“It’s almost a war without a home front,” journalist Bob Woodward told Time magazine just before Christmas. “Taxes are down, everyone’s buying…. There is a sense almost that we’re not at war. I can’t explain that phenomenon.”
I can’t explain it, either. But I think that most of us who’ve never been asked to do anything for the Iraq war effort but go shopping, pay fewer taxes and vote Republican do carry some vivid image or story of the war that captures what we feel is at stake and what has been ventured and lost. With Bush likely to reaffirm and even expand the venture, at least we should take stock of our stories and, this time, perhaps, act on whatever they tell us.
The story I’m carrying tells me that the United States trifled with and let down thousands of ordinary Iraqis whose democratic aspirations we aroused without recognizing what those hopes meant to them, and against what odds.
The cost of our ignorance was caught best for me by Dexter Filkins, a New York Times reporter in Iraq. Reviewing National Public Radio reporter Michael Goldfarb’s book, “Ahmad’s War, Ahmad’s Peace,” in October 2005, Filkins noted that Americans “have felt their sympathies for ordinary Iraqis travel across an emotional arc, beginning with compassion and affection and ending, as the American enterprise has faltered, in anger, even disgust.”
But then he noted that countless Iraqis did come forward after we arrived in April 2003, knowing “that they had to seize the moment, that it might not come again. And they knew… how difficult it would be to carry their broken and brutalized country with them. So they started newspapers, they organized political parties, they called meetings to start a national conversation.
“And now, today, many of these Iraqis…. have been shot, tortured, burned, disfigured, thrown into ditches, disappeared. Thousands of them: editors, lawyers, pamphleteers, men and women. In a remarkable campaign of civic destruction, the Baathists and Islamists who make up the insurgency located the intellectual heart of the nascent Iraqi democracy and, with gruesome precision, cut it out. As much as any single factor, the death of Iraq’s political class explains the difficulties of the country’s rebirth. The good guys are dead.”
Why is this so damning of America? Saddam Hussein had murdered or terrorized democrats every day, and, after he was gone, it wasn’t American GI’s or the Young Republicans playing at governing in the Green Zone who kept murdering “the good guys.” It was Baathists, Islamicist terrorists, tribal warlords and gangsters.
“[T]he blame for the violence in Iraq…. belongs to the Iraqis,” claims The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier. “For three and a half years, the Iraqis have been a free people. What have they done with their freedom? After we invaded Iraq, Iraq invaded itself.”
That doesn’t quite settle it, though. It was the Bush administration that cast Saddam and his loyalists as Baathists, terrorists, tribalists and gangsters rolled into one, claiming we would liberate Iraqis for democracy by decapitating the regime and handing out contracts to investors from abroad. Democracy wasn’t the invasion’s top priority — remember weapons of mass destruction and Saddam’s alleged support for Al Qaeda and the September 11 attacks? — but Filkins and Goldfarb remind us what democracy meant to more than a few Iraqis we encouraged and then dropped.
I know a little about this because I have a brother-in-law who grew up in Baghdad in the 1950s and attended Al Hikma, the American Jesuit high school, a few years behind the future, now former, prime minister Ayad Allawi and the current oil minister, Ahmad Chalabi. Unlike Alawi and Chalabi, neither of whom was typical of Al Hikma’s graduates, my relative was part of the world’s oldest continuous Jewish community.
Most of Baghdad’s Jews didn’t return from exile in Babylonia to their homeland in what most of the world calls the West Bank when Persia’s King Cyrus allowed their return in 539 B.C.E. Twenty-four centuries later, the Ottoman yearbook of 1917 counted 80,000 Jews among Baghdad’s 202,000 residents, 20,000 more in Basra and Mosul.
Even after Israel’s establishment in 1948, Jews mattered for a while in Iraqi journalism and trade. But by the early 1950s most had left, and after Saddam took power, almost all were gone. My brother-in-law and his family escaped overland via Kurdistan and Iran in 1970, and now live in California.
In the summer of 2004 he attended a reunion in Montreal of hundreds of Al Hikma graduates, and if you doubt that Baghdad had a cosmopolitan middle class inclined to liberal democracy, ask them. Some returned briefly in 2003, and found that it was not only they who had huddled breathlessly around televisions and cell phones cheering Saddam’s overthrow. Seeds of democracy were sprouting, as Filkins and Goldfarb reported.
Not that my relatives were naive. My brother-in-law has said clearly that very possibly those seeds would have failed even if the Bush team hadn’t bungled and subverted the planting by making undemocratic deals with its own key constituencies: bad contractors, political careerists and ideological hardliners and their apologists — free-market absolutists, bombastic neo-conservatives, Armageddon-hungry fundamentalists, Fox News producers, grand-strategy pundits and pedagogues, and neo-imperialists.
Remember how fashionable the term “empire” was for a year?
But Americans’ cluelessness and opportunism in touting both democracy and empire was all the more disturbing because the ignorance and bad faith had been nurtured here at home. Alexander Hamilton wrote that history had destined Americans, “by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government through reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” That meant resisting racial, religious and economic zealots and opportunists while respecting culture, faith and enterprise.
