Learned

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JUNE 28, 2004

Learned

ONE: We have learned that Saddam Hussein's Baathist dictatorship was just as bad as everyone said, and worse. We have learned about the 300,000 Shia killed after the 1991 war, the perhaps 30,000 people buried in a single grave, the 40,000 marsh Arabs killed, the millions of refugees, and so forth--mass destruction with and without weapons of mass destruction. We have learned about the survivors. In Baghdad, a woman schoolteacher approached George Packer of The New Yorker and said, "Please, sir, can you help me? ... I must work with Americans, because my psychology is demolished by Saddam Hussein. Not just me. All Iraqis. Psychological demolition."

We have certainly learned that most Iraqis do not say, "I must work with Americans." But we have learned about psychological demolition. We have learned that victims are not always attractive--hardly a new lesson. We have learned that hundreds of political parties have sprouted up, not because democracy is in bloom, but because people have no idea how to proceed. And, so, they attend the sermons of Moqtada Al Sadr, who stands before his congregants dressed in a shroud, in order to prepare his flock to go where he intends to lead them.

We have learned a lesson about social conscience in the modern age—and this, too, is hardly new. In the twentieth century, crimes on the hugest scale took place in the open, yet somehow, through the alchemies of political ideology, the crimes were rendered invisible and thus were allowed to continue unimpeded. This has been Iraq's experience precisely. Saddam launched his slaughters 25 years ago, and, in the Western countries, everyone knew, yet most people managed not to see, and no one ever succeeded in organizing a truly mass protest.

A truly large and powerful protest movement took to the streets all over the Western world only in February 2003—and this was not to denounce the terrible dictatorship, but to prevent an invasion from overthrowing the terrible dictatorship. Those were the largest mass protests in the history of the world. Some of the protesters marched in a mood of cautious practicality, fearful that overthrowing Saddam might unleash still worse horrors, or might undermine the manhunt for Al Qaeda. But there was also in those marches, and in the larger mood of the moment, an unmistakable moral fervor—an outraged feeling that invading Iraq was a criminal act.

Some of the protesters invoked "just war" theory. In "just war" theory, to invade a country in order to stop massacres currently underway is deemed perfectly just. But to send in armies to rescue the survivors after the massacres have ended is deemed unjust. The marchers in 2003 gazed at Iraq and saw plainly enough that massacres had come to an end. (And logically so: The survivors had already been clubbed into submission, and no Iraqi was going to rise in rebellion ever again.) And the marchers therefore swelled in moral indignation.

Some of the protesters invoked the authority of the United Nations. The United Nations was founded in 1945 in a spirit of anti-Nazism, in order to struggle against every kind of racist and totalitarian state that might reflect Nazi or Nazi-like influences. This has always been a source of the U.N.'s singular prestige. The Baath party, on the other hand, was founded in 1943 (originally in Damascus) in a spirit of pro-Nazism, in order to adapt the racist and totalitarian ideas of Europe for the Arab world. The whole purpose of the United Nations, from a 1945 point of view, is to rid the world of parties like the Baath.

But the United Nations is also a parliament of states, eager to protect its members from one another. In 2003, the United Nations had to choose between humanitarianism and the sanctity of borders. The United Nations chose. And, all over the world, people came to look on the invasion as a terrible wrong yet again—an affront to the moral legitimacy of the parliament of states.

And how did the peace marchers react, afterward, to the mass graves and other discoveries? The abstract principles of "just war" and U.N. legitimacy pressed on one side of the balance and the human realities of extreme suffering pressed on the other. And the abstractions were found to be weightier. That is a main reason why a number of wealthy countries around the world have declined to send aid to the suffering Iraqis, even though everyone can now see how desperate are the needs. It is a matter of principle.

TWO: We have learned that, in northern Iraq, the Kurds, for all their suffering (the genocide and gassings of 1988, the 4,000 villages destroyed, the million refugees, et cetera), have nonetheless put together a fairly healthy society, duly appointed with viable opposition parties and newspapers and even wise leaders. These successes owe something to Kurdistan's difference from the rest of Iraq. In the rest of Iraq, the ideological legacy of the Baath party has proved to be lamentably hardy, even among people who were fervent enemies of the Baath--a legacy of anti-liberalism, conspiracy theories, and racist hatreds.

But the Kurds were always an object of Baathist hatred. And this may have permitted the Kurdish provinces to shuck off the larger ideology with relative ease. Then, too, the Kurds have benefited from 13 years of military intervention by U.S. and British forces (and even by the French, at the start). America is an impatient country, but not always, it turns out, and this is good news.

