Went to the LA Press Club booksigning for ‘Hollywood Interrupted’ last night; and reminded myself why it is that I enjoy blogging so much – because it has offered me an opportunity meet (and argue heatedly with) all kinds of smart & interesting people. Steve Smith was there, as was Cathy Seipp, Rand Simberg, and a bunch of others I’d remember if I was getting more sleep these days. I had a great conversation with the local Le Monde correspondent about coming events in les banlieues, and I think we even managed to frighten birthday-girl Jill Stewart a bit.
Had one short discussion about why I was “Armed Liberal” with some boho Silverlake folks, and we touched on the war. Their core position was that the war was wrong to begin with, and now that we haven’t found warehouses full of WMD, the lies that were used in promoting the war were an issue as well.
I was in too good a mood to engage, and so we chatted about culture and other areas of mutual agreement, and then I went home and read the book for a while (comments to follow later, time permitting).
Then, today, I was in the doctor’s office (all good), and picked up a copy of the New Yorker. First, a great article about one of my favorite artists, Joseph Cornell. Then a new John McPhee article (he was the Langwiesche before Langwiesche). Then an article by Nicholas Lemann, no fan of the war, caught my attention.The article is called ‘After Iraq’, and is available here. A couple of quotes:
Has a war ever been as elaborately justified in advance as the coming war with Iraq? Because this war is not being undertaken in direct response to a single shattering event (it’s been nearly a year and a half since the September 11th attacks), and because the possibility of military action against Saddam Hussein has been Washington’s main preoccupation for the better part of a year, the case for war has grown so large and variegated that its very multiplicity has become a part of the case against it. In his State of the Union address, President Bush offered at least four justifications, none of them overlapping: the cruelty of Saddam against his own people; his flouting of treaties and United Nations Security Council resolutions; the military threat that he poses to his neighbors; and his ties to terrorists in general and to Al Qaeda in particular. In addition, Bush hinted at the possibility that Saddam might attack the United States or enable someone else to do so. There are so many reasons for going to war floating around at least some of which, taken alone, either are nothing new or do not seem to point to Iraq specifically as the obvious place to wage it that those inclined to suspect the motives of the Administration have plenty of material with which to argue that it is being disingenuous. So, along with all the stated reasons, there is a brisk secondary traffic in “real” reasons, which are similarly numerous and do not overlap: the country is going to war because of a desire to control Iraqi oil, or to help Israel, or to avenge Saddam’s 1993 assassination attempt on President George H. W. Bush.
Yet another argument for war, which has emerged during the last few months, is that removing Saddam could help bring about a wholesale change for the better in the political, cultural, and economic climate of the Arab Middle East. To give one of many possible examples, Fouad Ajami, an expert on the Arab world who is highly respected inside the Bush Administration, proposes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs that the United States might lead “a reformist project that seeks to modernize and transform the Arab landscape. Iraq would be the starting point, and beyond Iraq lies an Arab political and economic tradition and a culture whose agonies have been on cruel display.” The Administration’s main public proponent of this view is Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy Secretary of Defense, who often speaks about the possibility that war in Iraq could help bring democracy to the Arab Middle East. President Bush appeared to be making the same point in the State of the Union address when he remarked that “all people have a right to choose their own government, and determine their own destiny and the United States supports their aspirations to live in freedom.”
Even those suffering from justification fatigue ought to pay special attention to this one, because it goes beyond the category of reasons offered in support of a course of action that has already been decided upon and set in motion. Unlike the other justifications, it is both a reason for war and a plan for the future.
I asked Feith whether an American military victory in Iraq could help curb terrorism by organizations like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which operate with the support of other countries in the region. He nodded. “One of the principal strategic thoughts underlying our strategy in the war on terrorism is the importance of the connection between terrorist organizations and their state sponsors,” he said. “Terrorist organizations cannot be effective in sustaining themselves over long periods of time to do large-scale operations if they don’t have support from states. They need a base of operations. They need other types of assets that they get from their connection with their state sponsors whether it’s funding, or headquarters, or, in some cases, the use of diplomatic pouches and other types of facilities. And one of the principal reasons that we are focussed on Iraq as a threat to us and to our interests is because we are focussed on this connection between three things: terrorist organizations, state sponsors, and weapons of mass destruction. If we were to take military action and vindicate our principles, in the war on terrorism, against Iraq, I think it would” he paused, looking for the right word “register with other countries around the world that are sponsoring terrorism, and would perhaps change their own cost-benefit calculations about their role in connection with terrorist networks. I think this process got under way with Afghanistan. There you had a regime that was ousted because of its support for terrorist operations against the United States. If the Iraqi regime gets ousted because it ultimately proves unwilling to disarm itself in a coöperative fashion with the U.N., and if the United States leads a coalition and overthrows that government, I think that the combination of those two actions will influence the thinking of other states about how advisable it is for them to continue to provide safe harbor or other types of support to terrorist organizations.”
Because they’d think they might be ousted next? “Perhaps,” Feith said. “Or just because I think that we may be on the way to creating a new international way of thinking, a new international norm, about terrorism. If you look at the national-security-strategy document that the White House put out, it says that our goal is to make terrorism like piracy, the slave trade, or genocide in the minds of people around the world. It is to delegitimate terrorism as an activity, as a practice. This can’t be done solely by military means, but it is interesting how military action sometimes reinforces philosophical messages.”
A few things should be said about this vision of the near-term future in the Middle East. It is breathtakingly ambitious and optimistic. It might plausibly be described as a spreading of democracy but, perhaps more important, it would also involve, as the “Clean Break” paper said, forcefully altering the regional balance of power. And it differs greatly from the vision of the future of the Middle East that will prevail among liberals, both here and abroad, after the war in Iraq. It treats Pan-Arab nationalism as illegitimate. It does not accept the widespread assumption that no regional good can follow the fall of Saddam unless peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority begin immediately. And it sees the fall of Saddam Hussein less as the end of a great diplomatic and military effort than as a step in an ongoing process.
Honestly, I hadn’t read this article until today; many of the sources for it have written things that informed my own thinking on Iraq (which happens to line up almost exactly with the position described in the article); and I bring the article up today, not to pat my head and remind everyone how smart my rationales for the war were.
I do it because the article was published in the New Yorker in February of 2003 – well before the war; and it suggests that there was a lively public dialog around the reasons for the war that went far beyond WMD – a position that many of my colleagues don’t accept.
We live in an era of data overload, where too much data about too many things is available, and readily searchable backward in time. That presents a problem, in some ways, because it means that our ability to set and keep memories is somehow weakened and that it’s all too easy to go back and remake them.
In the torrent of discussion and argument about the war, WMD certainly played a significant role – but my waiting-room discovery today should remind us that it was not the only one.