Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Pith and Vinegar

Sideways is calling it like he sees it. Who would want anything less from him? That's why we love the guy.

He and I have similar backgrounds and views, but we arrive at different conclusions. That means it's more challenging and interesting to debate him than it is most people I disagree with, where I can waste hours floundering in a vat of rhetorical pudding trying to fish up one fact we can agree on. As for Sideways, it would dishonor his characteristic vigor and candor to answer without a matching spirit.

There are three points he asserts in a couple of recent posts that puzzle me. One is that the neo-cons are about to morph into the new McCarthys and will be out on the moors with the hounds a-baying, tracking down the forlorn liberals who "lost Iraq."

I see the opposite happening. After the next couple of election cycles, I see the coming witch hunt burning everyone who aided and supported the Iraq venture. From hapless contractors tangled in military supply paperwork getting hauled before Congressional committees, perhaps all the way to war trials in absentia at the Hague.

He scorns the notion that the media had any role in the way things are going in Iraq. I strenuously disagree. And he says he was wrong to support the war in the first place, but even if I accept his view of how it turned out, I don't think he need be so hard on himself.

Like most of us who supported the overthrow of Saddam, he's bitter and frustrated with how things stand in that country -- and this country -- almost four years later.

He now wants to say he was "simply wrong" about supporting the war at the start. Coupled with that mea culpa, he's trained his guns on people who supported the war and still support it. Writing sarcastically:

The blame must never fall on the people -- like me -- who wanted this war. No, we cannot possibly be to blame.

And never must blame fall on the people in power who ignored dissenting voices, distorted intelligence, botched the conduct of this war, relentlessly politicized this war, lied about this war, sought to profit politically from this war.

People who were simply wrong then -- and I was among them -- too often went from honest error to stubbornness in defense of error. Now stubborness is metastisizing into fantasy, denial and scapegoating.

All humans make mistakes. Honest mistakes must be forgiven. (At least I, who have made my share, hope so.) But those who make mistakes and then, rather than admit error, rather than suffer correction, turn to denial, and worse to a dishonest search for scapegoats, lose their chance at redemption.

No suspects are named, and I guess I don't read enough partisan sites to recognize the caricature.

But overthrowing Saddam, removing his corrosive influence from the world, and attempting to create a free, strong, thriving Iraq was not wrong. That's why I supported it. That was the cause I committed to in supporting the choice to go to war. And any adult must know that going to war is going down a rabbit hole and you never come out where you expected to.

The rightness or wrongness of your goal doesn't change because of the outcome. If it was right to, say, go to war for American independence, it was right whether you succeed or fail. If it was wrong to go to war to grab land from Mexico, it was wrong whether you succeed or fail. Otherwise success -- might -- stands as the only standard of right.

I asked him to explain some more in the comments, and he did.

It became "wrong" when it became clear that the president had no intention of matching means to rhetoric. Failing to win we wasted the lives of our soldiers, wasted our billions, and may have made things worse in the long run for the Iraqi people -- quite an accomplishment given what came before.

OK, fair enough. [Though I'm never going to say, "It's worse than under Saddam." You could certainly make a case that lives of free blacks in the redeemed, post-Reconstruction U.S. South were worse than they had been under slavery, and for the same reasons. And perhaps some of the freedmen prefered the order and security of the old regime. But I'll pass on making a blanket judgment about it.]

But I've been through this argument before, and I spent a lot of time reading the archives of the main opponents of the war before it started. And despite their present "toldja-sos," none of them predicted where we are. They said it was a bad idea, but for reasons that turned out to be as wrong as the rest of us were.

I have no yearning to "suffer correction" from the likes of those strident fools. Even if I'm wrong, that doesn't make them right. If anyone was right, it was Niall Ferguson, who said we Americans were too soft and lazy and had too short an attention span to be imperialists. But he is, on balance, a fan of the idea of American imperialism and hegemony.

So without a really worthy cassandra, what are you going to say to make yourself wrong from the start? "I shouldn't have listened to Colin Powell, I should have listened to ______." Fill in the blank with whom? Ralph Nader? A.N.S.W.E.R.? Pat Buchanan?

Sideways says the administration failed. It failed Iraq and it failed our soldiers, and it failed, in a fairly petty way, those of us who supported what it said it wanted to do -- and in many cases crossed over from old alliances to do so. And he's angry about it.

People in any job have an obligation to do it right. They have an obligation not to fail. Failure happens nevertheless, but that doesn't mean we should shrug our shoulders and accept failure. We should be particularly irate when the failure is not a matter of immovable objects or irresistable forces, but a matter of recklessness, stupidity, and ideology-induced blindness.

I sometimes wonder why I don't feel that level of fury. I have as much claim to it as he does. Neither do I have any special commitment to the legacies of the current White House crew (having voted for Gore in 2000). When the time comes I would like to see a calm and full accounting. I hope the military brass is already absorbing lessons.

