Archive for August, 2010

Hawks in the rain

August 22, 2010

Like the proverbial poor, well-meaning warmongers we have always with us.

Salon’s Jordan Smith reminds us, in a useful mini-essay, that the spirit of bloody do-gooderism never dies away. Behold these quotes:

“A lot of liberals are still caught in habits of thinking that were formed during Vietnam,” says [Jeffrey] Herf, a historian who supported the Iraq war. “Guys like me and Paul [Berman], Leon Wieseltier and Marty Peretz — we have moved on.”

Now here’s a quote from the same guy, later on in the essay:

“If Iran gets a nuclear bomb, we will have a crossed a threshold,” Herf says. The Persian nation will have proved to the world you can thumb your nose at the U.S. and the U.N. and the international community and succeed, he says. “As a historian of Nazi Germany, I’ve learned that when leaders say lunatic things, they mean them.”

In other words, he’s one of those guys still caught in habits of thinking that were formed by World War II, and hasn’t moved on. The trick is to pick the right war, you see.

Or, as Wieseltier wrote recently: “If I had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, I would not have supported the war; but I do not, for that reason, believe that the Iraq war has been a catastrophe for Iraq and its region, or that the Iraq war is all or most of what we need to know about America’s role in the world, or that the Iraq war should be promoted into the primal scene for all subsequent American foreign policy.”

Like most practiced liars, Wieseltier hides his rancid truths behind a pedantic style, in which double negatives and pointless qualifiers (“I would not have supported, but I do not believe,” “for that reason,” “all or most”) rub away at his sentence until it emerges practically devoid of meaning. Most of these Atlantic/New Republic twerps speak in a kind of perky, mock-casual patois (“I almost hate to do this to a guy who feels so bad, but he’s massively over-reading the lessons of this episode”), but Wieseltier’s tone is grave and professorial. He wouldn’t want you to think he’s not a Serious Person, for God’s sake. One longs for the brashness of a genuine con-man, the blatant lying of an old-fashioned carnie — anything but this adenoidal agony.

The background to these remarks is the potential — which fortunately isn’t much of a potential — for a U.S. intervention against Iran. In a recent Atlantic cover story, Jeffrey Goldberg did his best to make the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran — the dream of the most right-wing of right-wing Israeli nationalists — seem like nothing more than yet another Reasonable Option On The Table, perhaps the most Reasonable Option of them all. This anonymous exchange sums it up very well:

One Arab foreign minister told me that he believes Iran is taking advantage of Obama’s “reasonableness.”

“Obama’s voters like it when the administration shows that it doesn’t want to fight Iran, but this is not a domestic political issue,” the foreign minister said. “Iran will continue on this reckless path, unless the administration starts to speak unreasonably. The best way to avoid striking Iran is to make Iran think that the U.S. is about to strike Iran.

Imagine an elected official of the United States daring to consider the wishes of mere “voters” as if they mattered as much as the views of right-wing Israeli politicians!

The truly incredible thing about these remarks is that they reveal that the last decade has changed nothing in the minds of certain influential ideologues, even as it has stunned the rest of the country into being more suspicious of foreign interventions than it’s been in nearly a century. In the minds of these “liberal hawks,” war is always an option “on the table,” to be used not as a last but as a first resort if it gets the job done. (“The job” to be done varies from protecting Israel, a powerful country with a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East that is somehow forever on the brink of total annihiliation; to stabilizing the global order, whatever that is.) What unites them is scorn for the boring world of domestic affairs. Like the anonymous Israeli foreign minister, they couldn’t care less about what goes on in America, with its 7-Elevens and zone ordinances. “I care most about foreign affairs,” snapped Martin Peretz this year, “and my party does not give a damn.” Oh, but they do, Mr. Peretz, even if your definition of giving a damn is sending others to hell.

Nearly 6 in 10 Americans oppose the Afghanistan War. Foreign Affairs magazine ran a brilliant series of articles in the wake of Obama’s 2009 promise to “finish the job” that demonstrated, beyond all doubt, that the war was unwinnable. In fact, calling it unwinnable is somewhat misleading because it fails to suggest just how ridiculous the idea of “winning” this occupation is in the first place; “winning” would require us to leave behind a completely different country. A country that can’t even afford to keep playgrounds and public pools open during the summer isn’t likely to come up with another Marshall Plan. Yet the war continues, because Serious People want it.

It’s astonishing how little shame these self-proclaimed “liberals” feel about being implicated in the despicable act of sending American soldiers off to die — and kill people — for the sake of a trifle. But they channel what shame they feel into a kind of nauseating public display of hand-wringing “thoughtfulness.” Their usual routine is to pound the war drums along with everybody else and then belatedly moan about “mistakes” that were made, regret that their war wasn’t sufficiently “planned” enough, then ultimately dismiss it as a “blunder,” a mere anomaly in a long stream of stunning interventionist successes. The ever-unpredictable Joe Klein, a centrist among centrists, recently took it into his head to rashly promise that he would never support any war “unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack. Never. And never again.” To which one of The New Republic’s apparatchiks, Jonathan Chait, riposted that Klein had “over-learned the lesson” of the Iraq War:

Klein’s argument that “we should never go to war unless we have been attacked or are under direct, immediate threat of attack” is a pretty extreme position. It would rule out not just the intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo, but also the Gulf War, the Korean War, and going to war against Germany in World War II, not to mention obviously Vietnam and World War I. Probably the only wars such a standard would permit would be fighting Japan in World War II and, arguably, the War of 1812.

This statement is actually false, since Nazi Germany declared war on the U.S., but what an incredible idea — that opposing war except as a last resort is an “extreme position.” It seems to be the overwhelming sentiment of most Americans, which explains why the Bush Administration spent nearly a year bombarding them with propaganda in 2002 and 2003 before daring to launch their war. It seems, incidentally, to be the position of just about everyone who ever actually fought in a war. (Chait, who seems to have had little existence outside the world of the Washington liberal intelligentsia, is not among them. Neither is Jeffrey Herf, Paul Berman, Leon Wieseltier, or Martin Peretz. Or Jeffrey Goldberg or Joe Klein. Once upon a time, wars were fought by Chaits and Hefs and Bermans and you and me and everyone else; now they’re fought by kids who want to pay for college.)

But that extreme position, like certain other “extreme” positions that happen to be held by a majority of Americans (like tolerance of abortion), is an entirely reasonable one. Leaving aside the War of 1812 as an inevitable, belated confrontation with the British Empire, the United States has only been attacked twice: by the right-wing southern secessionists in 1861 and the Axis Powers in 1941. A non-interventionist position need not be a pacifist one (though that is an entire honorable position as well). That America, with the largest military in history and a long line of politicians who regard war as a quick way to distract disgruntled voters, is not continually consumed by three Vietnams at once is a testament to the fact that we still retain our basic gut feeling that war ought to be a last resort.

What is the point, you may ask, of paying attention to such a pack of obvious fools? The reason is that these poltroons, buzzing around and around the realm of Serious Persons like so many enraged wasps, have far more of a chance of being heard in the enclaves of our rulers than the plain, unamplified voices of any of us. They are affected by reality not at all, because they are barely part of it; the falling of bombs in a distant land, the progress of which is observed with keen interest on their BlackBerries, affect them less than whether it will rain on them tomorrow. So it is with most of us; the difference is that we do not clamor for bombs to take away the mundanity of living in a land of 7-Elevens and zone ordinances.