HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

February 26, 2007
Implication for the Long Run
Developments Last Week

John Turner


Character as Fate

I recall thinking on October 12, 2002 that the 23 senators who voted against the authorization to use force against Iraq constituted a roll of honor, and that the Democratic senators who voted for it would come to regret their vote. I didn't have to be prescient to make that judgment. The authorization gave a warrant to a very foolish man to take tens of thousands of lives. And it was obvious he would exercise it. The people who say now they didn't know he would are simply lying, certainly to us, and probably to themselves.

Who wants to give a foolish man the power to kill thousands of people? The answer is clear: calculating and fearful politicians.

Now one of those politicians has a strong chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president in 2008. About the only thing standing in her way is the vote and her refusal to renounce it. She has tried every way she can think of to distance herself from it without renunciation. But, it's not working.

Should Hillary Clinton be denied the Democratic nomination because she won't renounce the opportunistic vote she made on October 11, 2002? I have to say, somewhat regretfully, that she shouldn't. If we had a nation of well-informed, justice-seeking people, a person of Ms. Clinton's background wouldn't be in the running. But we also have to remember that if we had such a nation, she probably would not have voted as she did. Her vote was a calculation based on her reading of the character of the American people. And her reading was not seriously wrong.

If we are pragmatic, we can't expect our leading politicians to be radically more idealistic than we are ourselves. Ms. Clinton may well fail to obtain the nomination because some other candidate will show himself to be more able than she is. But, it shouldn't be because of her calculating vote. And, if she does get the nomination, I'll vote for her, if for no other reason than that any Republican opponent she faces will be worse than she is with respect to her less than inspiring habits.


Chronology

American journalism should be striving from this day forward to engrave on the public mind a basic chronology of the major events of the Bush administration. There is no greater gift it could give to the American people.

Every citizen should, for example, have it in mind that May 1, 2003 was the day George Bush flew out to the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln and declared the end of major combat in Iraq. When he made his happy announcement, Colonel T.X. Hammes of the Marine Corps said to himself -- after a graphic expletive -- "we don't have any understanding at all of how bad this can be." Colonel Hammes was speaking of Iraq, of course, but he might just as well have been speaking of his commander in chief.

Journalism will be a long time making up to the American citizenry for how it treated that event. To any sensible person it was disgusting -- the president of the United States strutting across the deck of an aircraft carrier in a flight suit and gloating about his triumphs. But that's not how the major media personalities saw it. They were enthralled. Over and over that night I heard them glowing about what a PR genius the president and his advisors were.

Now, in recompense, they should begin to remind us how many lives it cost to pay for that strut. May 1, 2003 needs to become in the annals of American history the day the president strutted and thereby doomed thousands to violent death. And if you think that's an exaggeration, you must also be deluded enough to think that nobody in Iraq saw that strut and resolved at that moment to make us pay for it.

We have a lot of history to learn before we can approach being the people we have bragged to ourselves we are, and the first step in learning history is now, as it always has been, getting a few events in mind, remembering when they occurred, and reflecting on what they meant.


Where Intelligence Clusters

In The Assassins' Gate, George Packer's fine account of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, the author tells us that the middle level people in the various American organizations, both military and civilian, had a more accurate grasp of conditions in Iraq, and more sensible solutions, than did the higher-ups. One of the main reasons, Packer says, is that intellectual honesty made professional advancement less likely. In other words, the smart and honest people could rise just so far.

We shouldn't assume this condition flourishes only among outposted Americans. It has, in fact, become the basic American social character. If you tell the truth, you'll be seen as dangerous and held back.

Perhaps this is a human characteristic rather than just American. About that, I can't be sure. But that it afflicts all components of American organizational life cannot be denied. It is becoming so severe we Americans are becoming less than likely to accomplish anything political, social, or educational. The people at the top are fouling up almost everything they touch.

I saw this during my career in college education where the presidents with whom I worked were all abysmal. Some were worse than others, but I met none who actually contributed to the educational health of their institutions.

Mr. Bush, for example, has shown a consistent tendency to avoid what he considers un-presidential detail. He doesn't want to know about much because he doesn't think there is much that's big enough for him to know about. We might think this is simply intellectual laziness but I suspect it comes more from an egotistical concern with self than it does from sloth. Our leaders -- as we continue to call them -- have a view of themselves that is too gigantic for them to concern themselves seriously with the matters they are supposed to be managing.

Unless we can shift the attention of our most prominent people from themselves to the tasks at hand we will not move towards a better future. At the moment we're going towards something worse than we've had in the past, and that movement seems to be accelerating. Maybe this is just the inevitability of what people increasing term a decaying empire. But it ought to be the case that if we came to understand the nature of current executives, we could take some action to replace them with people of different motives.


