David Brooks is constantly wrong

Takes a lot to be the voice on the New York Times op-ed page most consistently wrong about war in the Middle East!

Published September 15, 2013 3:30PM (EDT)

David Brooks                                 (AP/Nam Y. Huh)
David Brooks (AP/Nam Y. Huh)

Excerpted from "Breach of Trust" 

A military composed of warrior-professionals suits the agenda of hawkish conservatives at least as well as hawkish liberals. For those who dream of liberating the oppressed abroad and reversing the corrupting tide of liberalism at home here is an instrument ideally suited to making those dreams come true. Not persuaded? Consider the views of the noted conservative commentator and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Back in early 2003, eager to have the United States invade Iraq, Brooks mocked those expressing reservations or reluctance. “They want [George W. Bush] to show a little anguish,” he wrote on the eve of war. “They want baggy eyes, evidence of sleepless nights, a few photo-ops, Kennedy-style, of the president staring gloomily through the Oval Office windows into the distance.” As for Brooks, he wanted only action, and the sooner the better. “Bush gave Saddam time to disarm. Saddam did not. Hence, the issue of whether to disarm him forcibly is settled.” The journalist took for granted the ability of the United States military to settle matters forthwith.

Early signs of battlefield success affirmed such expectations. “One gets the impression,” Brooks wrote just days after the invasion began, “that U.S. military dominance is now so overwhelming that the rules of conflict are being rewritten.” He derided the “ludicrous Vietnam comparisons [and] rampant quagmire forebodings” of namby-pambies not sharing his euphoria. The president’s decision to topple Saddam Hussein, Brooks felt certain, “represents what the United States is on earth to achieve. Thank God we have the political leaders and the military capabilities to realize the ideals that have always been embodied in our founding documents.”

On April 28, 2003, beating President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech by three days, Brooks declared that “the war in Iraq is over.” The political and cultural implications of victory promised to be profound. A collaboration between policy makers in Washington and troops on the battlefield had removed any last doubts as to American global dominion. Brooks sang the praises of “a ruling establishment that can conduct wars with incredible competence and skill.” The United States, he enthused, was an “incredibly effective colossus that can drop bombs onto pinpoints, [and] destroy enemies that aren’t even aware they are under attack.”

With Americans on the home front appropriately dazzled by what the troops had accomplished on the battlefield, Brooks’s sensitive antenna detected a decisive shift in public sentiment. “One hears,” he wrote, “of a growing distaste for the peace marchers . . . driven by bile and self-righteousness [and] fundamentally out of step” with the rest of the country. To be in step was to support the troops, which necessitated supporting the war and the larger ambitions cultivated by the war’s proponents. “Many college students seem to sense that these soldiers are accomplishing something for humanity, while all they are doing is preparing for business school.”

Implicitly acknowledging the distance separating young Americans who chose to serve in uniform from the young Americans choosing otherwise, Brooks made clear which group deserved his admiration. “Can anybody think of another time in history when a comparable group of young people was asked to be at once so brave, fierce and relentless, while also being so sympathetic, creative and forbearing?” Brooks couldn’t, so he bestowed on the troops the secular equivalent of collective canonization. “They are John Wayne,” he rhapsodized, “but also Jane Addams.” Soldiers were paragons of virtue, their courage and altruism standing in stark contrast to the shallow, self-absorbed liberal culture that Brooks despised. “If anybody is wondering: Where are the young idealists? Where are the people willing to devote themselves to causes larger than themselves? They are in uniform in Iraq.” The gap between the military and society, in other words, was a good thing. It provided America with a great war-winning army and Americans with desperately needed exemplars of virtue.

Soon after Brooks published this paean to the American soldier, word of depraved and despicable acts at Abu Ghraib prison began to surface. Apparently, John Wayne and Jane Addams did not exhaust the range of possible role models to whom at least some American soldiers looked for inspiration. In an instant, the air went out of the liberation narrative that Brooks (and others) had been so earnestly plugging. Worse, contrary to his assurances, the war itself refused to end. Violent resistance to the American presence began to increase in both scope and intensity. Brooks’s proclamation of victory turned out to be a case of premature journalistic ejaculation.

