Friday, May 11, 2007

The Troops are Quiet Tonight, but It's Not Alright

Jonathan Chait discusses a certain myopia prevalent among the ranks of the GOP [emphasis added]:
Of all the low points during the Bush administration, perhaps the most surreal was the week in December 2004 when Bernie Kerik was poised to become secretary of Homeland Security. By the traditional measures used to judge qualifications for this sort of job, Kerik was not an ideal candidate. The main points in Kerik's favor were his loyal service to Rudy Giuliani, first as driver for his mayoral campaign, then corrections commissioner, then police commissioner--the last of which was commemorated by the casting of 30 Kerik busts. On the negative side of the ledger were his multiple alleged felonies, including tax evasion and conspiracy to commit wiretapping (currently being investigated by federal prosecutors), and his (also alleged) ties to the DeCavalcante and Gambino crime families.

If a "Sopranos" writer proposed a plotline in which a Kerik-like figure rose through the ranks to become head of the department charged with preventing the next terrorist attack, he would be laughed off the show. So how did it almost happen in real life? The Washington Post recently reconstructed the Kerik nomination: The decisive factor seemed to be that Bush was "lulled by Kerik's swaggering Sept. 11 reputation."

That last sentence is, in many ways, the perfect epigraph for the Bush presidency. The Kerik episode displayed many of the pathologies of modern Republican governance: incompetence, corruption, an obsession with loyalty over traditional qualifications. But it shows with particular clarity Bush's most distinct contribution: the mistaking of macho bluster for strategic acumen.
My initial reaction when reading those opening paragraphs was to think that Chait was only telling half the story at best: while this particular recurring lapse in judgment may be more pronounced on the Republican side these days, the malady in question afflicts almost all Americans - and the same goes for the rest of the world's population. Chait, to his credit, offers some clarification:
The error Bush made in judging Kerik is, of course, the same error the country as a whole made in judging Bush. We (or most Americans, anyway) were lulled by the president's swaggering September 11 reputation, by the image of him finding his voice in the rubble of Ground Zero. Of course, it turns out that understanding how to lead the war against terrorism requires more than standing on a pile of rubble and talking tough. A certain level of intellectual depth and curiosity is needed. You not only need to want to kill the bad guys, you need to know which bad guys to kill, and you need to have some kind of plan for what happens after you're left occupying their large, strategically vital, anti-American, ethnically riven failed state.
While it would be nice to assume that after 8 years of what will undoubtedly be viewed as one of the worst, most destructive presidencies in US history, the country will have learned its lesson in this regard (even if not most of the GOP constituency) . Unfortunately, the seduction of the swagger, and the cheap allure of macho bellicosity, is rooted in patterns of thought that are embedded deeper in our psyches than 8 years of expose-in-action can undermine.

This is a topic that I have explored at some length in previous posts. From one of those posts:

I have on occasion posted about what I consider to be a malady of the human condition - which seems to effect Americans in healthy doses: the belief that violence equals strength. This fallacy pervades many aspects of our society....In our pop culture, at least beginning in the 1980s, we began celebrating the morally ambiguous (at least morally aloof), muscle-bound, one-man killing machines most ably personified on film by the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone.

This trend marked something of a departure from the reluctant heroes and, only occasionally violent by comparison, icons of the 1950s and 1960s like Gary Cooper and even the macho but body count challenged John Wayne. According to this cinematic trope, these new-breed, shoot-first-ask-questions-later heroes are depicted marching into town, leaving a trail of corpses strewn across the screen, and departing into the sunset with all of the erstwhile dilemmas solved through the redemptive quality of mass carnage. These ultra-violent big screen avatars have been reborn and recycled in countless video games, celluloid depictions and print incarnations for subsequent generations to consume. In the American mindset, strength is equated with violence, and violence solves all the world's problems - from an unruly child to a crime infested neighborhood to a rogue regime. Put simply, might makes right.

