self-defense, because of how monstrous it is and because of the virtual certainty that, at best, it will only replace one evil with another.

I don't think that it should be presumed that the judgment of all advocates of the Iraq War is forever worthless (though it's the sort of stain that can never be scrubbed away entirely). It's possible to change, evolve, and learn, and doing so ought to be an aspiration of everyone. It's the very rare person, if one exists at all, who won't be stained at some point along the way. But it's precisely because the Slaughters, McCains, Hiatts and Liebermans have not evolved at all, have not even reached the level of basic awareness that Sullivan expresses here regarding war, that their judgment is so worthless -- still.

UPDATE II: As Arthur Silber notes today, more than 4 years ago -- all the way back in October, 2003 -- he predicted almost verbatim, and then completely eviscerated, the precise excuses people like Anne-Marie Slaughter would use to try to evade responsibility for what they unleashed.

UPDATE III: The incomparably candid John Cole -- former war supporter and former Republican -- posts what a real mea culpa on the Iraq War should look like.

By Glenn Greenwald

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