Sunday, September 11, 2005

Storytelling

Over at The New York Times Magazine, Mark Danner presents a frightening analysis of the war on terror thus far.

Let me admit frankly that despite my leftism, when it comes to our actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am something of an agnostic. Mideast politics has always perplexed and bothered me; I have never been quick to take a stand on much of anything going on over there. And although I am a reflexive pacifist, I've generally been quiet about the decision to send our soldiers to Iraq. I felt going into it -- to invoke Leonard Cohen for a moment -- that there already was a war; the damage done by our sanctions combined with the cruelties of the Baathists had been immense. An invasion, I reasoned, could hardly be worse.

I've also been influenced somewhat in recent years by the writings of pro-war centrists and lefties like Christopher Hitchens, Thomas Friedman, Dan Savage, and Paul Berman, as well as the very capable bloggers Michael Totten and Dean Esmay. Their narratives tell a different story of the Bush Administration. For all its flaws, they see it as conspicuously liberal in taking on the challenge of democratizing the Middle East, a region that for too long has been under the heel of autocrats, theocrats, oligarchs, and warlords. As someone strongly drawn to feminist and pro-labor thinking, I've been particularly moved by their and others' arguments that the US show solidarity with unions and women's rights groups in the region, most of whom are very much pro-intervention.

The pro-war liberals have something else going for them, too: strength of story. Like the neoconservatives, the story they're telling is a stirring one -- profound, challenging, even unsettling at times. Especially for a pseudo-intellectual news junkie like myself, their interpretation of current events can be compelling; certainly more so than most of the antiwar stories going around. Despite my many misgivings about the Iraq invasion, I've avoided actually protesting it because I've found the antiwar story -- one which frequently neglects to acknowledge just how bad the Hussein regime really was -- to be dangerously shallow. There are exceptions of course -- this old Washington Monthly article by Josh Marshall is one of them. But for the most part, while I've been a fellow-traveller with peacemongers before, lately I've been sitting it out.

Anyway, enter Mark Danner to cast a shadow upon my doubt. His article isn't exactly anti-war, although I have no doubt that it will be seized by that movement, and castigated by the prowar liberals and neocons. What it does offer, however, is offer the narrative that the anti-war crowd has long been missing. It describes, in chilling terms, how an invasion could be worse, has already made things worse - at least, for us. This is Cindy Sheehan for the insider set. I expect sparks to fly.

Read it, and tell me what you think. I'm not convinced, either way. If anything, I remain out of my depth on this issue.

9 Comments:

At 7:55 AM, Blogger Hoots said...

Man, you sure hand out some long, tough reading assignments.

I have also waffled in my views, not only since the WTC attack but stretching back for years. Each time I get ready to join the ranks of my peers in their neat-looking conservative attire, I realize how far I have drifted from what may be a too-idealistic view of the human condition. On the one hand I believe in redemption, but on the other I know how long that may take.

If I measure that time in my imagination, I find that it is marked in generations more than years. I return to my idealism with a humility that conservatism tempted me to abandon.

But, as usual, I digress. Okay, okay, I'm reading...

I'll get back with you when I've finished.

 
At 12:34 PM, Blogger Tom Strong said...

I'm like that with the "liberal hawks". They definitely speak to my sense of history, my highest values. But their narrative just seems a little too simple in this case.

It is very interesting that with regards to the war on terror, "conservatives" have been most apt to use the language of idealism, "liberals" to use the language of realism. It suggests to me that our political identities are more shifty than we like to admit.

Man, you sure hand out some long, tough reading assignments.

I do. But fortunately, this is a pass-fail course.

 
At 3:38 PM, Blogger Hoots said...

Dang.
Am I tho only one doing homework?

I printed it out - some twenty pluys pages - so I could see it better. It took most of the afternoon with distractions to read it.

Excellent comments, arguments and insights wrapped in a blanket of prose so thick I had a hard time unwrapping it.

Stuff I marked...
* * * * *
"We have taken a ball of quicksilver...and hit it with a hammer."
**********************
Instead of fighting the real war that was thrust upon us on that incomprehensible morning four years ago, we stubbornly insisted on fighting a war of the imagination, an ideological struggle that we defined not by frankly appraising the real enemy before us but by focusing on the mirror of our own obsessions. And we have finished - as the escalating numbers of terrorist attacks, the grinding Iraq insurgency, the overstretched American military and the increasing political dissatisfaction at home show - by fighting precisely the kind of war they wanted us to fight.

