June 23, 2009

Something of A Mea Culpa

Jeff Weintraub writes (in an otherwise favorable review: “(e)ven so-called foreign-policy "realists" are sometimes startled and moved by actual realities. Here is a fine and eloquent outburst from Greg Djerejian...”) of a recent post of mine:

I will skip the rest, since it is not so much about Iran as about the ideological dogfights going on here in the US, in the punditocracy and the blogosphere, about how the US government and the rest of us should respond to that ongoing political drama in Iran. Those debates have generated some light, but more heat than light--that is, they have been excessively pervaded (in my view) by inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty. (Yes, some of those accusations have been justified, to some degree, on all sides.) So I have mostly tried to avoid all that, and to focus on serious and potentially illuminating analyses of what is going on in Iran. With all respect to Greg Djerejian, I think (fairly or unfairly) that some of those critical remarks apply to at least some aspects of the non-quoted portion of his post (including the rather tiresome ritual "neocon"-bashing which is becoming too much of a reflex in some quarters). But not to all of them ... so anyone who is interested in considering the rest of his discussion can pursue it here.

I want to issue something of a mea culpa here. I have noted a tendency in this space with the passage of the years to engage in a decent amount of what might pass for neo-con “bashing”, whether ritual or otherwise. The reasons are many, to include:

1) the fevered overall tone of much of the blogosphere, where often ‘Fisking’ (itself a sophomoric moniker regrettably demeaning to a very talented journalist) another’s op-ed or posting serves as jumping off point for one’s own commentary;

2) in candor, writing on occasion as something akin to a shot at redemptive therapy, given that coming out of my experiences in the mid-90s in the Balkans I’d not infrequently made common cause with some of the neo-cons (looking for greater intervention by the West during the horrors of Bosnia), to subsequently include early support for our actions in Afghanistan and Iraq; and

3) at some point towards the second half of Bush’s second term, reaching a tremendous bursting point brought on by a confluence of Rumsfeld’s staggeringly poor stewardship of the Iraq War, essentially constituting criminal neglect, this followed by Dubya’s stubbornly childish and recalcitrant ‘Decider’ moment, before finally replacing a disgraced Rumsfeld with Robert Gates, as well the mind-boggling fiasco of Katrina and, of course, the horrific crimes that the top-down authorized torture apparatus authorized in far-flung outposts to include Guantanamo, black-sites in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia, Bagram, and through Iraq, most notoriously (only because of the photographic evidence) at Abu Ghraib.

In short, I felt like we were living a period in American history where truly incredible blunders were being committed by national security miscreants on an epic scale, and so like many, and taken in conjunction with variables like “1” and “2” above, was using my little soap-box here to scream from the cyber-roof-tops, perhaps a bit loutishly at times, veering into polemics and arguably even ad hominems on occasion, or indeed as Jeff writes, generally engaging at times in: “inter-sectarian point-scoring, score-settling, predictable sloganeering, ideological posturing, and reciprocal accusations of hypocrisy and intellectual dishonesty.” Do I regret it? Not really probably, all told, but still, I apologize for the sometimes overly fevered tone this space succumbed to, and indeed, may still going forward (I am only human).

But all this being said, let us return to the recent post where—in really charting out in the main my views on Iran—I did admittedly veer into reasonably lengthy commentaries about two of the most prominent neo-cons, namely Charles Krauthammer and Paul Wolfowitz. I must confess, I do remain truly stunned, not as much by Mr. Krauthammer (who I view as the more stubbornly incorrigible of the two) but more so Mr. Wolfowitz, that they continue to hold their heads up relatively high deigning to provide policy prescriptions after the manifold disasters that the Bush 43 policies precipitated. I can do little better than to quote Andrew Bacevich, writing in his well reasoned and very estimable “The Limits of Power” (here showing how Wolfowitz was becoming something of an increasingly untamed Paul Nitze on steroids):

So the aftermath of 9/11 found Wolfowitz venturing into precincts where Nitze himself had feared to tread, advocating a policy of “anticipatory self defense,” a euphemism for preventive war. Within forty-eight hours of the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he was already declaring categorically that, in its response to 9/11, the United States had no intention of confining its actions to those directly involved in the terrorist conspiracy. Bringing Osama bin Laden and his associates to justice would not suffice. Rather, the United States was intent on undertaking “a broad and sustained campaign” against any and all states posing a terrorist threat. The aim went beyond targeting would-be terrorists themselves. The United States meant to deprive terrorists of sanctuaries or “safe havens” by nothing less than a policy of “ending states who support terrorism.” In NSC 68, Nitze had at least made a pretense of offering several options for consideration. For Wolfowitz after 9/11, there existed only a single option: open-ended global war…History will remember Paul Wolfowitz as the intellectual Svengali who conjured up the Bush Doctrine. In NSC 68, Nitze had rejected preventive war as “repugnant.” Wolfowitz now promoted it as permissible, essential, even inviting.

