Sunday, April 18, 2004

What Jon Said (or, Where Do I Stand? What Can Bush Do? Part II)

Ozymandias: "I did the right thing, didn't I? It all worked out in the end."
Dr. Manhattan: "'In the end'? Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends."


The line is from Watchmen, if you're not up on your Alan Moore. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

So on Saturday, David Brooks described himself as a "more humble hawk," a semi-repentant supporter of the Bush's vision of the war in Iraq who has come to realize that he "misunderstood how normal Iraqis would react to our occupation," "did not appreciate how our very presence in Iraq would overshadow democratization," "assumed, wrongly, that the administration would launch a fresh postwar initiative to globalize the reconstruction effort," and so forth. He concludes that "We hawks were wrong about many things. But in opening up the possibility for a slow trudge toward democracy, we were still right about the big thing." Matthew Ygelsias, in an excellent, reflective post, describes Brooks's piece as "the first of what I think will be many retrospective I was wrong but I was right anyway articles. The implication here is that though Bush may botch everything in Iraq, Brooks was nevertheless correct to have supported the war because he, after all, was not in favor of botching things." Matt goes on explain what's wrong with this position:

"The trouble...is this. When George W. Bush is president and is advocating a war and you, too, are advocating for war, then the fact of the matter is that you are advocating that the war be conducted by George W. Bush....The striking thing is that many people...saw this very clearly, and yet didn't see it. Kenneth Pollack is the crucial case. Well before the war began, he released The Threatening Storm. Since that was a book and not a newspaper op-ed, it did not advocate 'invading Iraq' but rather advocated an entire Iraq policy, complete with loads of details. It was obvious by the time war broke out, that while Bush was invading Iraq, and while the Pollack policy involved an invasion of Iraq, that Bush was not implementing the Pollack policy. I know this is true because, among other things, Pollack said so at the time. Pollack nevertheless did not jump off the bandwagon and join the anti-war team. This is, shall we say with some understatement, a political strategy that is open to criticism."

Matt goes on to acknowledge that this describes his behavior during 2002 and early 2003 as well, for which he blames vanity: "'Bush is right to say we should invade Iraq, but he's going about it the wrong way, here is my nuanced wonderfullness' sounds much more intelligent than some kind of chant at an anti-war rally. In fact, however, it was less intelligent. I got off the bandwagon right before the shooting started, but by then it was far too late--this was more a case of CYA than a case of efficacious political dissent."

I respect Matt a lot for writing this post, not the least reason for which being the fact that his analysis describes my own trajectory to a great degree as well. Brayden King praised my recent repudiation of my old and always ambivalent pro-war position, which is kind of him, but the fact is that I always was, and still remain, like Matt "stuck in the middle"--indeed, perhaps moreso. I supported the war because, fundamentally, the idea appealed to me: it made sense, it matched what I thought ought and could be possible in a world of danger and oppression where the meaning of sovereignty had changed but the role of national power hadn't. Saddam Hussein's Iraq was criminal tyranny, an obstacle and blight partly of our own making, and a potential threat; as Matt continues to point out, the problem with a great many of those who were opposed to the war was their inability or unwillingness to engage the problem of Iraq seriously. That is, most of Bush's opponents adopted an opposition to the war which was "simple and wrong" as opposed to one which was "right but difficult," as Michael Walzer put it. (This is not a slam on principled pacifists; a consistent pacifism counts as a difficult and worthy position.) I suppose a lot of us liberals who came to support the war did so because we assumed that we were taking, along the lines Matt suggests, the "difficult" road, one that dealt honestly with what we had in hand (i.e., the Bush administration) while still holding onto our ideals. That was shortsighted, to say the least.

Of course, it is talk like that which makes strident opponents of the war (on both the left and the right) think that folks like me are still deluded, imagining that the war could have worked, should have worked--in other words, that the principle of Wilsonian intervention, however we articulate it, is not fundamentally unsound--assuming conditions were right (for example, if Blair had been running the show, and not Bush). A conservative friend of mine, who has opposed the war from the beginning, continues to press me on this point. What do I think might have been different? And more importantly, if I can always imagine that something might have been, or should have been, different, then is there any way my idea-driven willingness to support efforts such as these can ever truly be tested, much less falsified? If not (if I can always say "see, that's how it should have been done"), then aren't my convictions more fantasies than arguments?

He's not wrong to question me so; his position (in which national interest in a traditional realist sense combines with a respect for, and suspicion of, the magnitude of culture difference between us and the targets--like Iraq--of our aspirations) is the more rigorous one. But I cannot embrace it (though I can learn from it, and perhaps come to trust its wisdom more), because I just don't find the lines he draws to be nearly so clear or compelling. So I think my response to him and others, my response to the retort that I'm simply moving my own "lines" around at will, must be: my convictions entail, or rather are part and parcel to, a set of practices; the principles which I believed (and still believe) could be worth fighting a war over must mean that the wars I could support must be, strictly speaking, principled wars. That is, the test of the validity of these ideas (about democracy and intervention and liberation) is in their execution itself. Which is what leads me back to Brooks, and to the exchange from Watchmen I started out with.

