HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

July 9, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


Predictions

Guess what? Within a few weeks, nobody except members of his family will even remember who Scooter Libby was. This is according to the great pundit David Brooks, writing in the New York Times. I hope Mr. Brooks can forgive me for being skeptical (I write rhetorically, of course; he won't know whether I'm skeptical or not and, assuredly, won't care). I suspect the Libby case will continue to be discussed for more than a few weeks, and that's because it's a significant element in one of the great stories of history -- how a great nation allowed itself to be flimflammed into launching a war for reasons that were as false as you know what. Mr. Libby was a major figure in the campaign to distort the evidence justifying war. On the very morning that Colin Powell was to give his famous speech to the United Nations, Libby was still trying desperately to get even more falsehoods included in the speech than were there already. And his behavior before the grand jury was an attempt to cover up what he and his bosses had done to delude the American people about the run-up to the war. True, that's not what the case was legally about. But that's what it was about in essence, and that's why history will prove Mr. Brooks wrong as it has done so many times before. It doesn't enrage me that Mr. Libby escaped going to jail. I don't want anybody to go to jail unless that person poses a clear physical threat to the bodies or property of others. And I don't think Libby falls into that category -- at least not any longer. But his actions did help wreck the bodies of tens of thousands of people, and that's why I'm not overly sympathetic to him either.


The Core of the Matter

I hope the American public is able to keep straight in the collective mind that the entire Scooter Libby imbroglio came about because of the Bush administration's determination to use discredited evidence. The president in his State of the Union address in 2003 pushed the charge that Iraq had attempted to purchase uranium ore from the little African country of Niger. Not only was that untrue, it was known to be untrue by virtually everyone in the government who had paid any attention to the issue. But in early 2003 the government was so convinced that if it could get its war launched, it would be such a huge and popular success, none of the petty issues about how it was launched would ever be attended to, except, perhaps, by dry-as-dust historians so far in the future it wouldn't matter anymore.

Thus does egotistical delusion lead on to disaster.

On July 6, 2003, Joseph Wilson, who investigated the suspected deal between Iraq and Niger and found it to be nonexistent, said so in the New York Times, and also said the White House had to know the claim in the State of the Union address was false.

Dick Cheney, who had eagerly taken the role of chief punisher of anyone who criticized the administration, set his chief of staff working to get Joseph Wilson. And from there the whole thing rolled along until we now have President Bush commuting the main portion of Libby's sentence.

We all need to remember that the whole business works its way back to the administration's determination to use doctored evidence to lead the nation into war. If you can hold on to that truth the arcane business of grand jury indictments, obstruction of justice, a prosecutor continuing to prosecute after he knows the technical crime didn't occur becomes secondary.

Evidently, because of technicalities, the real transgression can't be prosecuted. But it remains real nonetheless.


Irrational Design

Here's another of my quixotic hopes. I wish everyone would read Kiki Munshi's piece in today's Washington Post and really try to understand what it means.

Munshi was the foreign service officer in Baqubah in Iraq during most of last year. And the op/ed article explains why American policies in Iraq don't work. The rapid rotation of American personnel ensures that policies fluctuate and that the Iraqis can't rely on the promises of U.S. commanders. Each one is trying to make his mark, and each one has a different theory of how to do it. Conditions also vary with the posting of new Iraqi officials. In Buqubah, a reasonable man who was trying to work with the Sunni leadership was replaced by a religious ideologue who thought the best way to deal with the Sunnis was torture.

The American population is astoundingly inept in comprehending what an army is, and particularly pathetic in understanding what the U.S. military is. If you wanted to design an institution to foul up completely what the U.S. is supposedly trying to accomplish in Iraq now you couldn't do much better than the U.S. Army. The army is very good at bashing in heads, ripping bodies apart, and destroying vast stretches of property. It is not much good at anything else. The psychology and sociology of military culture unfits people for taking the long view, for dealing with subtleties, or for grasping the vagaries of history. In the army, all that is considered sissy stuff, not anything a real man would care about, and simply obstacles in the way of getting in and completing the mission. For the most part, high-ranking military officers are can do guys, and doing, in their minds, does not involve thinking, except in strictly operational ways. I realize there are exceptions. We see them highlighted in newspaper articles every now and then. But there are not enough to change the patterns of military culture. The army is based on the concept that if someone is doing something you don't like, the best way to deal with him is to kill him. Unfortunately, that notion would require killing about 75% of the people of Iraq in order to turn it into the sort of country our politicians say they want. And much as some people might like to do that, it's not a practical plan.

Nothing is crippling the American Republic more seriously now than a pervasive romantic mythology about what the American military is, and can do.


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