Hawking Ideas About War in Iraq

This pseudo-essay reviews and rates some high-profiled viewpoints from the US media debates about war in Iraq. "Talking head" reputations were staked on the war's progress. Today, some of them are looking wrongheaded

By Andres Kahar | 2004-10-01 12:00:00

It's been one and a half years since the US-led war in Iraq began. And the situation in Iraq could be a bit better than it is.

The debit side of the hard-facts ledger is overflowing: No flower showers for US troops. No flowering democracy in Iraq. No real security in Iraq either. No weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). Heck, not even vindication for Ahmad Chalabi, the Iraqi exiles' greasy eminence, whom some US officials practically fitted for a crown before the war.

Oh, speaking of facts in Iraq, did I mention the bloodshed and turmoil?

This was not the triumphal outcome promised by Bushies or their media cheerleaders back in 2003.

I. Ideas for ideas sake

I'm alarmed by the idea/reality gap in the US media, a gap between abstract explanations of what's happening in Iraq -- notions about democratization, security-building, American empire, even environmental renewal -- and the actual experiences of people on the ground.

And I don't just mean the realities of Iraqi lives disrupted and destroyed. We also receive relatively little news about the before/during/after scenes of American family loss, as coffins of dead soldiers are whisked in the backdoor at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

Such themes don't make for effervescent copy or witty roundtable chatter. Try reading Noam Chomsky, Samantha Powers, Mark Danner, or Nicholas Kristof on themes of human suffering and policy. Their messages are reality-grounded, but it ain't easygoing stuff.

But, for many pundits, the Iraq war appears to boil down to a game of ideas. For too many -- glaringly, the "Neocon" thinkers -- ideas trump reality, not the other way around. Even recently, some have depicted Iraq as a freedom-democracy success story, even while video footage depicts infernal scenes in places like Najaf, Fallujah and Baghdad.

Mind you, this tendency for North American media to convert far-off conflicts into parlor game material is nothing new. Like Gulf War I and Kosovo, the war in Iraq became a staging ground for ideas about how global politics should work in the post-Cold War period. Intellectual point-scoring can appear more important than the lives and interests at stake.

What's also striking about the Iraq media debates is this: expectations have become decidedly minimalist and bleak. Perhaps typical of this lowered bar is a hard-edged column on slate.com by Fred Kaplan, the online magazine's military affairs columnist. On August 13, Kaplan wrote:

"... the best we can hope for, at this point, is an Iraq that doesn't blow up and take the region with it. The dismaying, frightening thing is how imponderably difficult it will be simply to avoid catastrophe."

This pseudo-essay will overview the media debate about Iraq. After all, this debate sets the frames of reference through which we now get information and viewpoints about the Iraq quagmire -- or what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart refers to as the "GIANT Mess O'Potamia."

I go over the various viewpoints by grouping them into four ideal-types:

This is just my arbitrary effort at making some sense of the media noise. Later, I'll rate these groups using a four-point scoring system, just as movie reviewers do.

1. The Armchair Warriors


Possible Motto: "Don't let the truth get in the way of a good story"

Recurrent Talking Points:

· There were WMDs in Iraq--and they're likely still there, hidden under sand.

· US unilateralism is justified--the Iraq war is part of a noble mission to democratize and modernize the Arab world.

· The would-be Iraqi regime of Uday and Qusay (post-Saddam) would have been nastier; regime change prevented that otherwise inevitably dark future.

· This is part of a civilizational struggle against jihadists and terrorists.

· There was a link between Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden.

· Regime change was good for the environment: it led to the reflooding of Iraq's southern wetlands (so says Hitchens in his defence of regime change).

2. Those pesky naysayers


Possible Motto: "What do you mean we, white man?"

Recurrent Talking Points:

· This is an imperialist war against a sovereign country, Iraq.

· There were diplomatic ways to contain Iraq; they were short-circuited.

· Democracy cannot be imposed from without; regimes should be changed from within a society.

· This is a war for oil; the US must weaken its dependence on oil, as well as its ties to unsavory Middle East regimes.

· By misleading the US public about the reasons for war (WMDs), the Bush administration has done damage to American democracy.

· The US has done damage to alliances formed over the last century.

· Preemptive war is a dangerous precedent that could be used as justification for all manner of imperial or oppressive actions by dominant powers.

3. The earnest liberals


Possible Motto: "Won't get fooled again"

Recurrent Talking Points:


· Saddam Hussein's regime was a Stalinist, genocidal one; barring an Iraqi-generated coup, the "hollow pursuit of containment will be the most dangerous option of all" (wrote Remnick, New Yorker on January 27, 2003).

· There is a sound case to be made for preemptive war, especially in cases of imminent threat (argued Ignatieff).

· Iraq was a regime producing young people "who hate us more than they love life and therefore are undeterrable"; the real reason for this war was to burst the "terrorism bubble" (Friedman in slate.com discussion, January 12, 2004).


· The Bush administration got democratic consent for the war under false pretences.

· The war-planners made a mess of things militarily and diplomatically.

· Post-facto evidence undermines arguments about Iraq's imminent threat: "But the threat was not imminent. We had not achieved last resort in diplomacy, although I think we could make a case that we were almost there." (Ignatieff, LA Times Festival of Books, April 25, 2004).

· Moral progress was at the core of the Bush administrations case for war; the Abu Ghraib torture scenes tarnish the US's moral standing in the region (Remnick, New Yorker, May 10, 2004).