American conservatives back then considered themselves the “Party of Memory,” carriers of Edmund Burke’s “great melody” of faith, family and tradition that keeps societies whole and humane, in a polity that is sovereign over the economy. They understood that a republic’s strengths emerge less from armies than from citizens’ willingness to extend trust to one another every day at work, in the marketplace and in cultural and public meetings.
Sustaining that virtuous civic-republican cycle of trust involves cultivating habits of the heart through the stories we tell our kids, the “coming of age” experiences we give them and the ways we engage one another. Ultimately, democracy can’t be enforced by arms because it relies on freely given civic love.
But if anything is draining our civic-republican life now, it’s not terrorists but the casino economy of relentless consumer marketing and employment insecurity that calls the tunes in our daily lives, with conservatives singing louder than anyone else. They embedded themselves in Dick Cheney’s Halliburton and Ken Lay’s Enron corporations to become the “Party of Collective Amnesia,” riding tsunamis of anonymous, relentless, degrading investment and marketing that are turning Americans into a bread-and-circus mob — fickle, lonely, craving salvific escapes that only accelerate brutality.
Mel Gibson, anyone? How about road rage, gladatorial “cage” fighting, the deluge of porn and increasing player-fan violence at sporting events? Or Abu Ghraib, the suspension of habeas corpus and domestic surveillance?
We don’t know if Iraqi democrats would have prevailed with better protection and assistance, but the Bush team’s aggressive bad faith weakens those who put all the blame on a brutalized Iraq. The Bush invaders knew little and cared even less about seeding democracy there because they’d been uprooting it for years here at home. Democracy was only window dressing to Cheney, that national-security zealot and crony capitalist, and to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who unleashed chaos and shrugged, “Freedom is untidy.”
In a perverse echo of Filkins’ report that Iraqis “had to seize the moment, that it might not come again,” the Bush team, too, saw “a political opportunity that would never come around again,” writer Lawrence Wright recalls. The bitter irony is that they had a different opportunity in mind. Democracy did mean something to Secretary of State Colin Powell and Under-secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, but they saw how we were mishandling it, gasped and got out.
Bush, who still thinks he understands freedom by way of faith and free markets, tried to put a human face on the mess in his flight-deck landing under the “Mission Accomplished” banner, his Thanksgiving Day 2003 pop-up in Baghdad and other fatuities. That’s not conservatism or republicanism; it’s demagoguery. His cluelessness about democracy, and his true believer’s blindness to the costs of his ignorance, have made him, ironically, the last of his group holding the empty bag of democratic promise.
“At day’s end, history will point to the character of the president,” the writer Ron Suskind told Time.
At Yale in the late 1960s I lived near Bush, who was president of my roommate’s fraternity, DKE, and majored, as I did, in political science. I saw then his charm and resilience in getting away with things like DKE’s custom of “branding” new members on the butt, a tradition that was reported, falsely, to have been applied solely to a black pledge’s backside. Bush genially reassured the media that the tawdry truth wasn’t that bad. He was a clubbable Mr. Outside, moving easily with his group, greeting people the rest of his circle disdained.
He’d tell you that he’s changed a lot since college: For one thing, his faith now assures him that all men want freedom. But somehow it hasn’t taught him what people like Ahmad and the other Iraqi democrats we drew out of hiding actually risked to be free, trusting American wisdom and power as well as themselves.
If Bush had used his recent retreat in Crawford to compare his antics with their bravery and ordeals and to repent his folly, he’d probably want to summon Americans to a covenant-renewal, new taxes and a military draft in order to vindicate sacrifices like Ahmad’s. But it’s too late, not least because his own political and economic priorities have weakened Americans’ will and skill in cultivating civic-republican habits. That leaves him stuck in the posturing he learned at Yale, where too many others still learn how to say almost anything well except that an emperor has no clothes.
If Hamilton’s “reflection and choice” degenerated even in America into a free-for-all that is really a free-for-none, it wouldn’t be long before, as Filkins put it, “the good guys are dead” — not by executions, but by broken spirits and a kind of internal exile. Watching the social degradation the Bush team has accelerated so recklessly from here to Iraq, I can’t help but recall another epitaph, by the activist Carl Oglesby, in the late 1960s: “This war broke my American heart.”
The current war would break the Bush team’s hearts, too, if the president were less myopic and his war counselors truer friends of democracy. But then, if they were, they wouldn’t have led us into quite the war they have, and Ahmad and my brother-in-law might have better odds.
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University, is author of “The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York” (W.W. Norton, 1990) and “Liberal Racism: How Fixating on Race Subverts the American Dream” (Rowman & Littlefield, 1997).
Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale, is the author of The Closest of Strangers (Norton, 1990) and Liberal Racism (Viking, 1997). In 1971 he co-edited the anthology The New Jews with the late Alan Mintz. Sleeper’s 2009 essay, “American Brethren: Puritans and Hebrews,” in the World Affairs Journal, anticipated the current crisis in American civic culture and quoted the Israeli philosopher Yirmiyahu Yovel, who died two weeks ago.