But maybe in part I don't pour so much energy into that feeling because, as I see it, the real train wreck hasn't happened yet. And there's still time to avoid it. And at this point there's far more worth in trying to avoid it than there is in pointing the fingers and hashing the past.

Iraq was a campaign in a long war, and plenty of battles are left, whther we stay or go. Guns-and-bombs battles await, but also the harder ones we've shirked so far: immigration, energy policy, civil liberties. We'll still need a confident and effective military, backed by a reasonably unified and focused nation willing to make sacrifices.

I keep in touch with people who are over in Iraq or just back from there. I'm really worried about our military. We're now in a situation where many generals believe an active duty assignment there is likely to be a career-ender, because some private on their watch is going to do something stupid and it's going to end up on CNN 24-7. Already the contractors are pulling back from the work, smelling a mass-mailing of subpoenas. And the individual soldiers are bitter beyond words at what they see in the media coverage of what they're doing, and on the home front.

If you want a rough parallel, again, it's like the occupation of the South circa 1875. Everyone dispatched to do it is sick of it, politics have trumped problem-solving, those on duty rightly see themselves as unappreciated, and thus they are unwilling to risk anything more for something the rest of the country already has written off, in spite of the initial enthusiasm, in spite of unfulfilled promises, as a failure. The whole thing is circling the airport, waiting to crash.

And unlike the 1970s, when, in a strange twist, the nuclear annihilation threat allowed the traditional U.S. military to wander in the wilderness after its Vietnam experience, we don't have the luxury of having an embittered, vulnerable military structure and a population revolted by the notion of applying force to problems that require it.

Sideways might here say, "Then we shouldn't have gone to Iraq without making sure we won it convincingly." That's pretty much right. But I don't agree with him that somehow the current likely outcome is solely the fault of those who supported the war all along, and none of the blame devolves on those who loudly and persistently undermined and denigrated it at every opportunity without putting forth any viable alternatives except "do nothing." By which I mean the European power elites, the Western media generally, and much of the anti-war left in America.

One of my old friends who was in Iraq looked the evil in the face. She was with Iraqi friends when they mourned the deaths of loved ones who died for no reason. She saw a lot of hurt. She also saw the good we did, and she saw how little of it ever got into the news at home. She always was a patriot, but she lives in Thailand now, partly because she's so sick of what she saw of America the past three years she doesn't want to live here anymore.

And Thailand is one of the fronts in the war on Islamism. Some of the most brutal jihadis in the world operate in its southern provinces. Every month, they kill innocent people: Buddhist monks, schoolgirls, anyone. They ride up behind you on a motorcycle and whack you with a machete. Just to destabilize the region, to kick the props out from under the authorities, to fomet social collapse, to open the door to sharia rule.

You know what the Thai people outside the region did? They made millions of little paper cranes, with messages of love and peace written on them. My friend's friends spent hours at it, and they dropped them from airplanes all over the tumultuous southern region. Did it make a damn bit of difference? They might as well have flushed them all down the toilet. If you want more peace and justice in the world, even for an idealist like me, you have to accept that a certain number of murderous Islamist fanatics have to get dead in a hurry. So far, mostly only America had the will to do that. So far.

And it's here that Sideways and I seem to re-converge:

My main line of complaint, going back to the first months after Saddam fell, was that the operation was being incompetently managed. That incompetence made defeat more likely. Defeat in turn made it more likely that the damage would spread. That means a weaker United States and a more dangerous world. I'll go out on a limb and say those are bad things.

Yes, and we agree that what would have worked better would have been a heavy application of depleted uranium bullets at the first sign of unreast in Iraq after the fall of Saddam. To do it right you might have had to let your American boys gun down 600 Muslim looters and terrorists and throw their bodies in a pit along with rashers of bacon, for effect, like Black Jack Pershing did in the Philippines. You would have saved thousands of innocent Iraqi lives in the long run. Some of the bad guys flooding into the country now would have stayed home to wait for the next chance.

But would Mr. and Mrs. America have had the stomach for it, when it ran 24-7 on CNN? If not, then why are we bothering to fight this war? Why not turn away from the burning towers of 9/11 and say, "oh well, we still have the Empire State Building."

We all know America couldn't have put the boot down without setting off a howl of "Nazi killers" from Ireland to Korea, and toppling every allied government who did the right thing and took a hand in helping Iraq get rid of Saddam.

And why would that have been so? Because the world media would have saturated the airwaves with images of Americans as killers. Which is why it surprises me somewhat that among Sideway's whipping boys are those who point to the media's role in the Iraq mess. First, the old topic of the missing news.

You know what's gone missing from the blogosphere lately? The "good news" from Iraq.