Absent in all this is a hint of a Niebuhrian humility Bacevich also cites in his discussion of Wolfowitz, that “the whole drama of history is enacted in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension or management.” Instead, a cock-sure certainty prevails, despite the Iraq debacle (see the latest haughty pronunciamentos about what Obama should be doing in Iran).

Bacevich concludes his discussion here:

No doubt today’s Wise Men see themselves as devoted patriots. No doubt they even mean well. Yet that’s not good enough. As Paul Wolfowitz himself wrote, “No U.S. President can justify a policy that fails to achieve its intended results by pointing to the purity and rectitude of his intentions.” Much the same can be said of those who advise presidents and whose advice yields horrific consequences of the sort we have endured beginning on 9/11 and continuing ever since. They have forfeited any further claim to trust. [my emphasis]

Indeed, and coming from a man who lost his own son (to whom this somehow muted and dispassionate, yet very compelling, manifesto is dedicated) in the war in Iraq, this is a particularly compelling refutation, in my view.

As for Mr. Krauthammer, I don’t have much more to say, really. He is clearly no one’s fool, and has written some pieces considered important by some, such as The Unipolar Moment Revisited in the Winter 2002 National Interest. But it is perhaps instructive to take another quick peek at it now a half decade plus on. The overt triumphalist tone showcases well Krauthammer’s grandiose over-reaching.

Of Afghanistan, he wrote then, about the U.S. response to 9/11:

Being a relatively pacific, commercial republic, the United States does not go around looking for demonstration wars. This one was thrust upon it. In response, America showed that at a range of 7,000 miles and with but a handful of losses, it could destroy within weeks a hardened, fanatical regime favored by geography and climate in the “graveyard of empires.”

Would that it had been so easy! Here we are now some seven years into the Afghan conflict, embroiled in a hugely challenging counter-insurgency campaign that will drag on for many years yet, alas (I believe this mission all but doomed to failure, and have shared my views on occasion in this space, most recently here). But for Mr. Krauthammer it was mission accomplished by the late autumn of 2002!

Mr. Krauthammer has also not distinguished himself (indeed, you might say has disgraced himself) by becoming one of the more notable neo-con proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques”, or stripped of the deadening conceit of this bland apparatchik Orwellianism, torture full stop. Like the abolition of slavery or habeas corpus rights, forbidding any use of torture has become a touchstone of Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought and society, and screeds in the pages of the Weekly Standard about fanciful ‘ticking time bomb’ scenarios cannot be viewed as intellectually serious in the long march of history, even if many have leapt on this pro-torture bandwagon, right on down to the Kafkaesque imagery of possibly inserting a creeping insect into a confined space with a human being to maximize fears born of phobias about spiders or such, or inducing in them the feeling of being drowned, or as happened far too often, allowing some combination of extreme temperatures, sleep deprivation, and stress positions to lead to the deaths of scores of detainees in our custody. This is the legacy of the intellectual enablers of a pro-torture policy hoisted on a confused country enmeshed in fear and mourning after the ashes of 9/11. But this cannot be acceptable, staining so profoundly our honor and titular role as avatar of international human rights in the global system. As the English Law Lords had written in an opinion I’d previously cited in this space:

That word honour, the deep note which Blackstone strikes twice in one sentence, is what underlies the legal technicalities of this appeal. The use of torture is dishonourable. It corrupts and degrades the state which uses it and the legal system which accepts it. When judicial torture was routine all over Europe, its rejection by the common law was a source of national pride and the admiration of enlightened foreign writers such as Voltaire and Beccaria. In our own century, many people in the United States, heirs to that common law tradition, have felt their country dishonoured by its use of torture outside the jurisdiction and its practice of extra-legal "rendition" of suspects to countries where they would be tortured: Just as the writ of habeas corpus is not only a special (and nowadays infrequent) remedy for challenging unlawful detention but also carries a symbolic significance as a touchstone of English liberty which influences the rest of our law, so the rejection of torture by the common law has a special iconic importance as the touchstone of a humane and civilised legal system. Not only that: the abolition of torture, which was used by the state in Elizabethan and Jacobean times to obtain evidence admitted in trials before the court of Star Chamber, was achieved as part of the great constitutional struggle and civil war which made the government subject to the law. Its rejection has a constitutional resonance for the English people which cannot be overestimated. [my emphasis]

