Just Above Sunset
Volume 5, Number 10
March 11, 2007

Tragic Vision

 The world as seen from Just Above Sunset -

"Notes on how things seem from out here in Hollywood..."

Tragic Vision? Bring It On!

Way back when, Matthew Yglesias and Sam Rosenfeld, in The Incompetence Dodge, argued that the Iraq war was doomed to failure no matter how well it had been prosecuted.  This was in reaction to all the grumpy former pro-war "deep thinkers" on the liberal side who were dismayed at how things had turned sour and were saying that the idea wasn't bad, but those who ran the thing were useless bunglers. The argument they make is, no, the problem was conceptual -

    The incompetence critique is, in short, a dodge - a way for liberal hawks to acknowledge the obviously grim reality of the war without rethinking any of the premises that led them to support it in the first place. In part, the dodge helps protect its exponents from personal embarrassment. But it also serves a more important, and dangerous, function: Liberal hawks see themselves as defenders of the legitimacy of humanitarian intervention - such as the Clinton-era military campaigns in Haiti and the Balkans - and as advocates for the role of idealism and values in foreign policy. The dodgers believe that to reject the idea of the Iraq War is, necessarily, to embrace either isolationism or, even worse in their worldview, realism - the notion, introduced to America by Hans Morgenthau and epitomized (not for the better) by the statecraft of Henry Kissinger, that U.S. foreign policy should concern itself exclusively with the national interest and exclude consideration of human rights and liberal values. Liberal hawk John Lloyd of the Financial Times has gone so far as to equate attacks on his support for the war with doing damage to "the idea, and ideal, of freedom itself."

    It sounds alluring. But it's backward: An honest reckoning with this war's failure does not threaten the future of liberal interventionism. Instead, it is liberal interventionism's only hope. By erecting a false dichotomy between support for the current bad war and a Kissingerian amoralism, the dodgers run the risk of merely driving ever-larger numbers of liberals into the realist camp. Left-of-center opinion neither will nor should follow a group of people who continue to insist that the march to Baghdad was, in principle, the height of moral policy thinking. If interventionism is to be saved, it must first be saved from the interventionists.

The item is long and detailed, and tightly argued, but comes down to this -

    … whether in Eastern Europe in the 1990s or Ukraine, Georgia, and Lebanon in the 21st century, democracy promotion has not been accomplished primarily through warfare. Acknowledging the limits of armed intervention does, however, entail a recognition that injustice exists in the world that is beyond America's capacity to remedy. Refusal to see this - which is part and parcel of the incompetence dodge - may be the liberal hawks' most dangerous tic. And if a failure to internalize some trace of the tragic worldview is a common liberal danger, still further dangers abound for intellectuals and pundits: the seductions of cheap hindsight and second-guessing, the perennial inclination to sacrifice empirical grounding for lofty moralizing and aesthetic preening.

That's about it. Liberal do-gooders like to, well, do good, even if they are generally anti-war, hoping only for a hypothetical "good war" if we must have one. That would be a war where there was no other choice and the threat was real, and indisputable, and blindingly obvious good would come from such a war.  The Second World War is the model for that, of course.  And either they got suckered with this Iraq business, with the administration playing on their "we can make the world better" mindset, or, after the fact, they still cannot give up that mindset, and, not wanting to appear foolish, are arguing this war might have made the world better had it been better managed. They have no tragic vision, if you will. It's really hard to give up the idea that everything can be fixed.

The irony is that the neoconservatives who cooked up a war with Iraq - as an entirely appropriate response to the 9/11 attacks on us by a group of people Saddam Hussein of Iraq feared and hated, and who hated him in return, and who were operating from another country entirely anyway - ended up justifying the Iraq gambit as an ultimate "do good and change the world for the better" thing. They ended up sounding like "you never know, it might work" idealists of the sixties. We really can change the world and all that.

There was no room here for tragic vision on either side, the idea that you cannot fix some important things - that's just not how the world works.  There are, in the end, limits to doing good and achieving universal peace and brotherhood and all the rest. You can hum a few bars of the Lennon time Imagine -

    You may say I'm a dreamer
    But I'm not the only one
    I hope someday you'll join us
    And the world will live as one

It's just a silly song, beyond its emotional resonance.  It's a silly as the ditzy Miss America candidate, teary-eyed, saying what she really wants, more than anything else, is world peace.  The conservative right has their cultural references, including the wholesome Miss America of the year - remember the Vanessa Williams scandal (they take this stuff seriously). The liberal left has John Lennon and the like. Neither side has that tragic "some things cannot be fixed" vision of the world.

