Tuesday, August 30, 2005

"Show me a moralist, I'll show you a hypocrite" Dept.

Suggestion: read this Chris Hitchens article on why we can't possibly consider leaving Iraq and tell me whether you think this is in any way connected to the practical "reality on the ground," as the Israelis like to say.

It's not that Hitchens is without insight. For example, he's right to point out the way in which the CIA is fighting a back-channel war against the political goals of the administration, and how this bureaucratic fight is creating a communications problem for the White House (that the CIA is right on the facts and the White House is wrong is, however, apparently beside the point to Hitchens). Hitchens is also right to point out that Bush's stock phrase about "We would rather fight [the "terrorists"] there than [on] our own streets" is "not just a standing invitation for disproof by the next suicide-maniac in London or Chicago, but a coded appeal to provincial and isolationist opinion in the United States." Then again, if Hitchens wanted to be really morally consistent, he might have pointed out the deeply immoral nature of that statement, which basically says that we're choosing to use Iraq as a battlefield, and willing to tolerate massive Iraqi casualties as a result, just to keep our own streets safe. Where's the morality in that?

What's really stunning is not that Hitchens is a hypocrite -- all moralists are hypocrites -- but that he completely fails to acknowledge how fucked up the situation actually is for the United States in Iraq right now -- how essentially unwinnable the war in Iraq is given the terms on which it is being fought. (For a graphic sense of that unwinnability, check out this article from someone who says he's seen this movie before.) Instead, Hitchens merely insists that to lose is unacceptable, without coming to grips with the fact that victory at this point is unachievable, if indeed it ever was achievable (which I have doubted consistently).

Instead of confronting the heinous reality of the impossibility of success, Hitchens falls back on a moralizing bluster indistinguishable from the most partisan Bushist. Indeed, Hitchens's writing typifies the moralizing cretinism underpinning the unholy policy alliance of liberal hawks and neocons. Every phrase drips with moral contempt for those who disagree with him, presuming that opposition to the war in Iraq can only be the result of a nasty brew of moral fecklessness and willful blindness to the moral horror -- instead of a sense of (1) realistic about the stack-ranking of priorities (2) the impossibility of success in attempting to force "freedom" on a ruined country. Hitchens assumes that arguing that something is impossible must mean that one hates the goal. No one thinks Saddam was a good guy, or someone we should "do business with" -- but that's not the point. The world is full of evil people we shouldn't do business with, but that we also don't have the idiocy to intervene in directly. To draw an exemplary arc: North Korea, China, Burma, Nepal, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Chechnya, Belarus, Sudan, Niger, Congo, Zimbabwe... and one could continue. No, the whole question of policy is priorities....