Sacrifice

A theme we encounter more and more frequently, on TV, in the newspapers and in books, is the poignancy of parents whose children have been killed in Iraq and who want, desperately to proclaim that their sons and daughters were noble and died for something noble. The desire to make that statement seems to become more intense as the motives for the war are called in question.

George Packer in The Assassins' Gate has a long section about Chris Frosheiser whose son Kurt was killed on November 8, 2003. The father can't sort out the meaning of his son's death. He engaged in an extensive e-mail correspondence with Packer about it, and in a message about a year after Kurt was killed the father asked, "Can something be achieved that is worthy of the sacrifice?"

The pain of losing a child to a violent death must be so agonizing no one has the right to critique anyone else's response to it. If parents can find nobility in the event and gain some solace from it they have my blessing. But that heartfelt longing should not cause the electorate to be more supportive of policies that will lead to similar agony for parents in the future.

The nobility of dying for one's beliefs in a pointless, useless, virtually criminal war is not a reason to sacrifice more lives to the conflict. We are justified in being sympathetic. We are not justified in being insanely sentimental. The lives of young men and woman should be risked by political leaders only if there is near-perfect assurance that the sacrifice of lives today will save a greater number of lives tomorrow and on into the future. And there are very few situations in which that assurance can be rationally achieved.

Nothing associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq has ever carried with it that degree of assurance. And so, if the young Americans who died in Iraq have been noble, let them be noble. But let us seek no more nobility of that sort.


Weird Minds

The intellectual figures who pushed the United States towards launching the invasion of Iraq are generally called "neo-conservatives," but I doubt the term itself conveys much to the average newspaper reader about the nature of this group.

They are said to be admirers of Leo Strauss, a professor of classics and politics at the University of Chicago. But there is much disagreement about whether Strauss, had he lived to observe the Iraq invasion, would have agreed with their policies. From what I know of Strauss, I suspect he would not have, but it's a question nobody can answer with certainty.

The way in which some minds believe they can draw clear directives from the past is a strange passion. It is actually more religious than it is analytical and confutes the study of history more than practicing it. It also tends to drive people towards a certain coldness with respect to current lives. If one is always thinking of the so-called forces of history, what happens to this particular man or woman fades towards insignificance.

There has been considerable speculation about whether Paul Wolfowitz feels any uncertainty or anxiety about the lives lost in the American adventure in Iraq. Answers have been various. But Wolfowitz's public manner hasn't shown much compassion. We can say pretty much the same thing about Douglas Feith, Richard Perle, Bill Kristol, and Victor Davis Hanson. Perhaps it's harsh to say so, but the slaughter of a thousand Iraqis, or ten thousand, or a hundred thousand, doesn't seem to count much to them compared with their vast ideas about historical evolution.

Mark Lilla, himself a professor at the University of Chicago, has said it would take a comic genius, an American Aristophanes, to capture the strangeness of the little intellectual world they inhabit.

I know this: even if they aren't as hard-hearted as they sometimes appear, I wouldn't want them deciding the fate of anybody I cared about personally.


What's Lying?

Over and again -- right up till this week -- we have heard right-wing spokesmen say that, yes, the leaders of the Bush administration were mistaken about Saddam Hussein possessing weapons of mass destruction. But they weren't lying because they believed that the weapons existed. I have heard Bill O'Reilly, for example, make that claim at least two dozen times.

We need to get something straight. Bush and his cabinet members did not say that they thought Saddam had stockpiles of weapons, or that they were pretty sure they existed, or that the best evidence they could collect told them that he probably had them. No, they said they knew he had them without a doubt. Dick Cheney, speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars made that very statement in August of 2002. And if you go back to the newspapers late in that year and early in the next, you see a version of his assertion repeated over and again.

When a man says that he knows something without a doubt, and he doesn't, that's a lie.

The difference between believing something is likely and saying that you know it's true without a doubt may seem minor. But it was a distinction that led to the deaths of tens of thousands of people. A difference that causes such a consequence cannot be written off as insignificant.

If the Bush administration had said in the fall of 2002 that they thought there was a pretty good chance Saddam had a collection of weapons that threatened the United States, it would have been unlikely for Congress to grant the president unrestricted authority to use military force against Iraq. The administrative leaders were aware that was the case, so they said they knew something for sure they didn't know for sure. How is that not lying?

It may not even be true that they believed in the likelihood of the weapons. But since we have no way of knowing what was actually in their minds, we can grant them that claim. But we cannot dismiss a claim of certainty they didn't possess. That was a falsehood, pure and simple.


............................................................................................................................................................................


Comment On This Article
(Please include your name so that we may publish your remarks.)


Return to the Table of Contents



Home           Contact Us           Mailing List           Archives           Books on Sale            Links



Articles may be quoted or republished in full with attribution
to the author and harvardsquarecommentary.org.



This site is designed and managed by Neil Turner at Neil Turner Concepts