Thomas J. McCarthy

With the 2004 presidential election looming, I find myself recalling George W. Bush’s mantra four years ago, when he was a candidate, about bringing honor and dignity back to the oval office. Whenever he lost his way in public speech, he would lurch back to his narrowly circumscribed comfort zone, no matter what the topic at hand, with the honor and dignity set-piece.

Four years later his folksiness wears thinner than ever in his struggle to keep pace with the script on Iraq. It is hard not to be confused, considering the tangled array of rationales for the war. The administration has proffered an assortment of expedient explanations for its actions, each delivered with impatient disbelief that anyone could question its univocal and inevitable wisdom.

Keen to codify in the American imagination the link between the Iraq war and the war on terror, the administration has attempted to discredit its critics and assuage voters. Thus Vice President Cheney, who took the lead in the administration’s exaggerated equation of Iraq and terror: In Iraq, we took another step in the war on terror; Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz: Military and rehabilitation efforts now under way in Iraq are an essential part of the war on terror; Secretary of State Powell: This was an evil regime.... Hussein would have stopped at nothing until something stopped him. It’s a good thing that we did; National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice: This was a regime that pursued, had used and possessed weapons of mass destruction, twice invaded other nations, defied the international community and gave every indication that it would never disarm and never comply with the just demands of the world.

Why did we go to war? The administration’s answer has been a rationale du jour that reveals its disdain for the international community and for the very honor and integrity that candidate Bush touted. The link between terror and Iraq being tenuous at best, Donald Rumsfeld employs a favorite theme of the administration by justifying the war in terms of humanitarianism and freedom: Our mission is to help Iraqis so that they can build their own nation. Amazingly, the administration position is at once fixed and mixed: we went to war because of the safety and security of the American people; to topple an oppressive regime; because Saddam failed to fulfill United Nations sanctions; to give the Iraqis their country back; to combat terror; to bring peace and democracy to the Middle East.

The last is particularly sanguine, if not delusional. Citing U.S. attempts to transform societies in Central America and the Philippines, the historian Paul Kennedy urges Americans to have some humility about whether a Western-led crusade for democratization is a wise policy...in this troubled region.

The administration, however, with the subtlety of a Bill O’Reilly or Michael Savage, scorns humility in American foreign policy as feckless and effete. The way to lead is not by example but by force. The primary tools of this leadership style are pre-emptive war and the rhetoric of fear, tools best employed with a black-and-white, with-us-or-against-us brazenness.

Nicholas Lemann captured the administration’s dangerously oversized optimism in a recent New Yorker essay: The President’s rhetoric divides the world into those who have passion and courage and those who believe in nothing except a self-defeating caution. The willingness to make the gesture overwhelms whatever difficulties there are on the ground.

Such difficulties multiply daily. To increasing numbers of Americans it has become painfully obvious that national security needs did not require us to attack Iraq. Yet, ever more defiant and unrepentant, the administration has apparently learned nothing from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Trust us, they said before the war, and Trust us, they say now. We know what we’re doing. There’s a lot you don’t know. The lacuna left by such unsatisfactory arguments is staggering to all but the most partisan supporters, who dismiss all criticism as negativity.

This brash and blinkered optimism, along with half-hearted and ham-fisted diplomacy, got us into the war; manifestly poor planning makes the prospect of a satisfying outcome grim. The president egregiously rebuffed intelligence that did not fit his assumptions, repudiating the invaluable knowledge of the State Department’s Future of Iraq project, and seized upon reports that did. Whether one believes that the administration has been more hypocritical or deluded, on what basis should we take seriously its future pronouncements or dire warnings?

Ironically and tragically, terrorists are the biggest winner from the administration’s recklessly overconfident foreign policy. As Benjamin Barber, author of Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism and Democracy, puts it: Pursuing preventive war at a growing cost in American lives and money against regimes the Bush administration doesn’t like or countries that brutalize their own people may appeal to American virtue, but it undermines American security.

The wishful thinking that got us into the war persists. No one is happy about this except our sworn enemies. Allowing arrogance to pass for leadership and fiction to pass for fact only exacerbates the problem.

 

 

We do know, with absolute certainty, that he [Hussein] is using his procurement system to acquire the equipment he needs in order to enrich uranium to build a nuclear weapon.
Dick Cheney
November 2002

 

Thomas J. McCarthy writes from St. Paul, Minn.

Comments

Claude Pavur, S.J. | 11/26/2003 - 11:52am
On the one hand, you have the sadistic, murderous brutality of the Saddam regime whose interest in weaponry and domination no informed person ever doubted. On the other, you have the confidence of an American government that failed to compress the vastly-overdetermined reason for going to war into a simple soundbite. Which is guilty of the greater crime? Which are you going to choose to feel worse about? In the discussion of the Iraq conflict, let's have perspective and proportionality. What most deserves support now is anything that encourages the world to have the moral resolve to put an end to genocidal, Reich-hungry, mass-grave-filling regimes wherever they are found.

Claude Pavur, S.J. | 11/26/2003 - 11:52am
On the one hand, you have the sadistic, murderous brutality of the Saddam regime whose interest in weaponry and domination no informed person ever doubted. On the other, you have the confidence of an American government that failed to compress the vastly-overdetermined reason for going to war into a simple soundbite. Which is guilty of the greater crime? Which are you going to choose to feel worse about? In the discussion of the Iraq conflict, let's have perspective and proportionality. What most deserves support now is anything that encourages the world to have the moral resolve to put an end to genocidal, Reich-hungry, mass-grave-filling regimes wherever they are found.

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