For a while there you could hardly click on a pro-war blog without coming upon loud denunciations of everyone's favorite whipping boy, the Mainstream Media, for failing to report the "good news" from Iraq. There would follow a link to a blog post about a school opening in Donkeydung, Iraq.

Well, now, like I said, I've just been talking a lot lately with a friend who was over there putting things back together. It may be Donkeydung to you and me, but it's home to someone.

Have you seen much in the news lately about the restoration of the Southern Marshes? Neither have I, and it was one of the most astonishing environmental reclamation projects of the last 100 years. And my friend was a big part of it, but right now she's frankly so disgusted by that lack of awareness that she could spit.

I've never been a big fan of the "good news roundup," for various reasons. They were chicken soup. But I have said and still believe the rebuilding work was an essential component of the Iraq story, and one that was and is woefully under-reported. Maybe it was going great. Maybe it was failing. Maybe it wasn't getting done. How would you know?

Lately, far less chiding. Far fewer posts linking to happy news from Iraq. Not even the most enthusiastic of the pro-war bloggers can keep up that particular line anymore.

One reason I never put much stock in the blogosphere's "good news from Iraq" effort was that it simply culled stories from mainstream media sources. Yet the whole point was that the media wasn't covering this stuff.

Oh, it's not like there was zero coverage. Every now and then an editor at one of the big outlets maybe felt guilty enough about ignoring all the requests to cover dam openings, and allowed something to get into the paper, perhaps just to shut up his complaining readers. Or a reporter or freelancer who really saw the good changes snuck one through. And if you fished through all the bones the media threw, which is what Chrenkoff did, you could find enough in a week to build a skeleton of a "good news" story.

But the fact that you don't see that online anymore doesn't necessarily have anything to do with there being no "good news." It all came through the MSM pipeline anyhow. Perhaps the media is not even bothering now. It already has managed to turn public opinion right where many media leaders and reporters wanted it to be all along it: where all but the die-hards are ready to wash their hands and walk away from Iraq and go exact political blood-money from the GOP.

[Bush is wrong: If we leave, they won't follow us home. Right away. The mad dogs will be wilding in Thailand next, and Indonesia, and the Philippines, and Singapore, and India. Russia and Darfur. It will take them a while to get here.]

So here's another missing piece of the puzzle of what went wrong. The people in the Middle East watch our media. They see the BBC and CNN. But we generally don't watch theirs -- ever seen al-Jazeera in Arabic? I didn't think so. So we miss something that matters:

When the Americans are in town, the regional Middle Eastern media is the home-team announcer for the Islamists. When the jihadis get their butts whipped, the local media cameras find the civilians caught in the crossfire and show that and cry out for justice. Then, the jihadis are martyrs. But when the battle goes the other way and an American gets killed, the jihadis are lions of Islam, defenders of the Arabs!

And Reuters and the BBC and AFP pick up the feeds. Feh. It's revolting, but I admire it all the same. They understand propaganda.

What do we have? The CNN whose executives are proud that they report not as Americans but as citizens of the world. A media that, even before the war had a chance to go wrong, was more fixated on Bush's defeat than Saddam's. In a country where there are 2,500 or so mothers of dead soldiers in this war, most of you can only name one -- one -- of them. Who chose her as the representative? It's initials are A.P.

A little later, in a different post, Sideways approvingly quotes John McCain:

I think one of the biggest mistakes we made was underestimating the size of the task and the sacrifices that would be required. Stuff happens, mission accomplished, last throes, a few dead-enders. I'm just more familiar with those statements than anyone else because it grieves me so much that we had not told the American people how tough and difficult this task would be. ... [Talk] has contributed enormously to the frustration that Americans feel today because they were led to believe this could be some kind of day at the beach, which many of us fully understood from the beginning would be a very, very difficult undertaking.

Yep. I tend to agree with McCain when he talks about the war. He's right here, too. Those words, thoughtless, or else said without the will to back them up, have been albatrosses around us. Words matter. Look how much trouble has spun off a handful of quips and boilerplate and speech lines by the president and his circle.

Then why is it so hard to see that a flood of words -- and a flood of pictures worth 1,000 of them -- washing over us continually, seeping up through the floorboards, dripping from the eaves, so pervasive that we inhale them like air -- can't also continually have rotted and warped the way we think things are happening, or not happening, in Iraq?

No matter how incompetent the administration, it can't fail alone. We're all in this. You, me, my contractor friend, the CNN bigwigs. Back in 2004, McCain said:

In Iraq our national security interests and our national values converge. Iraq is truly the test of a generation, for America and for our role in the world. Faced with similar challenges, previous generations of Americans have passed such tests with honor. It is now our turn to demonstrate that our power, ennobled by our principles, is the greatest force for good on earth today. Iraq's transformation into a secure democracy and a force for freedom in the greater Middle East is the calling of our age. We can succeed. We must succeed.

It's still true, even if we fail the test.