For a time, Brooks stubbornly stuck to his guns. “Come on, people,” he urged in April 2004, “let’s get a grip.” Brooks disparaged the “Chicken Littles like [Democratic senators] Ted Kennedy and Robert Byrd [who] were ranting that Iraq is another Vietnam.” He ridiculed the “pundits and sages [who] were spinning a whole series of mutually exclusive disaster scenarios: Civil war! A nationwide rebellion!” The American people needed to exhibit patience, allowing America’s warriors to finish the job. “The task is unavoidable . . . The terrorists are enemies of civilization. They must be defeated.”

Yet as something approximating a civil-war-cum-national-rebellion ensued, Brooks changed his tune. “I never thought it would be this bad,” he confessed less than a month after denouncing the Chicken Littles. Reversing course, he concluded that the hawks had radically misunderstood the intended beneficiaries of America’s ministrations. “While the Iraqis don’t want us to fail, since our failure would mean their failure, many don’t want to see us succeed either. They want to see us bleed, to get taken down a notch, to suffer for their chaos and suffering. A democratic Iraq is an abstraction they want for the future; the humiliation of America is a pleasure they can savor today.”

Brooks now turned on the Bush administration, savaging it and the entire national security apparatus for gross incompetence. “A year ago, we were the dominant nation in a unipolar world. Today, we’re a shellshocked hegemon.” The fault lay with the people at the top. Errors of implementation had occurred in abundance. Even so, the cause remained a noble and necessary one. “We hawks were wrong about many things,” Brooks grudgingly conceded. “But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing.”

In the difficult spring of 2004, Brooks clung to his slow trudge hypothesis. Whatever problems the United States was facing in Iraq, the imperative was to prevent any backsliding. “In this climate of self-doubt,” Brooks worried, “the ‘realists’ of right and left are bound to re-emerge.”

They’re going to dwell on the limits of our power. They’ll advise us to learn to tolerate the existence of terrorist groups, since we don’t really have the means to take them on. They’re going to tell us to lower our sights, to accept autocratic stability, since democratic revolution is too messy and utopian.

That’s a recipe for disaster. It was U.S. inaction against Al Qaeda that got us into this mess in the first place. It was our tolerance of Arab autocracies that contributed to the madness in the Middle East.

Just days later, however, Brooks threw in the towel. “We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy,” he announced.

We were going to topple Saddam, establish democracy and hand the country back to grateful Iraqis. We expected to be universally admired when it was all over.

We didn’t understand the tragic irony that our power is also our weakness. As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves. . . .

Now, looking ahead, we face another irony. To earn their own freedom, the Iraqis need a victory. And since it is too late for the Iraqis to have a victory over Saddam, it is imperative that they have a victory over us. If the future textbooks of a free Iraq get written, the toppling of Saddam will be vaguely mentioned in one clause in one sentence. But the heroic Iraqi resistance against the American occupation will be lavishly described, page after page. For us to succeed in Iraq, we have to lose.

Here again, the pronoun demands attention: Who exactly was this we to which Brooks insistently referred? In practical terms, his we did not include the American people. It was not us. It was instead the U.S. military. Brooks had previously depicted that military as unbeatable; now, bizarrely, he wanted it to accept defeat in order to boost Iraqi self-esteem. Having insisted that military success in Iraq was essential to preserve Iraqis from a terrible fate, he now proposed that U.S. troops embrace failure in order to provide Iraqis with a heroic narrative in which they could take pride. Victory once had been a certainty; now it had become undesirable.

In short order, he went a step farther: the United States, it turned out, had not known how to win in the first place. “Let’s face it,” he wrote in May 2004, “we don’t know whether all people really do want to live in freedom.” Humility was now the order of the day. “We don’t know whether Iraqis have any notion of what democratic citizenship really means. We don’t know whether they hear words like freedom, liberty and pluralism as deadly insults to the way of life they hold dear. We don’t know who our enemies are.”