We Americans aren't like that. We fix things. We're the heroes.  Nothing is impossible.  We're not French after all - we'll have none of the fifties hyper-realistic existentialist crap - we'll have nothing that smacks of hanging around with Camus and Sartre at the Flore back then and saying God doesn't matter a whole lot and you have to do you're best even if it doesn't matter, and more precisely, because it doesn't matter.  And anyway, smoking is bad for you and the coffee at the Flore and Les Deux Magots isn't very good, and overpriced these days.

The funny thing is that France has now banned smoking at such places and Starbucks hit Paris two years ago.

We, on the other hand, are learning a bit about existential despair. The tragic vision thing is being slapped into us.

Heck, even John Podhoretz at "The Corner" - the blog of the strictly neoconservative National Review -is calling the conclusions of New York Times reporter John Burns on Iraq "frank" and "powerful" -

    My guess is that history will say that the forces that we liberated by invading Iraq were so powerful and so uncontrollable that virtually nothing the United States might have done, except to impose its own repressive state with half a million troops, which might have had to last ten years or more, nothing we could have done would have effectively prevented this disintegration that is now occurring.

Whoa - cette idée est très française.

And from Kevin Drum -

    … even though Burns acknowledges that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was a uniquely bad regime, even by Mideast standards, the obvious conclusion from his comments is that (a) as a way of liberalizing the Middle East the war was a bad idea from the get-go and (b) further military action in the Middle East is likely to backfire too. Is that a conclusion that Podhoretz and his fellow Cornerites are willing to accept?

It would seem so.  They're turning French.

As of the Old Gray Lady, the certainly not neoconservative New York Times, there was the 6 February opinion piece from Edward Luttwak - on the logical and sane best option we now have in Iraq.

Here's a summary from Andrew Sullivan -

    It is to withdraw to the borders, Kurdistan or distant bases within Iraq and allow the war to sort itself out. Only then will real power-brokers emerge able to make a real deal; only then will the future of the deserts and cities of Iraq find a new political settlement. The only thing preventing this from occurring is President Bush's pride and stupidity. But Iraq and America have each suffered both signature characteristics of George W. Bush for longer than either deserve. It's long past time to cut our losses and acknowledge reality.

Camus, born in Algeria, is smiling from where ever he is now (buried in Lourmarin, actually.)

Sullivan sums it up -

    Once the decision was made to foment anarchy in Iraq - a decision made with clear foresight by Donald Rumsfeld, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney - the chance of Americans to influence events in a country they don't begin to understand was thrown away. The great delusion of the pathetic rearranging of deck-chairs called "the surge" is that we are somehow supposed to believe that four years after we abandoned control of Iraq, we can regain it with a handful of new troops. We can't. A civil war is underway in Iraq to test the real power of the various factions and sects in the country. There will be no peace until such a rebalancing of power is finished. That will mean, alas, ethnic cleansing, more violence, hideous atrocities and the risk of regional war. So be it. It's already under way under American occupation; the only problem is that young Americans are - ludicrously - supposed to police it.

So we leave -

    Would this lead to a regional war? It's perfectly possible. But it could also lead to the powers of the region actually acting in rational ways to achieve a new and more stable balance of power. The culture of dependency on U.S. security guarantees has not helped Muslim moderation or Middle East peace over the last two decades. Such dependency gave us al Qaeda and 9/11. Slowly weaning the Saudis and Egyptians off such dependency could be a healthy move. Already, the Saudis, in the wake of U.S. withdrawal, are countering Iranian influence in the region with far more skill and sophistication than the Bush administration ever could. The U.S. can still be a major player from the margins - just not the regional hegemon in the center.

    This is the silver lining of Iraq's disintegration. It could help rearrange the region to a more stable balance of power. It could do so by a brutal regional war; or by a slow, intermittently violent process of terror, diplomacy and strategic positioning. Either way, the less the U.S. is directly involved in one side or another, the more options we retain for the future. Disengagement, in other words, is defeat. But it is defeat in a war we have already lost. It could mean a gain in a war that is only just beginning. Which could mean victory in the end, whatever victory at this point can be understood to mean.