And so, during this last year we have learned that people who smirk at putting the words "liberal democracy" and "Iraq" into a single sentence ought to reduce their smirk by 20 percent, in proportion to Iraq's Kurdish population. We have learned that, in Kurdistan, the democratic left has turned out to be especially strong. And we have learned that, in some of the world's liberal democracies, other democratic leftists couldn't care less. "They shall not pass" was the slogan of the left in the Spanish Civil War. "Yes, they will," is the slogan of Spanish socialism today. Iraqi success, as much as Iraqi suffering, turns out to be invisible in the modern world.

THREE: We have learned that there are many paths to hell, and one of those paths is called the "National Security Strategy" of 2002. This is the White House document that affirmed U.S. hegemony over everyone else as the national goal and preemptive war as the policy--two ideas that were guaranteed to strike terror in half the world. The statement affirmed, "For most of the 20th century, the world was divided by a great struggle over ideas: destructive totalitarian visions versus freedom and equality. That great struggle is over"—which, in regard to the Muslim world, is simply not the case.

Yet, this most wrongheaded of national security strategies expressed the mentality that governed the invasion--the hubris and the indifference toward waging a battle of ideas. A good many people always dreaded the probable effect of this set of attitudes, and I'm reassured to see, when I glance back at my own writings and statements from the weeks before the invasion, that I, too, warned against Bush's approach. I participated in a New Republic symposium very much like this present exercise early in March 2003, and I howled piteously about the president's rhetoric, ignorance, and Hobbesian brutishness, and concluded by declaring myself "terrified" at the dangers he was courting—terrified that American power, stripped of liberal principles, was going to end up as no power at all ("Resolved," March 3, 2003).

And then, like everyone else who had issued a few warnings, I had to figure out what to do when these warnings turned out to be on the mark. I responded by devoting most of this past year to composing op-eds, conference papers, Q&As, and statements of every shape and size, and lobbing these things into the pages of newspapers and magazines in some 15 or 20 countries in a one-man campaign to minimize whatever sorry consequences the National Security Strategy and sundry related White House policies might be having on world opinion and events in Iraq.

I tried to persuade people that severe oppression justifies intervention, no matter what other explanations Bush may have offered; that Baathism and radical Islam are extremist movements with a visible link to European fascism and have worked together to achieve their shared ideal, the human bomb; that a great struggle over totalitarian ideas is precisely the issue in Iraq; that Muslim liberals do exist in both Iraq and Afghanistan (though I am willing to be tolerantly flexible about the definition of liberalism, under the circumstances), and merit our support; that liberalism's gain will be terrorism's loss; and that every country in the liberal democratic world has a role to play, even if certain passages in the damnable National Security Strategy might suggest otherwise.

This, you may say, has surely been a quixotic way to spend a year. But, in distributing these opinions to the world, I have learned one more thing, which is that, in spite of everything you may have heard, opinions like these do enjoy some support, here and there, even among the journalists and intellectuals of Western Europe. I suppose the White House itself has become dimly aware of the appeal of these arguments. The president's speeches have certainly taken to beating an anti-totalitarian tattoo lately, which you would never have predicted from his National Security Strategy or his initial justifications for the war in Iraq.

Some of his speeches have been rather good. I would have applauded him at the Air Force Academy in early June. He laid out a more coherent explanation of the Iraq war than ever before. But these speeches have had no impact. It is because they have come too late, and people don't know whether to take Bush's words seriously anymore, and because the newspapers don't even print these speeches (a big mistake, on their part). Anyway, as a recent convert to the cause of idealism against totalitarianism, the president can never seem to get his new message entirely right. He goes on about World War II and the early cold war. But the obvious place to begin, if he wants to undo his old errors, is to speak about the principles and lessons of Kosovo.

The people I have encountered around the world who root for liberal victories in Iraq tend to be the very people who dragged their various countries into the Kosovo war. The White House might pause to reflect that reconstructing the alliance of 1999 ought to be a lot easier to do than reconstructing the alliances that defeated fascism in 1945 or formed to combat communism in 1949. But Bush is not going to sing the virtues of the Kosovo war-- or has he changed his mind about this, too? In my one-man campaign, therefore, I have thrown in a few extra points, touching on Bush--a few remarks to acknowledge that America's president does make people cringe, and that, even so, in the wars presently taking place between liberalism and extremism in Iraq and Afghanistan, the liberals do need our aid. I have found that, in most places, the best way to call for solidarity is to begin by deploring the policies, character, rhetoric, culture, political tradition, and diplomacy of America's president. People become surprisingly open-minded if you begin this way.