This dishonor, too, will irrevocably be part of the neo-con’s legacy (with such prominent neo-con adherents as Mr. Krauthammer, how can it not, even if some neo-cons here and there may have been opposed) and for this reason too, as Mr. Bacevich stated, they have “forfeited any further claim to trust.”

Mr. Krauthammer ended his National Interest article writing: "(t)he challenge to unipolarity is not from the outside but from the inside. The choice is ours. To impiously paraphrase Benjamin Franklin: History has given you an empire, if you will keep it."

It is instructive here to actually see what Benjamin Franklin said originally, and Scott Horton—if in a slightly different context--addresses this very well in Harpers here:

As Benjamin Franklin left the Constitutional Convention, on September 18, 1787, a certain Mrs. Powel shouted out to him: “Well, doctor, what have we got?,” and Franklin responded: “A Republic, if you can keep it.” Like many of the Founding Fathers, he was intensely concerned that the democratic institutions they were crafting would deteriorate over time. In particular, they were concerned—and talked ceaselessly during the convention about the risk that, under pressures and exigencies of war, a tyrant would collapse their system into something closer to the monarchy that they had just defeated. Over the intervening 220 years, the republic has maintained itself, though not without close calls. And today, while we face what may be the gravest challenge in the nation’s history, our media will serve up the next chapter in the life of Paris Hilton.

Mr. Krauthammer rather turns Benjamin Franklin’s logic on its head with his paraphrasing, quite “impiously” indeed, as many of the very policies Mr. Krauthammer advocates with such alacrity (an unbridled executive, use of torture, preemptive war) run directly contra Franklin’s admonition to fight to preserve a constitutional Republic.

Scott Horton goes on to quote the great jurist Learned Hand:

Near the close of the Second World War, Learned Hand–a man who embodies everything that constitutes a good citizen, a great judge and a patriot–made a powerful speech at the Great Lawn in Central Park. “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women,” he said, “when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

Like many profound points, Hand’s description seems very obvious, even bordering on the banal. But it is a critical apercu. And it is what concerns me the most about present day America. In the (mostly) collective shrug about so-called ‘prolonged’ or ‘indefinite’ detention (a policy egregiously so afoul of the ancient writ of habeas corpus that, as with torture, I’d have thought essentially junking such a touchstone of post-Enlightenment societies, even if with some lipstick applied to the pig, could not be so uncontroversially countenanced across two political parties), in the general feebleness of refusing to mount a high-profile, relentless investigation into how a torture policy was allowed to encrust itself at the highest levels of the Executive of this great nation allowing for men to die in our custody in a veritable archipelago of detention centers worldwide, in the slothful obeisance to wars of choice dragging on possibly for decades, in all this do we not see liberty beating in the “hearts of men” less steadfastly than we’d hope for in a fabled democracy (one with many reasons to be prideful of its rich heritage, in the main)?

Do we not see in swaths of our society a country that risks—only too happy to, say, revel in a doubtless dystopian populism characterized by huge ignorance as with the Palin wing of the GOP, with say another terror attack and less capable political leadership than we enjoy at present—a descent into a populist form of authoritarianism infested by the moronic pensees and discourse we witness nightly on the network gab-fests? I am fundamentally more optimistic than this, not least given the hugely important Obama victory over McCain, but still there is a calcification in outlook on even totemic issues that has taken root across large swaths of the polity that gives fear (in its easy certitudes that, so self-contented, verge on the morally corrupt), so that it is not merely a matter of one political party over the other. But at very least, let us move away from some of the intellectual enablers of the worst of the excesses, as we fight for a brighter future! And so, I will apologize to readers who, like Jeff Weintraub, felt I may have succumbed too readily to sloganeering and intellectual posturing on occasion, but that said, I hope this post helps clarify the ‘why’, if you will.