Hitchens's bad faith comes to a crescendo in the final section, where he celebrates Bush's many accomplishments. Here's Chris, describing the many things that "without braggartry" could be offered as a litany of Bush's accomplishments:
  1. The overthrow of Talibanism and Baathism, and the exposure of many highly suggestive links between the two elements of this Hitler-Stalin pact. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who moved from Afghanistan to Iraq before the coalition intervention, has even gone to the trouble of naming his organization al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
  2. The subsequent capitulation of Qaddafi's Libya in point of weapons of mass destruction--a capitulation that was offered not to Kofi Annan or the E.U. but to Blair and Bush.
  3. The consequent unmasking of the A.Q. Khan network for the illicit transfer of nuclear technology to Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
  4. The agreement by the United Nations that its own reform is necessary and overdue, and the unmasking of a quasi-criminal network within its elite.
  5. The craven admission by President Chirac and Chancellor Schröder, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of cheating and concealment, respecting solemn treaties, on the part of Iran, that not even this will alter their commitment to neutralism. (One had already suspected as much in the Iraqi case.)
  6. The ability to certify Iraq as actually disarmed, rather than accept the word of a psychopathic autocrat.
  7. The immense gains made by the largest stateless minority in the region--the Kurds--and the spread of this example to other states.
  8. The related encouragement of democratic and civil society movements in Egypt, Syria, and most notably Lebanon, which has regained a version of its autonomy.
  9. The violent and ignominious death of thousands of bin Ladenist infiltrators into Iraq and Afghanistan, and the real prospect of greatly enlarging this number.
  10. The training and hardening of many thousands of American servicemen and women in a battle against the forces of nihilism and absolutism, which training and hardening will surely be of great use in future combat.
Literally every word in this litany -- including "the" and "and" -- is packed with mendacity, hypocrisy, and self-deception. Let's take this point by point:
  1. The exposure of "many highly suggestive links" = "still unproven allegations."
  2. The "capitulation" of Qaddafi to Bush... as if this were an intended consequence, or even something motivated by the Iraq invasion, as opposed to a crass economic deal to allow Libya back into the official oil market. Far from being a victory, the Qaddafi example ought to be regarded as a deepembarrassmentt to the moralists. Wasn't Qadaffi once heralded as a madman? Isn't he a sponsor of terrorism? And yet somehow we cut a deal with him? Hitchens wants to give Bush moral credit for this? In realist terms, the deal makes perfect sense of course: it showed that Qaddafi can do a deal, and for the sake of regional peace, it was a good idea for the U.S. to accept. But the idea that this is a moral victory is, at best, a grotesque joke -- as the families of the Pan-Am victims did not hesitate to point out.
  3. The unmasking of A.Q. Khan is indeed a great achievement, but as a second-derivative unintended consequence, it seems hard to give the Bush team policy credit for this. As a moral matter, moreover, the Khan example is again hardly worth touting, as the man continues his life as a Pakistani national hero, rather than skulking in jail. As a policy matter, Khan also reveals the essentially misguided nature of the neocon/militarist approach, instead showing that what's needed is tighter, better policed international control over nuclear technology andknow-howw, not bombs raining down.
  4. I'm not sure that the U.N. has agreed to much, and the exposure of corruption at the U.N., while a worthwhile goal, seems hardly worth a half trillion dollar war that has killed tens of thousands. But then, maybe my moral compass isn't quite as well-tuned asHitchens'ss.
  5. How exactly does Bush deserve moral credit for the cravenness of Chirac and Schröder -- assuming that cravenness it is, as opposed to merely failure?
  6. Then there's Hitchens's claim that the Iraq invasion meant that we could know for sure that Iraq had disarmed, as opposed to "accepting the word of a psychopath...." The reasoning here is not only circular but ultimately self-refuting, revolving around the allegation that Saddam was an irrational psychopath, and therefore both untrustworthy and undetterable. But in fact, there's a deep, nasty irony at work here for the "sanctions are bunk" crowd: if anything at all was vindicated by the war, it was the efficacity of the U.N. sanctions for keeping Saddam disarmed. Indeed, insofar as you believe that Saddam was a psychopath, hellbent on getting WMDs, then it must have been the sanctions regime that prevented him from getting those weapons.
  7. Total nonsense. The gains for the Kurds in the region did not take place because of the 2003 Iraq War. Those gains took place in 1992 when the Northern No-Fly zone was established, creating a de facto Kurdistan in Northern Iraq. Whatever credit there is to hand out for this circumstance goes not to this Bush but to the last one. If anything, insofar as a constitution unifying Iraq ever comes to pass, Kurdish autonomy is likely to be reduced by this war. Hitchens knows all this, too, which is why he uses the vague phrase "immense gains."
  8. And speaking of bad faith in language, how about the next point about the "encouragement" of democratic and civil society "movements" in Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, the latter of which has allegedly gained "a version of" autonomy. Make no mistake, the gains here have been real, albeit very small. But don't we think we might have been able to get these gains in Egypt, from our friend Mubarak, without invading Iraq? And as to the claim that Syria is experiencing democratization (oops, well, not actual democratization, just democratization "movements"), the gains have been so small that I really am squinting to see them at all. I'm surprised Hitch didn't credit the invasion of Iraq with the democratization of the Ukraine -- it's the usual next rhetorical step.
  9. As for the "violent and ignominious deaths" of the bin Ladinists, again, one needn't shed a tear for these people to point out that by all reports Bush's activities has resulted in the creation of far more of these cohorts than he hasucceeded in killing.
  10. And finally, must disgustingly, and most blindly, the idea that the Iraq war has "trained and hardened" the U.S.'s armed forces is a frightening combination of idiotic militarism ("war is good, because it makes us better warriors), and complete delusion about the actual impact of the war on the Army, which by widespread report is being stretched to the point of collapse, both in terms of the desperation of existing personnel and a failure to meet recruiting goals. While a belief in the mission may apply to the soldiers on the ground in Iraq (a disciplined army should, after all, never question the mission, and ours doesn't), what is most telling is the way in which the current massive Army recruitment marketing campaign studiously avoids any mention of the great patriotic mission supposedly unfolding in Iraq.
The ultimate point, of course, is not that every one of Hitchens's points can be refuted, or that he is a hypocrite -- but that the entire pro-war discourse has become completely disconnected from what is actually taking place in Iraq. We are not winning because we cannot win. The only question at this point is only how the political fallout, both domestically and internationally, will play out.

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