(The Barbarian Invasions. One of the few perfect movies in existence. When I first saw this movie, I thought this scene overly glib and cruel. Eight years later, it strikes me as exactly right in every respect.)
It was only on 9/11 that the world awoke to the reality of America. It is a country like any other country, potentially as unstable and dangerous as anywhere in the world. And like all people who awaken to their vulnerability, America overreacted. When a teenager first realizes the precariousness of his existence, his first instinct is to prove his invulnerability - thereby endangering his future all the more.
For hundreds of years, historians will debate the reasons for the Iraq War’s occurance. Many will claim it was about oil money. Many claim it was for the delusion of ridding the world of dictatorship. Many will claim that it was to prove that America was so invulnerable that it could patrol the world with minimal force. But the truth is both simpler and more complex. It was all three. But it was also just 9/11. Thomas Friedman spoke for most Americans when he said that the main reason we went into Iraq was because “We need to go into the Middle East and smash something.”
Perhaps this childish but deadly temper tantrum might have gone a little better. George W Bush was a President in thrall to supply-side economic policy, conservative Christian social policy, and neoconservative foreign policy. All three ideologies believe in the same magic laid upon different fields. Supply-siders believe that lower taxes will raise people’s incentive to work and therefore raise government revenues. Conservative Christians believe that the coercive policing of citizens’ private lives will result in more virtuous behavior. Neoconservatives believe that the forcible and preemptive removal of dictators will further the cause of World Peace. There are already too many statistics in this post, but it should be self-evident that all three of these beliefs are completely self-contradictory. But George W. Bush’s policy was the natural combination of all three, combined into an unholy trinity of ridiculous contradiction.
But in some senses, thank God George W. Bush was our president when it happened. If George Bush had Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle whispering paranoia into his wind tunnel ears, Al Gore would have Joe Lieberman and R. James Woolsey doing the same. Had Al Gore been our 9/11 President and Joe Lieberman his Vice-President, it’s quite possible that they’d have heeded the liberal hawk equivalent of the same. We’d have been embroiled in Iraq with a (slightly) more multi-national force of 500,000 rather than 135,000. The casualty total would be correspondingly larger, more rogue massacres would probably occur, but Iraq would have been better patrolled and more stable. The State Department and Middle East experts would oversee the process of rebuilding rather than hawkish Generals and movement conservatives. Accountability for war crimes would be in place, oil contracts would be handed to the best-qualified Iraqi engineers, UN humanitarian aid would be plentiful, and Iraqi would qualify for loans to build infrastructure and business. Perhaps Al Gore’s and Tony Blair’s foresight would even be vindicated; ready by the Arab Spring to hand over Iraq to the control of a stable federal democracy in which western-educated liberals, Kurds, and reform-minded Imams (they do exist) can keep the forces political Islam and military absolutism at bay. The world would learn that the Bush (Gore) Doctrine works, and pre-emptive military intervention is the way to maintain law and order throughout the world. Once Iraq is done, President Lieberman and Prime Minister Brown use the moral capital to take our crusade onto Sudan, then Libya, then Syria, then North Korea. And by the end of that process we’d have killed a few million people so we may prevent the potential deaths of tens of millions.
This is the logical fallacy of liberal hawkdom, a fallacy which a Scoop Jackson presidency might have been as privy to as any conservative president and a policy whose temptations Harry Truman always resisted. A doctrine of preemptive war is the doctrine of containment turned on its head. Rather than patiently waiting until a morally bankrupt regime destroys itself, an enemy country destroys the regime. And in the process, makes a martyr of the destroyed leader, kills people the destroyed leader would have eventually killed, and in doing so makes enemies of future friends and vindicates the old leader’s worst propaganda about the enemy regime.
This doctrine of preemption was the doctrine which led imperial Japan to attack the US at Pearl Harbor. Had we preemptively attacked a strong country with a bright future like China rather than Iraq, would it take any more time for China to dismantle the US as we know it than it took our country to dismantle imperial Japan?
Absolute power corrupts absolutely. And had America proven that pre-emptive nation building can be successful (as we well might have), we would not have been able to resist the next easy step - a temptation to invade countries everywhere and rebuild them in our image whenever we disapprove of their actions. The United States is not an imperial power, and I’m willing to argue with anyone who says we are. But we came perilously close to becoming one, and had the Iraqi reconstruction been successful, that is precisely what the George W. Bushes of the world have become. Resentment would build, corruption would fester, and eventually we’d be invading countries for minor human rights infractions and allowing our biggest businessmen to plunder the countries with slave labor. There are always vultures who will attach themselves to powerful people with good intentions. However good the intentions at imperial rule’s beginning, history demonstrates that vultures are what such rulers inevitably become. In 1821, John Quincy Adams, considered by many still our country’s greatest diplomat, stated that “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But She (America) does not go in search of monsters to destroy... She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”