Monday, August 25, 2003

Worse than a Mistake

Military success is a handy cosmetic for a blemished foreign policy. Napoleon often sought battle as much for the domestic PR value of a victory as for its strategic consequences. The instance of Iraq shows how little changes. The triumphant march on Bagdad boosted Bush’s fortunes at home even though the scripted outcome, more lethal theater than dubious battle, was never in question and didn’t teach us anything about the wisdom or unwisdom of the war since it was always obvious that the high tech American military could easily dispose of the Iraqi government. But if the showy triumph of the spring ought to be discounted in evaluating our policy, the losses of the summer shouldn’t be decisive in judging it either. It could be, after all, that the costs we’re incurring are worth it. No 19th Century imperialist would trouble himself over a couple of casualties a day even if, as is quite possible in the present case, the sacrifice will have to be made every day of every year we occupy the mini-Raj. True, the notion that the terrorists are going to run out of personnel is worse than irrational wishful thinking—granted the birthrate in Muslim countries, it’s another right-wing abuse of arithmetic—but maybe a stable regime will nevertheless eventually emerge in Mesopotamia, probably led by a military strong man, another Bush family client like Noriega or Saddam Hussein. Obviously, one does not know.

Only a true prophet, which is to say somebody who’s lucky, can accurately predict the long-range outcome of a foreign policy action. My own great unhappiness with our attack on Iraq was not based on a judgment of its probable bad consequences, though I think a good case can be made from an unimpeachably cynical perspective that it was pretty unintelligent. I mean I thought it was a mistake, but maybe it wasn’t a mistake and, anyhow, governments make mistakes all the time in a desperately difficult game. What outraged me wasn’t that war was an error but that it was dishonorable. I simply didn’t want to be associated with a state that granted itself the right to make war on whoever it wished without immediate cause. I was also perfectly aware—who among the merely conscious wasn’t?—that Bush, Blair, and Powell were lying to everybody in a premeditated, indeed, systematic fashion and that important sectors of American civil society, especially the media, were complicit in these lies. That’s why I am less impressed than some others by the significance of the problems we’re facing in Iraq just now. If I thought we had any business being there, I wouldn’t find the cost excessive; and I won’t change my mind about the wrongness of what we did even if the triumph of Bagdad is followed by the triumph of Damascus as Jena followed Austerlitz.

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