Bringing the War Back Home

Is it Waterloo for the forces of perpetual war for perpetual democracy?


All is not quiet on the Western front for advocates of the War in Iraq—and of all the further wars and occupations that will be needed to realize their vision of a democratic and cowed Middle East.

Consecutive front-page stories in last Thursday's and Friday's Los Angeles Times limn the tragic tale of these men of greatness, now laid low by their own hubris: Thursday's story was headlined "A Tough Time for Neocons", Friday's "Going to War Not Worth It, More Voters Say."

The war advocates' worst fear, revealed in the Thursday L.A. Times piece:

"Bush could end up looking like the worst president since Jimmy Carter because of Iraq, and people are going to say, 'You got us into this mess,' " said one Washington source who considered himself a neoconservative and spoke on the condition of anonymity. "It's going to be nasty and bitter and brutal."

That isn't just a guilty conscience fleeing where no man pursueth—it's a realistic fear. Certainly, there are plenty of reasons for Americans to be skeptical about the ever-more-distasteful mess that the boys in the Pentagon's Office of Special Plans have gotten us into.

The insurgency in Iraq continues to toss not flowers but explosives (as in the attack late last week on the oil pipeline near Beiji, decimating, in the literal sense, Iraq's power grid). The aftermath of Abu Ghraib continues to bedevil Bush—face it, you're in a bit of political trouble when you have to publicly deny being the kingpin of a gang of torturers. It's especially tough when you deny it in a legalistic manner that could imply that if the infamous Justice Department memo really delivered on-the-level legal advice, then Bush may indeed be running a torture squad—not that there's anything illegal about that! (Justice Department head John Ashcroft has so far refused to release the memo revealing what his department advised Bush about interrogation techniques.)

A handoff of nominal authority in Iraq is planned for the end of the month, but this hot potato won't be so easy to give away. The tentative and doubtless treacherous baby steps of this new Iraq quasi-sovereignty (not yet a real democracy until January 2005, though it's hard to imagine successful and verifiable elections in a country as beset by violence as Iraq is today) will fall during the most dangerous possible times for George Bush's re-election prospects.

When the trouble is as serious as the trouble in Iraq, though, those who talked you into it in the first place can make a very convincing case that there's no turning back now. The architects of today's Iraq can play on the feelings evident in the polls that lie behind the Friday L.A. Times story—even the people who now think it was an awful idea aren't necessarily saying we have to withdraw, either immediately or on any set deadline:

"I never thought we should go to war in Iraq," said Anne Wardwell, a retired museum curator in Cleveland who responded to the poll. "But I think we have to see it through, because if we don't it is going to be a disaster in the region."

That attitude is the only thing that can preserve the political and intellectual influence of the war architects, and it may well do so. Last week I attended a presentation by David Frum, co-author of the very ambitiously titled An End to Evil: How to Win the War on Terror and a leading theoretician and popularizer of what is popularly (and also unpopularly) known as the neocon foreign policy stance.

Frum was speaking to an audience of 40 or so at the home of film producer Peter Guber. The audience included such luminaries as former L.A. police chief and current city council member Bernard Parks; popular syndicated talk show host Larry Elder; the no-introduction-needed Suzanne Somers, and—most significantly, as it turned out—talk show host and comic Bill Maher.

Frum presented, briefly, this thesis: that 9/11 woke us up to a world of danger aimed at us from the radically Islamic, undemocratic Arab world, and that the war in Iraq was a necessary—but not sufficient—attempt to protect us from that threat. It seemed to me Frum, and the larger world of policy for which Frum is a prime public spokesperson, conflate three goals (which, in their minds, might be a unitary goal): making America safe from terrorism; bringing democracy to the Arab world; and bringing—imposing, really—on all the world the liberal-democratic-quasi-capitalist modernity of what Frum called the "North Atlantic civilization." That—this—is the summit of human achievement, Frum says, and I wouldn't be quick to argue (though there are summits yet to climb).

But when the problem is that there are large parts of the world that have not yet reached the heights—in wealth, ideology, and the nature of their public institutions—of the north Atlantic powers, well, solving that is neither within the purview nor the ability of the U.S. government. And thinking that it is our business, our responsibility, or even, as I suspect Frum believes, our destiny to do so means a guaranteed flood of bad news from here until the 22nd century, delivered breathlessly from the varied, never-ending fronts in the war on evil. It's a long war, and of course has nothing to do with conservatism traditionally understood, or the founding principles of this republic. But Frum, and a good number of people listening to him, seemed prepared to fight it. Remember 9/11!

Frum was quiet, intense, measured, sincere. All he wants all of us to do is put our shoulders to the wheel—our shoulders, and those of our children, and our children's children—and turn the world in our direction with every bit of money and blood we've got.

Bill Maher, though, was having none of it. He loudly berated Frum for a good 10 minutes, throwing arguments both good (we haven't really improved our situation or reputation with this current situation in Iraq, have we?) and sketchy (Saddam, being a secularist, would never have aided Al Qaeda style terror under any circumstances) and, when challenged with the German and Japan models of successful wars to impose democracy, responded, with the exquisite political incorrectness that he wants to be known for, that the Germans and Japanese weren't a bunch of crazy Arabs.

This made some people groan, but it was clear from many things said during the conversation following Frum's presentation that a true democracy in the Arab world today wouldn't exactly recreate the civilization of Soho, Beverly Hills, or Cannes. (Frum is aware of this as well.) So, imposing what people really mean by democracy in this context—a culture emulating the mores and styles of early 21st century liberal quasi-capitalism—is a far longer and more onerous project than just throwing an election. So, there you go…a long, long, long fight to end evil. But worth it. Remember 9/11!

While remembering 9/11, it might also be worth remembering all those days since 9/11. Many present in Guber's handsomely appointed library wondered aloud about why nothing of consequence had happened since then in terror terms, noting that two suicide bombers in a couple of theaters could annihilate the entire movie industry. Where is this terrorist threat? Maybe there really isn't that severe of a terrorist threat? (Frum posits that since 9/11 our terrorist foes are afraid to try anything less earth shaking for fear of seeming to be backing down or something. Maybe, but if so they are complete idiots—a strategy of death by a thousand small cuts would likely be quite effective in breaking the Great Satan's will, and would be a lot easier to pull then a well-coordinated megacatastrophe.)

But it will apparently never again be acceptable to suggest that we aren't facing a constant and imminent danger from terror. Remember 9/11! And so long as there are 50 people with a grudge against the U.S. and some spending cash, we can never realistically say the war on terror is won, can we? No amount of Americans with Disabilities Acts in Syria and court decisions in favor of gay marriage in Saudi Arabia will really end the threat of terror anyway. The scenario that Frum and his ideological friends present is one that truly guarantees eternal war-crisis footing.

Labeling the mentality Frum represents seems to send some people into a tizzy, I know. So we can certainly retire the term "neocon" if it will protect delicate sensibilities and help us see the situation more clearly, without people feeling it necessary to man ramparts to defend themselves, or others, against the sinister things they insist people really mean when they use that word.

Let us just call them—awkwardly, perhaps, but anything to avoid gross misunderstanding—"advocates of the war in Iraq and a further continuing war in the Middle East in order to impose civilizational change in the Arab world and protect ourselves from terror." Whatever you call them, their prescriptions do not seem to be furthering the interests of citizens of the United States, and will guarantee a perpetual war for perpetual democracy. This means they have earned—at the very least—a rest from driving U.S. foreign policy thinking.