With 150,000 American troops attempting to put out the fires touched off by the U.S. invasion, “the destiny of Iraq is largely out of our hands,” Brooks concluded. “The U.S. tried to hand a new Iraq back to the Iraqis. We failed.” By early 2005, Brooks was edging precariously close to the realist camp that he had denounced less than a year before.

Sprinkling his columns with references to “irony” as he channeled the spirit of Reinhold Niebuhr, Brooks might have chosen to reflect deeply on all that had gone wrong in Iraq and in his own calculations. Was the main problem simply incompetence on the part of George W. Bush, his advisers, and his generals—a splendid initiative squandered through faulty implementation? Or did failure derive from deeper causes, perhaps a fundamental misunderstanding of war or history or human nature itself? Or could the problem lie, at least in part, with a perversely undemocratic military system that condemned soldiers to waging something like perpetual war at the behest of a small coterie of Washington insiders, while citizens passively observed from a safe distance?

Sharing the inclination of his countrymen, Brooks chose not to engage in any searching inquiry at all. Rather than reflecting on Iraq, he looked for new fields in which to test his theory of using military power to spread American ideals while redeeming American culture at home. Afghanistan—a war already under way for more than a decade—presented just the second chance he was looking for. Based on a quick visit, Brooks concluded that Afghanistan was nothing like Iraq. U.S. military efforts there promised to yield a different and far more favorable outcome. “In the first place,” he wrote during his government-arranged reporting trip in early 2009, “the Afghan people want what we want . . . That makes relations between Afghans and foreigners relatively straightforward. Most [U.S.] military leaders here prefer working with the Afghans to the Iraqis. The Afghans are warm and welcoming.” Even better, they actually “root for American success.”

That wasn’t all. In contrast to its fumbling performance in Iraq, the U.S. military had now fully mastered the business of winning hearts and minds. Know-how had displaced ineptitude, with the union of John Wayne and Jane Addams now fully consummated. Further, with the distraction of Iraq now out of the way, the troops in Afghanistan possessed the wherewithal needed for “reforming the police, improving the courts, training local civil servants and building prisons.” As Brooks put it, “we’ve got our priorities right.” Furthermore, “the Afghans have embraced the democratic process with enthusiasm.” Unlike the recalcitrant and ungrateful Iraqis, they were teachable and amenable. Brooks commended President Obama for “doubling down on the very principles that some dismiss as neocon fantasy: the idea that this nation has the capacity to use military and civilian power to promote democracy, nurture civil society and rebuild failed states.” Granted, the trial run in Iraq had gone badly, but why cry over spilled milk? Besides, Iraq had served as an education of sorts. Brooks felt certain that trying again in Afghanistan would yield a better outcome. In short, that war was “winnable.”

Yet Afghanistan proved no more winnable than Iraq had been, at least not within the limits of what the United States could afford and the American public was willing to pay. The U.S. troops who burned Korans, defiled Taliban corpses, and gunned down innocent civilians in shooting sprees made it difficult for Afghans to appreciate the Jane Addams side of the American soldier. As for John Wayne, Hollywood had thought better than to film him urinating on dead enemy fighters. By 2012, an epidemic of “green-on-blue” incidents—Afghan security forces murdering their U.S. counterparts—revealed the absurdity of Brooks’s blithe assertion that Afghans “want what we want” and “root for American success.” What most Americans wanted was to be done with Afghanistan. In hopes of arranging a graceful withdrawal, they might allow Washington to prolong the war a bit longer, but with the usual terms fixed firmly in place: only so long as someone else’s kid does the fighting and future generations get stuck with the bill.

From the Book "Breach of Trust:  How Americans Failed Their Soldiers and Their Country" by Andrew J. Bacevich. Copyright © 2013 by Andrew Bacevich. Reprinted by arrangement with Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company LLC.

By Andrew J. Bacevich

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