HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

August 27, 2007
From Liberty Street

Errors

John Turner


It becomes increasingly difficult to say anything further about the horror the United States government has created in Iraq. Yes, the country was something of a horror before the American invasion and occupation, but not as complete a horror as it is now. And, before the U.S. went crashing in, there was a chance, through skillful and determined diplomacy, to move it towards something less horrible. Now, nobody knows how to make that move.

Anyone who has either the will or capacity to know about what happened in Iraq should be aware of it now. There are few significant secrets left to be divulged. The American government was astoundingly disorganized and major decisions that shaped the destiny of the smashed country were never even discussed with the principal officials. As Roger Cohen reveals in today's New York Times, Colin Powell was not informed, in advance of its announcement, of the decision to make Paul Bremer complete dictator of Iraq. He had thought Zalmay Khalilzad was going to coordinate with Bremer and that a council of Iraqi officials was going to be put together to help govern the country. But at a lunch with the president, Bremer said he wanted all the power and Bush said okay. Powell was reduced to asking Khalilzad what happened, and he received the reply, "You're the secretary of state and you're asking me what happened!"

It may not be possible to say unequivocally that Paul Bremer's behavior in Iraq was the most complete disaster the government of the United States ever presided over. But there can be no doubt it's high on the list.

President Bush continues to say that mistakes were made. He doesn't say what they were. It's a strange way of speaking about actions that were taken deliberately and right until this moment have not been acknowledged as flaws of judgment. The truth the journalistic establishment of the United States will not face is that the primary goal of the president and his true advisors with respect to Iraq has been accomplished. They wanted an entire nation as a military base in the Middle East, and now they have one. There are more difficulties associated with having it than they anticipated, and those have been annoying. Yet, from their point of view, the mission actually has been accomplished. Bush is just as convinced today as he was in March of 2003, when he launched the invasion, that his actions will enhance American power and that history will applaud him for having taken them. He doesn't seriously care how many people have to die for him to get what he wants. He brushes those deaths aside as a necessary cost of a bold foreign policy. As he has proudly proclaimed on numerous occasions, he has lost no sleep over what has occurred in Iraq.

Who and what George Bush is has been settled. Historians in the future will reveal little about him that we don't know right now. The only important question remaining about him is how he will be perceived by the electorate of the United States over the next several decades. Will they turn away from his goals, or will they write him down as a leader who wanted the right things but was too inept to achieve them? How they answer will determine the character of the United States for a long time to come and have a major influence on conditions throughout the world. And unlike the questions of what George Bush is, and what his Iraq policy was, that question is far from being settled.

It depends on what we, the people, want. Personally, I've decided I don't want the world George Bush would construct. I think of it as a boss-man world and I would like to inhabit a society where there are fewer and fewer bosses. It's true that when nobody is in charge, conditions can get chaotic. And, it's also true that on some occasions we can't afford the chaos and therefore we must turn to the boss man. But the issue is, do we do it reluctantly or with a sense of triumph?

I suspect we're seriously divided on that matter.

Yesterday, watching the Little League World Series, I was reminded of how far we've got to go before we even recognize the primary question confronting us. The championship game was between a team from Georgia and one from Japan. It was closely contested and went into overtime tied. And in the bottom of the second overtime inning, a boy from Georgia hit a home run and won the game.

Both teams were made up of eleven and twelve year old boys and, consequently both victory and defeat were intensely emotional. I felt happy for the Georgia team. They appeared to be likable kids. But, at the same time, I felt sorry for the boys from Japan, because they were just as likable, and they were devastated.

After the initial celebration at the plate when the batter reached home, the Georgia boys looked out on the field and saw their opponents who were standing listlessly in their sadness. I didn't know whether what happened next had been ordered by the coaches or whether it was done spontaneously. But, it really didn't matter. The Georgia kids went out on the field to shake hands and hug the boys to whom they couldn't speak. And they  seemed actually to be understanding what the Japanese boys were feeling. And the Japanese kids, in turn, seemed really to be at least a little consoled by the respect of their opponents.

Meanwhile, over in the stands, the Georgia parents had started a loud chant of "USA! USA! USA!" The parents were proud of their kids as they had every right to be. They weren't aware that anyone would think what they were doing was crude and obnoxious. But there they were, and their actions were reflective of the world view of George Bush, whereas, out on the field, the kids were modeling something quite different.

Who we are, and who we're going to be, is not a matter of error or competence. It's a matter of what we want and what we choose.


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