Sunday, June 19, 2005

A "generational commitment" in Iraq

A lot of the time when I am thinking about the Bush regime's foreign policy generally, and its Iraq policy in particular, I implicitly allow myself to believe that somehow the people running the show, while perhaps very wicked, are not in fact fools. After all, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz, and Don Rumsfeld are unquestionably highly accomplished politicians -- excellent public speakers who respond with extreme discipline to high pressure circumstances. As someone who works in a capacity in which these traits are highly valued, these skills of theirs impress me, perhaps more than they should.

But every once in a while I see something that makes me realize that this team's knavery is perhaps the least of our worries, and that in fact, that may well be that they are, in fact, utter idiots.

For example, here I was this morning, listening to Fox News Sunday. On the show, Condie's getting interviewed by Chris Wallace, who at one point asks her, "Can the Bush administration fairly be criticized for failing to level with the American people about how long and difficult this commitment will be" in Iraq? Her answer, I think everyone will agree, was both illuminating and stunning.

Here's Condie:

The most important point about Iraq is that it was time to deal with Saddam Hussein and to create conditions in this very important region, this very volatile region, that would help bring about a different kind of Middle East so that the United States can be secure.

The Middle East came home to us on September 11 in ways that we never expected. And without change in this region, we're going to continue to fight terrorists for a very, very long time.

Now, we have a different kind of Iraq. It is still a young Iraq, a young, democratic Iraq. But if you look at the progress that they have made on the political front -- the turnover of sovereignty, the creation of a transitional administrative law, elections in January of this year, a constitutional committee now to write a constitution, and they will have elections in December -- they've made very rapid progress.

And so the administration, I think, has said to the American people that it is a generational commitment to Iraq. But it is not a generational commitment in military terms; it is a commitment of our support to them, our political support and an understanding that democracy takes time. But they're making very rapid progress.

Normally, I try to be optimistic about the policy savviness of the people running the American government. Normally, for example, I permit myself to think that the Bushies must surely understand that "the Middle East" is not a single undifferentiated mass. I think to myself, they must surely understand that it wasn't "the Middle East" that "came home to us" (a disturbing phrase on several levels, but let's leave that aside) on 9-11, but rather that what happened on 9-11 was that a particular, specific group of bloodthirsty Islamist extremists targetted for destruction the most visible physical symbols of American economic, political, and military power.

But then you read this transcript, and you realize, they just don't get it. You read this kind of thing and you realize: holy cow, these guys aren't Machiavellians, Mayberry or otherwise; on the contrary, these guys completely believe their own press releases. They really do believe that Saddam regime was "somehow connected" to 9-11!

You can almost hear the Bushie train of thought: "Here's one thing we know: the hijackers were all bad guys from 'the Middle East.' Here's another thing we know: Saddam was also a bad guy from the Middle East. ('Coinkydink' you say? Ha! say I.) And you know how those people think, right? They believe in the principle that 'my enemy's enemy is my friend.' And since Saddam and the 9-11 hijackers both are clearly my enemy... that must mean they're friends... so that must mean they worked on 9-11 together...." Or something like that.

Another piece of evidence that this is the correct interpretation of Rice's words is her phrase about the supposed "generational commitment" that the Bushies are making to Iraq on behalf of the American people.

First of all, let's be utterly clear on one fact, since the basic M.O. of the regime is to obfuscate this point: before April 2003 no one in the Bush regime suggested that Iraq would require a 20-30 year commitment on the part of the U.S. -- and for damn good reason, since if they had, no one in the right mind would have supported the war. What various people did say, of course, was that the "war on terrorism" represented a generational commitment... and then they said that Iraq was part of the war on terror... and then, finally, by the magic of metonymic thinking, part became one with the whole, indistinguishable, such that on the one hand any distinction between Al Qaeda and Saddam went lost, and on the other hand the useless war in Iraq became virtually coterminous with the Bush regime's GWOT effort.

Although this kind of reasoning doesn't surprise me when it comes from wingnuts, it's massively disturbing to observe the head of our foreign office seemly incapable of making even the most elemental distinctions between different groups and powers what may be the most geopolitically complex, touchy, and volatile place on the planet.... and then I realize, holy shit! they really, really just don't get it....

When future historians try to figure out what on earth could have motivated the U.S. to choose to go after Saddam before finishing off Al Qaeda, the answer, I suspect, will be located in the dangerous power of categorical analysis when those categories are overly broad. Specifically, by taking "the GWOT" seriously as an analytical category (as opposed to viewing it as simply a political category) the right essentially deprived itself of the basic analytical and policy tools you'd hope that the people running the most powerful country on the planet would have.

In other words, what this transcript underscores is the subtle and sinister transformation that pro-GWOT thinking has undergone over the last three years. The idea of a "Global War on Terror" (which began as a way to describe elective affinities between different conflicts and to summarize them under a single rubric in order to galvanize political momentum behind an entire multifacted policy agenda) has ended up conflating a whole bunch of radically different policy challenges, thus eroding any ability to make distinctions that would allow us to calibrate policy according to larger priorities, stages and sequences, or ranks of importance.

More at Think Progress.


zachawry said...

Rice's comment can also be interpreted another way. As you know, many (including those in the Administration) think that even if Saddam and the terrorists were not directly connected, creating a democratic Iraq would have a "domino effect" that would improve the ME as a whole, thus also alleviating the conditions that nurture Islamic extremism.

Now, you may or may not believe this theory, but we know that Rice does. We also know that her statement can be interpreted pefectly well as an expression of this belief. So there is really no reason to interpret it to mean that she thinks there is a relationship between Saddam and the terrorists, no?

Joshua Hoffman said...

I think Rice's comments can be interpreted in still another way. She's a fundamentally "untrustworthy narrator" and every public utterance she makes is more important for its instrumental value than for the extent to which it truly reflects her views or the administration's. By continuing to link (admittedly in a very troubling way) 9/11 with Iraq, by continuing to define an undifferentiated Middle East, by continuing to define--with no hint self-consciousness--the situation today as the desired outcome, I think Condi is continuing to try to shape public perception. In other words: its bullshit, but its bullshit with a purpose.

The scary thing about the Bushies is the belief that good organizational discipline coupled with an effective campaign to define the problem in a friendly manner will trump any kind of "reality-based" view of the world. You'd know better than me, Nils, but it seems like the ultimate and scary combination of the worst excesses of late-80's/early 90's critical theory coupled with a particular variant of right-wing ideology. Ychhhhh.