Well, maybe, and maybe not.

But we don't leave.  We disengage. The distinction is important.

Luttwak argues we shouldn't completely withdraw from Iraq - just that we should stop trying to patrol the streets of Iraq, and just stop trying to suppress violence. We let the militias and all other contending parties fight it out. If we eliminate those missions most of troop can come home, actually.  The rest would relocated - to sealed off camps on the periphery of Iraq and up in Iraqi Kurdistan. They'd be available of any neighboring country tries to invade, or meddle with things in Iraq, or if there a big concentration a jihad folks or al Qaeda we need to attack.

Josh Marshall points out here that the guy "hits on the key point that our current national debate seems to ignore entirely: Namely, that Iraq is in a state of civil war which we our combat forces are not in a position to stop. We cannot stop it. But our presence is dragging it out, arguably making it even more deadly by making it more protracted."

So we get realistic, and stop with the idealism already.

Luttwak says this could work to make things better -

    Politically, on the other hand, disengagement should actually reduce the violence. American power has been interposed between Arab Sunnis and Arab Shiites. That has relieved the Shiite majority of responsibility to such an extent that many, notably the leaders of the Mahdi Army, feel free to attack the American and British troops who are busy protecting their co-religionist civilians from Sunni insurgents. For many Arab Sunnis, on the other hand, the United States must be the enemy simply because it upholds the majority of the heretical Shiites.

    Were the United States to disengage, both Arab Sunnis and Shiites would have to take responsibility for their own security (as the Kurds have doing been all along). Where these three groups are not naturally separated by geography, they would be forced to find ways to stabilize relations with each other. That would most likely involve violence as well as talks, and some forcing of civilians from their homes. But all this is happening already, and there is no saying which ethno-religious group would be most favored by a reduction of the United States footprint.

Marshall's assessment -

    This is another example where fairly straightforward and I believe indisputable facts suggest pulling our troops out of the midst of this civil war, not pushing more of them into it. But denial is pushing our national policy in the opposite direction. I think that some key players in the White House realize this. And the surge is either a way to blame 'failure' on the Iraqis or pave a path into Iran. Others, perhaps the president, don't even get this. I don't know.

    But getting our policy in order is also being stymied because the political opponents of the war aren't willing to say that, yes, the policy has failed. Not 'defeated'. To be 'defeated' you need to have some other party 'defeat' you. This is just a failure. But whichever it is, that bogey is being used by the White House to scare off the opposition. It's a failure. There's no recovering it. And the unspeakable reality - truly unspeakable, apparently - is that it's not that bad. Horrible for the Iraqis. Horrible for the American dead. Terrible for American prestige, power and honor. All that. But not the end of the world. The future of our civilization isn't at stake. And our physical safety isn't at stake. We'll go on. We are not the brave British standing behind Winston Churchill bucking us up with the confidence that "We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be; we shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender ..." Those aren't the stakes here. Put it in those words and it's almost comical. President Bush wants us to believe that it is because it serves his grandiosity and direct political interests to believe that, to believe that his political interests - where everything, history, legacy, etc. is on the line - are the same as ours as a country. They're not.

We need not fix George Bush's problem, whatever his issues are.  And we need to accept reality - a major failure, but not the end of the world.

So we need to get on with the inevitable. The president says things make look awful now, and will be awful through the end of his presidency, but history will prove he was right in all of this, in most every detail. He like to think of himself as Harry Truman. But everyone else is turning French, and probably quoting Camus - "Do not wait for the last judgment. It takes place every day."

Heck, soon they'll be quoting Camus in The Rebel (1951) - "He who despairs over an event is a coward, but he who holds hope for the human condition is a fool."

Bring it on.

Where we'll all be soon - reading the news in Lourmarin, not far from the churchyard where Camus is buried.

Reading the news in Lourmarin

Photo - Just Above Sunset archives, from June 2000

This item posted - in its final version - February 11, 2007

[Tragic Vision]

Last updated Saturday, March 10, 2007, 10:30 pm Pacific Time

All text and photos, unless otherwise noted, Copyright © 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 - Alan M. Pavlik