Skeptics On the Run

Iraq vote gives the hawks a day in the sun


Believing that audiences are essentially fickle beasts, Alfred Hitchcock once demonstrated how to get a crowd rooting for an outcome they would never normally want. Most people, he explained, have nothing but contempt for a thief, and would in regular circumstances want him to be caught and prosecuted without hesitation. But you show an audience a thief struggling to break into a bank late at night, silently and fretfully making his way to the vault, and working carefully to crack the combination on the safe. Then show a closeup of the night watchman's feet as he makes his rounds. Cut back to the thief still struggling with the stubborn safe. He drops a screwdriver on the floor and it echoes in the silent vault. Cut to the night watchman's feet stopping abruptly. Now cut back to the safecracker with his eyes wide and nervous, holding his breath, beads of sweat forming on his forehead. After a minute or two of this, the most law-abiding audience will be in an agony on behalf of the safecracker, praying silently that he can brain that night watchman and make it out of the bank without getting caught…

The measure of success of the Iraqi election in winning over the fickle American audience isn't found in the corny, triumphant speechifying of the war hawks; you could have had a turnout of mere dozens and those folks would have mooned about how all freedom loving people were obliged to watch the miracle of democracy with a lump in their throats—and specified minimum acceptable sizes and dimensions for the lump. The real surprise is how even the war skeptics seem to have no counternarrative to put up against the story of a Miracle In Mosul. Initial conclusions from opponents of the Iraq war have been strikingly tired and resigned, either schoomarmish (It's still too early to celebrate!) or slippery (This just shows they want the Americans to leave!) or sour (It was a sham election!) or bitter (It's the Iranians who really won!) My favorite reaction came from a Lebanese acquaintance, who argued that this just showed the American invasion wasn't necessary, since the Iraqis obviously had a strong electoral tradition (last exercised in 1954).

I sympathize with these naysayers, mainly because I too believe the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea and is not made worthwhile by a day's worth of soul-stirring images of happy voters. But I wonder why the skeptics weren't better prepared, since it has been clear for many months that some sort of election was looming, and it was only logical that war supporters would seize on the very fact of a vote to declare a Midway-style tide-turning victory against their ideological opponents. Perhaps my fellow skeptics have been too drunk on the steady stream of bad news coming from Iraq in the past year, but they should have seen this coming.

The hawks have been winning the argument over the rightness of the Iraq war all along. They won it, obviously and most decisively, in 2003, when the invasion took place right on schedule, according to the hawks' very precise specifications. But they will also win the ultimate argument over whether it was all worth it—a much more important argument because that's the one America will look to during the perfunctory debate that precedes our next military intervention. The hawks won't win that argument because the results will be so clearly good (if anything, the results in Iraq have been and will continue to be ambiguous), but because, as my colleague Brian Doherty has shown, time is always on the side of the hawks. The groundwork for validating the Iraq war is already well in place, and in a few years the case will be embarrassingly easy to make: That wasn't so bad, was it—a few thousand dead to subdue a land mass larger than Vietnam? And since, on balance, things will always be better in the future than they were now, any improvements can easily be attributed to the war itself. Look, the argument will go, Qaddafi only tried to assassinate one Saudi official this year: Clearly, he got the message of the Iraq war. The editor of an opposition paper in Damascus has been released from prison: The regime must be feeling the pressure of the newly free Iraq. Saudi Arabia says it may review its policy on punitive amputations: Good thing we didn't listen to the Blame America First crowd back in 2003.

In this respect, it's actually better for the hawks that Americans not carry burnished memories of the historic Iraq vote, but that we let those memories drift into foggy forgetfulness. A mere three years after the fact, few of us can name more than three cities in Afghanistan, and virtually none of us can name more than one Afghan politician. By the same standard that holds up the Iraq vote as an effort-justifying success, we should really be celebrating the military genius of Bill Clinton and Wes Clark, who brought the war in the Balkans to an even more successful conclusion, with the only real damage having been done to the U.S. Constitution and whatever international laws were in place at the time. But the Balkans war is better than honored; it's forgotten. (And so, conveniently, are all the Haitis out there where ballyhooed American-sponsored elections led to more misery.)

Some of us are old enough to remember a time when the roles of Mesopotamian bad guys and not-as-bad guys were reversed, when Sunni and Shi'ite stood in different graces with the United States. I am not referring to the overhyped argument that Saddam Hussein was once an American "ally," but to the images of Shi'a lunacy that dominated America's view of the Middle East during the Iranian hostage crisis and the dominance of Ruhallah Khomeini. If you'd asked me back then, I'd have been amazed that one day Americans would be giving mawkish elegies about the glory of Shi'ite self-determination, or that a battery of experts (who, naturally, wouldn't know a Shi'ite from a barrel of monkeys) would be gleefully pronouncing that the disenfranchised Sunnis are now getting a little payback for the abuses they handed out to their compatriots under Saddam. But that's the power of dramatization. I've been watching the news for a while now, and I know the Sunnis are worse than that night watchman.