4. The historians


Possible Motto: "I've seen this movie before."

Recurrent Talking Points:

· The United States is the empire that 'dare not speak its name'; while it could play a more stabilizing global role akin to the 19th century British empire, the lack of serious historical-cultural-linguistic knowledge of other regions on the part of American policymakers could doom them to colossal mistakes (Ferguson).

· Obsession with the enemy of the moment (Iraq) tends to blind US policymakers to longer-term strategic considerations, such as the war on terror (Lieven).

· During Vietnam, US policymakers conflated Communists in North Vietnam, Soviet Union and China, missing both the differences between them and an opportunity to play one against the other; recently, US policymakers have lumped together Iraqi Baathists, al Qaeda and the Iranian regime, neglecting the differences and animosities among them (Lieven).

· US policymakers didn't need intelligence to know what would happen if they invaded Iraq; they simply needed to read Thucydides to understand what happens when an imperial power imposes itself on a region (Rieff).

· The democracy case for regime change made by so-called Neocons (Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, et al) is not so removed from arguments for humanitarian intervention by liberal internationalists (Samantha Power, Michael Ignatieff); both sets of arguments raise the spectre of "endless wars of altruism" (said Rieff, Conversations with History [Berkeley], March 11, 2003).

II. Quips from the Sidelines

This is where I rate the four groups.

The Armchair Warriors

There's an ancient word associated with the Middle East region that might describe pundits who clucked for war in Iraq from their safe vantage points in Western office coops: chutzpah. Indeed, it takes nerve to thunder for an offensive war when you're not the one fighting it -- or suffering its lethal effects.

This is where the Armchair Warriors lose points. Given the post-facto evidence on the ground in Iraq regarding the actual Iraqi threat before war, hawkish pundits look almost as shady as the US policymakers who tweaked facts in order to justify war.

Some years ago, Christopher Hitchens described tough-guy posturing by intellectuals as "the most lethal temptation to which the contemplative can fall victim." (See the essay on Isaiah Berlin in Hitchens's Unacknowledged Legislation.)

How right Hitchens was. How wrong The Armchair Warriors are.

For that, they score:

One Richard Perle head.

Those Pesky Naysayers

No one likes a know-it-all. But Those Pesky Naysayers could probably afford to say "See, I told you so" more than they have.

Naysayers doubted that Iraq posed an imminent threat to the US -- and they were right. They wanted to give diplomacy and weapons inspections more of a chance -- a plan that looks even more sensible retrospectively. They worried about the damage to US democracy and international legitimacy -- with apparent cause. They said that democracy can't be imposed from without -- current Iraqi experience bears them out.

Here they gain points.

However, The Armchair Warriors sometimes level this criticism at Naysayers: while they were vocally against war, many of the Naysayers were quiet on the genocidal goings-on inside Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime, seemingly content to leave that regime in place. It's an unsettling criticism that gave this critic a moment of pause.

Even so, they score:

Three Chomskys.

The Earnest Liberals

It's easier to understand why some Earnest Liberals supported war in Iraq if their position is considered against the humanitarian intervention debates of the 1990s: The Earnest Liberals are less inclined to treat raison d'état as a sacred concept. Many of them cheered for Western intervention in Kosovo, and they openly wished for Western intervention in other zones of conflict, such as Rwanda.

Because the Bush administration toyed with facts in order to make war, The Earnest Liberals have been put in the unenviable position of having to retract and backtrack.

This was Michael Ignatieff explaining his support for war a year later at the LA Times Book Festival on April 25, 2004:

"One of the things that has cost my side an enormous amount of legitimacy in this argument is the people who made this case [for war] fiddled with the truth. And I'm not going to be party to that."

One could be petty by responding: "A little late for that, eh? I mean, with due respect, Professor Ignatieff, you already were party to that."

But this critic chooses not to respond so, partly because I feel sorry for many Earnest Liberals, misled as they were. But mainly because I believe they supported the war out of the best intentions.

Still, they lose some points, scoring:

Two Clintons.

The Historians

The Historians seldom got the same attention as fiery polemicists (Hitchens) or US policy-friendly pundits (Ajami). But they sure contributed a depth to the debate that wasn't there otherwise. (That's not mentioning the charm factor working for scholars like Niall Ferguson and Anatol Lieven; it's a cliché that even the stupidest argument can sound clever to North American ears if conveyed in fluid Brit. Fortunately, these particular Brits seem incapable of being stupid.)

The Historians' penchant for digging up the past at both opportune and inopportune times gave us the chance to liberate ourselves from the present -- to realize that some things have been done before, so US policymakers needn't reinvent the wheel. Ferguson's op-ed pieces and TV appearances helped remind us of the disconcerting parallels between the British actions in Iraq last century and what the Americans are doing there today. Lieven has drawn parallels to Vietnam -- not in terms of the politico-military situation, but more in terms of US policy presumptions. David Rieff has tried to give both Neocon ideologues and liberal internationalists caution by reminding us that most imperial ventures were at least partly inspired by humanitarian impulses, citing British magnate Cecil Rhodes's description of 19th century colonialism as "philanthropy plus five percent."

Not a bad performance at all -- for a group of eggheads.

They win points, and score:

Four Herodotuses.

Rehashing these pundit opinions summoned up a couple of quotations from the oracular Yogi Berra, which I'll close with:

"It was impossible to get a conversation going; everybody was talking too much."

"If you don't know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else." Indeed so.

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2004, page 19. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Andres Kahar here

Peace Magazine homepage