In the arena of foreign policy, this violent predilection manifests itself in the belief that certain leaders are "strong" on issues of national security while others are "weak." In this context, strength basically translates into a hawkish willingness to use military options instead of what are perceived as "weaker" diplomatic routes. Regardless of the ramifications and long term results, or wisdom of the engagement in the first place, if a leader opts to bomb, strike or assault, they earn the label "strong." Further, in times of heightened fear and anxiety, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, people will actually opt for "strong and wrong, rather than weak and right." In this sense, Iraq was explained away by many Americans with the vague reference to the fact that "At least Bush was doing something," as if any old military action would suffice as payback for 9/11. Someone had to pay, and Kerry wasn't strong enough to make sure of that.

I think this represents a psychologically underdeveloped conception of strength - a kind of emotionalism that only recognizes the impulse, the instant result, and the immediately tangible and fails to account for the big picture, the repercussions, the nuance, and the ultimate efficacy of a given course of action. It also flies in the face of historical evidence. [...]

In the truth that lies beyond instinct and reflex, the strength is in the results. I am by no means a pacifist, though I aspire to the day that all humans could be. Unfortunately, sometimes violence is needed and in certain contexts war is the only route, but not nearly as much as our gut might dictate or as frequently as to justify our collective prejudices. More often than not, violence should be seen as the last resort, a product of the breakdown of the preferred process, and itself recognized as the instigator of a cycle of self-perpetuating and escalating conflict - not a desirable course of action, and rarely a perfect solution ala Rambo. Peace through strength must not allow the latter concept to overshadow or confuse the former - which must always be the driving force and overarching goal.
These inherent inclinations are part of what makes Jim Henley's post on taking the longview with respect to potential war with Iran so prescient:
Much as I might like to see our “benevolent hegemonists” driven into the wilderness clad only in loincloths, that’s not going to happen. They’ll retire to their think tanks and Weekly Standard columns and be treated with the absurd respect official Washington lavishes on anyone lacking the grace to slink away in shame. And they’ll wait. And between now and 2008 they’ll try to instantiate policies that make eventual war with Iran all but inevitable.

This is exactly what happened with Iraq. In 1991, the GHWB administration took certain steps that put the US permanently at odds with the regime of Saddam Hussein. In 1993 and thereafter, the Clinton administration affirmed those policies. Sanctions became not a spur to disarmament but a program for regime change. “No fly” zones became an excuse for a bombing campaign intended to make Saddam lose face enough that nationalistic officers would depose him. The CIA under both presidents fomented numerous coups. The President signed legislation in 1998 that raised the level of confrontation materially while reinforcing the meta-message that this particular tinpot dictator 8,000 miles away was somehow of overriding importance. All the while, the Iraq hawks in both parties, but chiefly in the GOP, worked to keep the engines of intervention on warm idle, to be fired up whenever an opportunity finally presented itself. Eventually it did.

The rest is a very unhappy history, but the prehistory - mainstream commentators have the damnedest time remembering the 1990s clearly - made it possible.

I fully expect something like this to be the Iran hawks’ Plan B. [...]

Which is to say, those of us who don’t want a war with Iran need to worry about a lot more than just keeping John “Beach Boy” McCain out of the White House. If you didn’t like the Iraq War, realize that the time to stop it was years before it actually happened. Approach the 2008 Presidential campaign and Iran with that thought in mind.
It's not just the tendency of human beings to view violent solutions as expedient and effective. Nor is it the human compulsion to engage in, and on some primal level, enjoy, war. In addition to those tirelessly ebbing and flowing forces that seem to come to a violent crescendo every decade or so, the post-Iraq war period will also be marked by a familiar malaise. The process of reckoning with our failure in Iraq (and the unpleasant confrontation with the eventual trillion dollar price tag and tragic human consequences) will add heat to a slow simmering resentment. The magnitude of this debacle will eventually bring to a boil a sense of indignation seasoned with dashes of fear, humiliation and impotence.

In search of relief from this psychic discomfort, excuses will be clung to, and scapegoats identified - with the liberals and war opponents likely receiving the brunt of the blame for forcing us to surrender on the eve of victory. Those looking to cultivate a war in ten years or so, will find fertile soil. Especially those busy sowing the seeds, and piling on the fertilizer, today.

For the rest of us, it's KYEO.

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