In history there are the Punic Wars and the Opium Wars, each a turning point, and now we must talk of our Iraq Wars. As of this week they count three since George Bush the Elder cynically drew Saddam Hussein into invading Kuwait 23 years ago.
Some of us may struggle with speechlessness, but there are many things to say about President Obama’s decision to widen his Iraq War with his new bombing campaign in Syria. The most important extends far beyond the shocking mess Washington has done so much to make in the Middle East, and it is this: Our wars deliver us to our turning point. In the blindness of our leaders, we Americans are being set up for an era of tragic, unnecessary decline.
It starts to look angelic, to put this point another way, to suggest that America still has a chance to correct some of its costliest and most destructive errors in the 20th century as it proceeds into the 21st. One guards optimism as a precious gift, but I confess mine now flags.
There is so much wrong with Iraq War III it is hard to know where to begin. The purported strategy, the what of it, will get us going.
There is next to no chance that Washington will “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, to take Obama’s noted words for the mission. There is next to every chance that, as in Afghanistan and during Iraq Wars I and II, the military presence will win ISIS support because they speak for the perfectly well-grounded anti-Western resentment that spreads wide and deep across the Middle East.
The thought that the American presence in the Islamic world produces diametrically the opposite of the announced intent — the greater the military success, the greater the long-term failure — is not new. Neither is the observation that the “moderate rebels” the White House and Congress will now fund in Syria simply do not exist.
Neither am I alone in noting that the “coalition” Obama claims to draw near is no different from the scanty cover Bush the Younger cited during Iraq War II except in one respect: It is more heavily dependent for its head count on the repressive monarchies that make brutality a Middle Eastern commonplace.
These things cannot be lost on Washington. It therefore becomes more difficult to accept the mission as stated and easier to understand why many Iranians, not all of them far-right Islamists, think the U.S. may have invented ISIS: Is the mission, after all, to reestablish a long-term presence in the region now that Iraq War II is over and the Afghanistan campaign is all but?
I cannot buy the implication of so sophisticated a design. But without question Washington sees an opportunity in ISIS, a sort of daisy-chain effect: Having provoked ISIS militias into existence during Iraq War II, their barbarism is a perfect casus belli for getting III going. Preserving the long-term presence, it seems to me, is the what of this new adventure.
After the what, consider the how, the way this is getting done.
“We will not allow geography or borders to prevent us from taking action,” Secretary of State Kerry remarked a few hours after the bombing in Syria began late Monday. It is hard to find anything sensible in this position.
It is exceptionalist to the core, this approach. Open and shut, it announces yet again the American preference for anarchy and violence over international law, the latter being the very thing most nations view as urgently needed in world affairs. There is in it a complete disregard for what anyone else may think and indifference to leadership by example as against force and coercion.
Behind Iraq War III lies a century during which American policy has grown ever more militarized, to the point now that alternatives — “The solution must be political” — get lip service at best. I have read or heard no thought given to a comprehensive response to the Middle East’s unending crises that would address underlying social, economic and political deprivations as the Marshall Plan did in postwar Europe. (I advanced this view in this space some weeks ago.)
At home, the presidential candidate who ran in part on his past as a constitutional scholar now aggrandizes the imperial presidency beyond its worst during the Cold War decades. White House attorneys and the odious Samantha Power can advance flimsy legal arguments for Iraq War III, but taking Americans into war without declaring one, without calling it one, without congressional approval and without public consent is illegal by any constitutional interpretation not intended to obfuscate. For Americans, this is as significant as the violence that is now to be inflicted in their names on innocent civilians in the Middle East.
A lot of commentators have weighed in well on these questions. I see in all of them something of greater historical significance. What we do now, Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, “will be remembered for a very long time.” I could not agree more heartily. Eventually, what we do now will be remembered with enormous bitterness.
A year ago, in the book noted in the italic biography at the foot of these columns, I made the argument that America has a choice in the post-2001, post-“American century” era: It could face forward with grace and imagination and renovate its idea of itself and its place in the world to great benefit, or it could resist the passing of its brief interim of primacy and turn opportunity into loss, decline and a series of calamities. In effect, I argued for the optimism within the apparent pessimism.
At the time I gave this country 25 years to make its choice, counting from the Sept. 11 attacks. Americans still have this choice, but the optimism starts to look more theoretical than practical. Halfway through the period I postulated, it seems to me we are now consolidating the wrong choice. We do not seem able to break the mold. We are probably going to prove unable to self-correct.