Brooks concludes his piece by writing that "in 20 years, no one will doubt that Bush did the right thing." Twenty years--a whole generation! What I find remarkable about that isn't the length of time itself (which is perfectly reasonable, if not overly optimistic, in light of the dynamics of social change), but that it makes time part of the argument, and yet takes a stand in regards to that time; it is as if Brooks were saying: "We're now part of Iraqi history, and so one must let what the U.S. has done work itself out historically. We need to see things not in terms of their immediate costs, but their ultimate ends." But Brooks cannot see those ends, and neither can I--not simply because we're not prophets, but because there is not and cannot be an "end" in the sense he is talking about to which any given intervention can be locked into. Twenty years of events will precede that "end," and follow it, and the invasion of Iraq will become one more element in a historical tapestry. That's not an argument against action per se, but it is an argument against hypothesizing a result which will justify what came before.

In Watchmen, a superhero named Adrian Veidt (Ozymandias) comes to the conclusion that humankind will destroy itself unless all countries can unite against a common foe (the story takes place in 1985). So he constructs an elaborate conspiracy about an alien foe, which results in the death of 3 million people and the wholesale transformation of human society. After all is said and done, Adrian confesses to Jon Osterman (Dr. Manhattan), another superhero with truly godlike powers, that he is troubled by the costs of his actions, but looks confidently towards the end that his efforts were directed towards. Jon, who is essentially omniscient, offers him no comfort: "Nothing ever ends."

I'm not accusing Bush of being Ozymandias; I don't think he has anything like that level of arrogance, and I don't think his "intervention" is anywhere near so total or extreme. But he has intervened, and increasingly it seems that action has been understood not on its own terms (what is Iraq like? what can we responsibly do? how can our ideals be applied?), but in terms of what it will, presumably, end up meaning. As I've mentioned before, perhaps interventionism is unavoidable in the present moment. If that is so, if the intractable ugliness of most our choices will always be with us, whether we respond to tyranny or poverty or abuse or not, then does that mean we can say nothing to those who intervene, who act, who get things done, whether or not they're done in the way we think is best? One certainly can't complain that Bush doesn't get things done. But still: one can refuse to get caught up in the supposing of future possibilities, and insist that whatever does happen, to whatever end, cannot be justified on such a basis. Such projections, contra Brooks, aren't nearly humble enough; they do not consider that the fact of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and elimination of Saddam Hussein will, strictly speaking, never end. So you have to look from moment to moment, rather than any given outcome; you have to look at intentions, yes, but also immediate obligations and attendant realities--you cannot put them off, and just assume that things will "come around." One might think that this is just a long-winded way of making an argument for prudence, for never trusting any one idea too far, for being conscious of burdens, and it is partly that. But I believe there is an important reason to put things this way. President Bush, whatever his virtues (and he has many), seems to be, and seems to inspire or expect the people around him to be, tunnel-thinkers: focusing in on a threat or need, they undertake their work and concentrate on that future point where they plan to emerge, at which time they assume conditions will be exactly as they expected them to be when they down their chosen rabbit hole. And you know, maybe they will be. Then again, maybe they won't. And either way, an awful lot of people have been carried down into those rabbit holes along with them. Those people have to be made part of the action, even if it slows one down, even if it means you can't go as far as you need to go, even if some of those who refuse to go along are plainly in the wrong. Such is the price of living in a community, both a national and an international one: maybe communal concerns can somewhat set aside the imposition of bright lines ("sovereignty," etc.) which guide action, but they should also make clearer the participatory and collective requirements of such actions at the same time.

What does all this mean for Iraq? It means that my convictions (and Bush's, or at least those of many others around him and supportive of him) were only useful to Iraq to the degree that we attended to the existing Iraq, not the future Iraq. I cannot and will not say democratic intervention can ever be entirely off the table of policy options; there is too much at stake, too much relevance, and too much moral truth to the argument such a (appropriately humbled and "realistic") Wilsonianism embodies for that. But I know better now than I knew a year ago that my principles cannot be practicable on the basis of what can/will happen later, in the end; if they are not present before us in a real way (and even the most ardent apologists of the Bush administration and American democratic imperialism suspected long before the shooting started that they mostly were not), then those principles really are just fantasies: counter-factual hopes, without justificatory power. We can and should still hope and work for a better future in Iraq (and a future for other countries suffering under tyranny as well), as so many of the Iraqi people have themselves so hoped. And it's not at all unlikely that a great many Iraqis, given what options were before them, will say that any intervention was better than none.* But that's not enough to build a theoretical justification upon. At the very least one should admit (as Bush almost certainly will not) that we liberal (inter)nationalists have done the people of Iraq no great favors by being willing, even with the best of intentions, to carry them along towards a specific end that we pictured in our minds, but towards which they, far more than we, will have to struggle painfully day by day.

*Johann Hari, a more coherently humbled hawk than Brooks, notes in an excellent essay on his own feelings and observations that "in the recent BBC poll (hardly a pro-war source), fewer than 10 per cent [of Iraqis] said they had confidence in the occupying forces, for example, and 41 per cent admitted they found the invasion humiliating. These are not the answers of a terrified people censoring themselves. So we can trust the same polls when--among many legitimate criticisms of the coalition--they also find that 56 per cent of Iraqis say their lives are better than before the war. Only 15 per cent want the coalition troops to leave immediately."