The Neocons’ War

When the histories of the U.S.-Iraqi war are written, someone is going to have to track down when exactly the neoconservatives sold the Brooklyn Bridge to our president.

I don’t mean the idea of the war itself, though the neocons have been promoting it ever since Poppy Bush let Saddam off the hook in 1991. I have in mind, rather, the notion that the war would unleash the genie of democracy throughout the Middle East, that with our victory would come a quantum leap in America’s prestige and reputation. Television would beam to all the world heartwarming images of U.S. troops being rapturously received as they speed across Iraq; and we would again become the liberators we were in 1944-5.

It was a lovely scenario, but to believe it, the neos had to willfully forget countless lessons of history, and at least one law of thermodynamics: That for every action, there is an equal but opposite reaction. In the world according to the neos, world-shaking changes in U.S. policy — arrogating to itself the right to wage preventive war, and plunging Iraq into that war — might encounter some resistance along the way, but in the end lead to an outpouring of support.

As to the reactions of the peoples of the world to this war, the neocons’ prophecy is already in a class with the Literary Digest’s pre-election poll of 1936. (The magazine predicted Republican Alf Landon would unseat Franklin Roosevelt; FDR won with 61 percent of the popular vote and an electoral college majority of 523-to-8.) As to the reactions of the Iraqi people, those we’ve seen so far are, understandably, more ambivalent than we’ve been told to expect.

There’s no reason to doubt that a majority of the Iraqi people devoutly wish to be rid of Saddam — but as should be clear from the resistance that U.S. and U.K. troops are encountering, Saddam retains significant support. His is, after all, a modern totalitarian state. It requires large numbers of people to prop up the regime, and it rewards them accordingly. Many within the apparat have no reason to think they will fare well after the regime is toppled.

That apparat — the Sunni-based Ba’ath Party — has been largely an occupying power in the Shi’ite south, as it was in the Kurdish north. To the Sunni population that inhabits the center of the country, however, Saddam is, among other things, a nationalist leader. And even the most barbaric of totalitarian nationalists has its supporters, as the Russian nostalgia for Stalin (one of Saddam’s role models) attests to this day.

After one week of war, it’s clear that the Ba’ath Party machine and the security-state thugs who secure it can’t deter the U.S. and U.K. forces in the field, but they can make the capture of cities a bloody mess — as they already have in Basra. Now, the nightmare of house-to-house street fighting seems about to descend on Baghdad. And the mere existence of this grimly predictable battle will give the lie to every rosy scenario that the neocons have insisted will result from this war.

The image the neos would have us conjure here is that of Allied forces being wined and feted as they freed French villages from their Nazi occupiers. But Iraq isn’t France in this conflict; it’s more like Germany, where, as the one-time GIs can attest, the reception to U.S and U.K. forces was a good deal frostier — even among Germans who detested their leaders.

When your liberator rolls down your block with guns blazing, that can tend to cool your ardor toward him, however well-intentioned his intrusion may have been. To be sure, it’s Saddam who has chosen to fight inside the cities. But then, it’s Bush who has chosen to fight inside Iraq.

The effects that images from such a battle will have on the world are sure to be wildly inflammatory. Already, a wave of pan-Arab nationalism is sweeping the Arab world; footage of U.S. forces shooting their way through Baghdad can only increase the anti-American sentiment in the region (and, for that matter, the world). It will embolden the region’s democrats, which is a good thing, but it will also embolden the region’s anti-Western, anti-democratic Islamic theocrats, who outnumber and intimidate the democrats throughout most of the Middle East.

To the administration’s nationalist tough guys — Cheney and Rumsfeld in particular — this is a matter of some, but not overwhelming, concern. American power, as they see it, grows out of the barrel of a gun. In their interactions with such longtime allies as France and Germany, and such fledgling democracies as Turkey, they’ve made it clear that they’d rather have nations fear us than like or admire us.

But the neocons are smarter than that. They know that American power must be based in part, as it has always been based, on our good name, on the respect we’ve won for defending democracy and triumphing over 20th-century totalitarianism. What the gang of Wolfowitz, Perle, Kristol et al. failed to calculate was the shock and fear (not awe) that our promulgation of the doctrine of pre-emption would cause across the planet. And whatever havoc our new doctrine may have wrought, they have also assured us that bringing democracy to Iraq would in time cause anti-Americanism to abate. If and when a stable democracy does come, however, it’s bound to be preceded by an ongoing and quite possibly bloody American occupation. I can think of easier, more successful ways to enhance the reputation of America in the world than the neocons’ panacea.

I know a number of the editors of The Weekly Standard, the linchpin journal of neoconservatism, and a more affable, thoughtful bunch of guys promoting more dangerous, maniacal ideas you could never hope to meet. In a series of discussions with them beginning last fall, I noticed that they repeatedly insisted that any serious U.S. debate on the war was already a thing of the past. “It’s a settled question here; the Democrats will go along,” one of them told me last October. In this and other such assessments, it seems to me, they conflated an empirical judgment which has been proven wrong (dissent was only beginning last October) with both a wish (it would be good if dissent died out) and a bit of a diktat (we need to go to war here, so stop your dissenting!). They have applied this same backward reasoning — mixing lack of memory with desire, and prophecy with preference — to the war: We need to overthrow Saddam and build support for the American vision of the world; hence we will overthrow Saddam and it will build support for that American vision.

And Bush bought it. Swell way to run a country — or a world.

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