Iraq War III occasions this tentative conclusion because the decisions Obama faces are so plainly drawn. The event has magnitude, to put it another way, as Vietnam eventually did. There are constructive and destructive strategies available to this administration, and the former go entirely unmentioned. The president who promised change is making every one of the mistakes that led Americans into this predicament.
The biggest of these is to insist on primacy instead of world order, to borrow the mid-1970s frame Stanley Hoffmann, the Harvard professor of political history, proposed. There is an unwillingness to recognize that the world turns and does not stop. There is no acknowledgment that America’s claim to eternal world leadership rests on a mythology the rest of the planet finds ever less acceptable, ever more intrusive.
On the reverse side of this, there is no resort to history — a dangerous, fated-to-fail approach to more or less anything. In the Middle East case, we find in the vacuum of all that is unsaid a complete rejection of responsibility for the unfolding crises enveloping the region. There is no desire to cultivate a sophisticated understanding of cause and effect as a guide to what to do: There is, indeed, a fear of any such “contextualization.”
I do not put this critical moment down to Obama’s weaknesses. I have nearly lost interest in this president’s betrayals and inadequacies — his or any previous administration’s, for that matter. This is a question concerning American society, as in all of us. Too few of us are able to look intelligently and with any kind of fulsome humanity — squarely, in a word — at what we are doing. Heavily invested in false narratives and flinching, too many throw what good money we have left after all the bad.
I see two possible explanations. One, we are simply frightened of a world in which we are any other than peerless by way of power and limitless by way of prerogative. Or a world in which the great Other in the Western consciousness — the whole of the non-Western world — must finally be given recognition.
Two, we have to go deeper. Certain paranoias as to the world’s dangers date to America’s very founding. We also find in our past an unconscious faith, well documented, in the regenerative powers of violence. It must seem as if I am suggesting a form of destructive pathology collectively shared, and perhaps I am. I am sure only that we have to look beyond the rational to explain the primitive aspect of this country’s behavior as it grows ever more pronounced.
Some readers will know Freud’s remark to Ernest Jones, the British psychoanalyst, Freud confidant, and Freud biographer: “America is a mistake, admittedly a gigantic mistake, but a mistake nevertheless.” I have never taken this to be more than a curiosity piece, the remark of an unknowing European. But if we cannot do better than we are doing now, do we lie on the couch and reconsider just how outlandish the thought is?
I will add this with some certainty. A social pathology is very plain among us now. The president withholds the word “war” from the national conversation, coalition allies doing nothing are engaged in “kinetic activities” — it is hard to match Kerry at his best — and so on. We find honor and patriotism where there is neither: Training deprived people to do our fighting is nothing more than cowardice dressed up as commitment. In all of this the media, more supine than ever in my lifetime, create a parallel reality the elaboration of which I have never seen.
Since we can no longer speak plainly of what we are doing, we export it from the language to the land — vast now — of the unsayable. To me this is an unmistakable expression of the burden of silent shame and a vaguely focused depression many, many Americans feel in the face of what is done in their names, even as they cannot articulate it.
This comes over as a sour rendition of our predicament, surely. It is the sound of wilting optimism. It comes, too, of being one of many millions of people with no political means of expressing preferences. At this point, constructive thinking on the Middle East crisis, more or less absent in our media, bears a subversive taint.
My answer to this is appropriately plain. Those able to see through the spectacle our public exchanges on Syria and other foreign policy questions bear a large responsibility now. They have to speak the language that cannot be spoken. The obligation is to recognize that with it they no longer speak as an “alternative” to anything. In it the truth of our national conduct can be preserved from corruption — for the sake of good history if nothing else.
A certain faith is required — a faith that something will follow this time, something one can assist in bringing forth. Ray McGovern, the honorable veteran of the CIA now an active opponent of our corrupted political culture, put it this way in a speech Alternative Radio recorded last autumn: We shift attention from the flooding rains to the building of arks. As this column may make clear, I think such a time is upon us.
A closing note. Chelsea Manning recently wrote an exceptional analysis of America’s alternatives in Iraq and Syria. The Guardian published it a week back and it has had deserved attention. Manning was a good intelligence analyst, it is easy to assume. Her argument is for the U.S. and the rest of the West to stay clear of ISIS; it will self-destruct if only we let it.
I urge the piece on readers for two reasons. One, it is a smart take. Two, think about this person. She wrote from prison at Fort Leavenworth. There is something to learn here, useful to the rest of us: In a condition of confinement she speaks truth to power. What about this as another idea of honor and, if you have to have it, patriotism?