To be honest, I have come to notice a weak point in arguments like mine. The weak point rests on a perhaps too-easy assumption that I have tended to make ever since the Kosovo war. This is the assumption that, regardless of a given president's views, the U.S. military can be counted on to be disciplined, professional, and reasonably skillful at the tasks of modern war. The U.S. military and its allies did seem to be pretty effective in Kosovo—even if the Air Force accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy. They seem to have done well enough in Afghanistan, too--though, maybe in Afghanistan, the other shoe has yet to drop. But the news from Iraq makes me wonder if President Bush's armed forces are the same armed forces that used to operate so skillfully under (the slitted eyes of tough-guy readers widen in horror) President Clinton. Military professionals can't outperform their commanders back in Washington, I suppose.

FOUR: I am dreading what some people claim already to have learned from the blunders in Iraq. Even now, some people are saying: You see! There's no point in overthrowing dictators by force! (Though many dictators have been forcibly overthrown, to good effect—from Germany to Afghanistan.) And no point in trying to do good for anyone else! (Though humanitarian intervention has had its successes, from Kosovo to East Timor, not to mention Kurdistan.)

The U.S. failure in Somalia led to a different kind of U.S. failure in Rwanda. There will surely be Rwandas in the future--there is one right now in Darfur, Sudan (where the ethnic cleansers come out of the same mix of radical Islamism and Arab nationalism that has caused so much suffering in many other places, including our own places). Who in his right mind is going to call for U. S. intervention? Doubtless, in the future, when things are not so grim for us, some people will, in fact, call for U.S. interventions, and justly so. And yet, other people are going to say, Oh, right, and let's put Donald Rumsfeld in charge. And this will be a devastating reply.

FIVE: We have learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald's axiom—about intelligence as the ability to hold in mind two contradictory thoughts at the same time—has a corollary in the field of emotion. Sometimes you also have to hold in your heart two contradictory emotions. This is difficult. To understand Saddam Hussein and the history of modern Iraq, you have to feel anger—or else you have understood nothing.

But what if, in addition to feeling anger at Saddam (and at Sadr in his shroud, and at Mussab Al Zarqawi with his knife, and at Saddam's army, which was organizing suicide terrorists even before the invasion), you have also come to feel more than a little anger at George W. Bush? What if you gaze at events in Iraq and say to yourself: Things did not have to be this way.

We could have presented a human rights case to the world, instead of trying to deceive people about weapons and conspiracies—and we would have ended up with more allies, or, at least, with allies who understood the mission. We could have applied the lessons of Kosovo, which would have meant dispatching a suitable number of soldiers. We could have protected the government buildings and the National Museum, and we could have co-opted Saddam's army--further lessons from Kosovo. We could have believed Saddam when he threatened to wage a guerrilla war in Baghdad. We could have prepared in advance to broadcast TV shows that Iraqis wanted to watch. We could have observed the Geneva Conventions. (What humiliation in having to write such a sentence!) We could have—but I will stop, in order to ask: What if, in mulling these thoughts, you find that angry emotions toward George W. Bush are seeping upward from your own patriotic gut?

Here is the challenge: to rage at Saddam and other enemies, and, at the same time, to rage in a somewhat different register at Bush, and to keep those two responses in proper proportion to one another. That can be a difficult thing to do, requiring emotional balance, maturity, and analytic clarity--a huge effort. It is said that Bush should have asked America as a whole to make large efforts and sacrifices--and not just the soldiers and civilian workers who have put themselves in danger. The complaint is unfair. Bush has asked a great deal of America. He has asked us to draw on our emotional balance, maturity, and analytic clarity: the qualities that are needed to help us distinguish our feelings about the enemy from our feelings about the commander in chief. To distinguish between outright hatred and a certain kind of contempt. And so we have learned how to do this--the final thing we have learned during this past year. And we will have to go on learning how to do this, perhaps for a few months, perhaps for a few years.

This article originally ran in the June 28, 2004 issue of the magazine.

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posted in: baghdad, damascus, afghanistan, iraq, al-qaeda, united nations, white house, george packer, moqtada al sadr, saddam hussein, w. bush, kosovo

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