Laughter and Forgetting

Iraq Ten Years After

It's good that Saddam is gone. But the price was far too high, and I suspect we've learned nothing.


First, my own little Iraq war story. I was an opponent of the war but was mistaken by not a few folks as a supporter, which happened because I wrote an essay for a book edited by George Packer called The Fight Is For Democracy. When George asked me to contribute to the volume, it wasn't clear to me that he was pro-war. I would guess that in his own mind George wasn't yet pro-war at that point. We never really talked about it directly. I just assumed he was against.

But Paul Berman was in the volume, and we all knew where Paul stood. Also Kenan Makiya. But then there was Todd Gitlin, who was against, and Susie Linfield of New York University, whose position I don't know to this day but whom I assume to have been against. So there was no "line" in the book.

But my essay lead off the collection, and it was about how American liberals needed to stand "Between Chomsky and Cheney" (my rather felicitous title, if I may say it, although Chomsky sure didn't think so!) and not get sucked into a reflexive leftist anti-imperialist posture when it came to terrorism.

I intended this as an endorsement of the Afghanistan war, which I backed, but not Iran. Indeed as I recall it, the bulk of the essay was taken up with telling readers about PNAC (remember it?), the 1992 Defense Planning Guidance, and various other neocon lies. That was really the point of my essay: Liberals must not be reflexively against the use of American power in this post-9-11 world, but we also most definitely should not support its use when it is being sold to us through a series of obvious lies.

But I guess there were a few sentences in there that out of context could be read as endorsing the Iraq war. In due course, Anatol Lieven reviewed the book in The Nation, and he called us all out as liberal hawks. It was really only then that I realized that I had contributed the lead-off essay to an important, nay defining, liberal hawk volume! But I wrote to The Nation and to Anatol to say they had me wrong, and I had the evidence of a few posts and columns I'd written at The American Prospect to back me up.

Lieven and the magazine ran a correction, acknowledging my anti-war stance, and he went on to write for me at both the Prospect and Democracy, but that liberal hawk tag followed me for a couple of years, even to Lebanon, to my horror, where I met some folks who I assumed me to be one. I've never told this story. Ten years later, it's all kind of amusing, but it wasn't at the time.

Now. The war. I think all war opponents do need to reckon with the fact that Saddam Hussein is gone, and that is a very good thing. It may well be that in a few years' time, Iraq is a functioning, multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy (although in the last few years, the change in Iraq has mostly been pretty good for Iran).

So one should acknowledge these things, but even so, they come at far too high a price. Literally--$2 trillion is an insane amount of money. Recall Rummy saying that it would cost $50 billion. Recall Wolfowitz, that witch doctor, that cretin, that human Beelzebub who couldn't even tell Congress how many young people he'd helped send off to their deaths, saying the oil revenues would pay for it. Liars and frauds, hideous people.

But it's more than the money. American lives, Iraqi lives, the refugee crisis...It was the hubris. The laughter and forgetting. The unchecked thirst for vengeance (on the wrong target, no less!). In these lights, the Iraq war was indeed one of the ugliest undertakings in all of US history.

I'd like to say we've learned, but if a generation passes and a similar situation arises, and the sitting administration is pro-war, believe me, establishment Washington will contort itself in order to become pro-war again too, and tomorrow's neocons and liberal hawks will be full to bursting with reasons about how this time will be different and won't be like Iraq at all. The march of folly, as the historian said. We'll have learned nothing.