Speaking of apologies, a final thought. Another reason many of us find the behavior of the neo-conservatives galling and offensive is, not only how wrong-headed their policy prescriptions were and are, but also that they have been so roundly unapologetic, indeed unrepentant and as stubbornly bull-headed as ever (save notable exceptions who broke early like Francis Fukuyama, who anyhow are now post-schism not regarded as one of the club by the residual die-hards a la Krauthammer and, evidently, Mr.Wolfowitz). Michiko Kakutani, in a book review of Bradley Graham’s Donald Rumsfeld biography, notes:

Asked to assess Mr. Rumsfeld’s tenure, Mr. Graham reports, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger gave him “high marks as a secretary of defense trying to revamp the U.S. military but scored Rumsfeld low as a secretary of war,” noting that the same was true of Robert S. McNamara, the only other Pentagon chief with an equally controversial term in office. Mr. Graham points out that both Mr. Rumsfeld and Mr. McNamara came from the corporate world, both had keen analytic minds and “insatiable appetites for data,” both sought tighter civilian control of the military and both presided over long, costly and unpopular wars.

The big difference between the two men, Mr. Graham adds, is how they ultimately viewed their own tenures: “despite his public cheerleading for the Vietnam War, Mr. McNamara privately became dubious about its wisdom and effectiveness while still in office” and came to recognize “that he had failed as defense secretary because of mistakes he and others had made in Vietnam.” In contrast, Mr. Graham writes, Mr. Rumsfeld “did not leave office doubting his handling of the Iraq war” and “has acknowledged no major missteps or shown any remorse on the subject to date.” [my emphasis]

No acknowledgement of missteps (actually, with Rumsfeld of late, it is worse, more a disingenuous acknowledgement essentially seeking to remove himself from direct culpability). But yes, overall, no acknowledgements of material mis-steps. Democracy not necessarily a "default condition to which societies would revert once liberated from dictators" (as Stephen Holmes observes in a penetrating piece from the LRB back in '06)? Too much of a bovine tendency towards "over-personalizing any 'regime' that they dream of destabalising, identifying it with a single reprehensible ruler", as Holmes also flags? Perhaps a truer more genuine reconsideration of the initial troop levels in Iraq, rather than now simply roundly feting and cheerleading a terribly belated 'surge', occurring so late that the damage done by any reasonable cost-benefit metric was already titanic enough so as to counsel strongly against prolonging a terrible misadventure. And so on. All this, with no remorse either, to Bradley Graham's point of the differences between McNamara and Rumsfeld.

Let me be clear, this is not a request for some Inquisition-style auto-de-fe , accompanied by protracted bouts of public flagellation. But to be a purported Wise Man or foreign policy expert, you must be able to recalibrate and learn from one’s mistakes. Instead, as David Rieff once quipped to me: “(l)ike the Trotskyists of yore, these people are never wrong if only they had been listened to and allowed to follow their mad utopian schemes to their limit.” This failure to learn from experience, this rigid ideological lock-step (indeed they essentially look to double-down even post the Iraq debacle, now with some calling for bombing Iran), in my opinion, displays a lack of character that is very worrisome and frankly reprehensible, especially given the human and other costs (of which more in a subsequent post). Forgive me therefore for not trusting their policy suggestions on Iran, or any other issues, for that matter. And forgive me too for on occasion having gotten overly hot-headed in the cyber-pages of Belgravia Dispatch, to Jeff Weintraub's point, which provoked this post.

Posted by Gregory at June 23, 2009 10:30 PM

The time to stop bashing neocons is when the MSM doesn't present them as the dominant and authoritative viewpoint in the USA.

They haven't been bashed one-tenth of what they deserve.

Posted by: BArry at July 5, 2009 07:43 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

A recalcitrant apology. Nicely done.

The call to "civility" in the face of false equivalence and moral depravity is one of the deadly traps of our time.

Thanks for not getting mired in the quicksand.

Posted by: Adams at July 6, 2009 05:45 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

What Adams so deftly and comprehensively said.

Weintraub preemptively overvalues civility precisely because it is such an unnatural and inappropriate tone to take after reading him. It's an all too familiar tactic.

Posted by: AlanDownunder at July 6, 2009 10:05 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

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Gregory Djerejian comments intermittently on global politics, finance & diplomacy at this site. The views expressed herein are solely his own and do not represent those of any organization.

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