>>>equals<<<

Instead of fighting the real war we insisted on fighting a war of the imagination, defined not by appraising the real enemy but by focusing on our own obsessions. And we finished by fighting precisely the kind of war they wanted us to fight. [That was hard to discover.]
********************
"This is not aimed at our policies. This is aimed at our existence." Kissinger, Part II
********************
III. Fundamentalist Islamic thought took aim at America's policies, not at its existence.
*********************
" The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter: We now have the opportunity of giving to the U.S.S.R. its Vietnam War." Brzezinski
**********************
Terror is a way of talking.
**********************
Menachem Begin, the future Israeli prime minister who used terror with great success to drive the British out of Palestine during the mid-1940's...the Irgun guerrilla forces led by Begin bombed the King David Hotel, killing 91 people, most of them civilians.
*********************
...the insurgents have presided over a catastrophic collapse in confidence in the Americans and a concomitant fall in their power...While the American death toll climbs steadily toward 2,000, the number of Iraqi dead probably standsat 10 times that and perhaps many more; no one knows. Conservative unofficial counts put the number of Iraqi dead in the war at somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000, in a country a tenth the size of the United States.
*********************
In the midst of it all, increasingly irrelevant, are the Americans, who have the fanciest weapons but have never had sufficient troops, or political will, to assert effective control over the country. If political authority comes from achieving a monopoly on legitimate violence, then the Americans, from those early days when they sat in their tanks and watched over the wholesale looting of public institutions,[New Orleans???] never did achieve political authority in Iraq.
***************

Lots more, of course, but after shaking off all the dust I am stuck with two ideas that will not go away.

First, like the virus that he referred to, insurgent violence is no longer coming from any single source. It has metastasized all over the world. We are fighting smoke, not fire.

Second, Unrelated to anything found here, I am coming to a different understanding of Iraq historically. From the start I had seerious reservations about whether or not it could ever become a country in the modern sense. Too many groups. Too much division, ethnic, religious, cultural. I have changed my mind abou that because of reading some original Iraqi sources that dismiss the notion that it is a goe-political construct left over from colonial times. Cultural, religious and ethnic diversity predate colonialism in that part of the world. And the land between the rivers has always been the locus of a country that had a very wide umbrella.

 
At 3:41 PM, Anonymous Sharon Andrews said...

The piece is professorial and leaves out, believe it or not, a great deal, but I agree with pretty much all of it.

I do, however, take exception to the characterization of the individuals you mentioned as being "liberals." Not so, not by any stretch of the imagination.

Another thinker is Juan Cole, who one sees occasionally on TV. He's a professor at U of Mich and a world-renowned expert on Iraq, in particular, and the Middle East in general. His blog is Informed Comment.

Essentially, George has the U.S. up shit creek without a paddle, but seeing as how the administration handled the Katrina crisis, should we be at all surprised by the way the war(s) have been prosecuted?

 
At 6:43 PM, Anonymous green--dreams@hotmail.com said...

Brilliant article by Danner, and a very helpful history of our involvement in the Middle East.

"nothing really resembling a war. Not a real war anyway."

This is exactly right, as we are not fighting a sovereign nation. It is only the rhetoric of our administration that elevated a global criminal network to sovereign nation status. Technically September 11 was a spectacular case of arson perpetrated by a criminal and his organized crime network. How different our world might look now had we focused single-mindedly upon tracking down that criminal and his henchmen, and placing them in chains, or should they resist capture, in a coffin. We would certainly have had the support and assistance of Interpol and the intelligence communities of our allies.

The Taliban deserved to go, for they refused to turn over this criminal. But Saddam Hussein and Iraq were a stupid diversion of our resources into a battle that most Americans now recognize is not worth it. By the time we bring our surviving troops home, it will be clear that we expended precious American resources and lives without gaining a single advantage for America. We will have replaced a dictatorial secular leader who suppressed the Islamists but was successfully contained and harmless to us; with a repressive Islamist state allied with Iran.

No amount of rhetoric can make me believe that is a victory.

 
At 9:19 AM, Blogger amba said...

I'm partway through the assignment, and so far, here's the irony that has most forcibly struck me:

"[T]he Afghan operation was wildly successful, as judged by its American creators - 'What is most important to the history of the world?' Brzezinski said in 1998, 'some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the cold war?'"

 
At 9:28 AM, Blogger amba said...

This seems very important:

"In his 'Declaration of Jihad' in 1996, bin Laden focused on American political will as the United States' prime vulnerability, the enemy's 'center of gravity' that his guerrilla war must target and destroy."

This is one reason why scrambling out of Iraq now seems such a bad, bad idea (the other being the abandonment of the Iraqis after forcing them to undergo so much sacrifice).

This article makes the U.S. appear deluded, short-sighted, arrogant, and just plain stupid, without ever saying so in so many words.

 
At 9:40 AM, Blogger amba said...

And this:

"A truly democratic Iraq was always likely to be an Iraq led not only by Shia, who are the majority of Iraqis, but by those Shia parties that are the largest and best organized - the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Islamic Party - which happen to be those blessed by the religious authorities and nurtured in Iran. Nor would it be a surprise if a democratic Saudi Arabia turned out to be a fundamentalist Saudi Arabia and one much less friendly to the United States. Osama bin Laden knows this, and so do American officials. This is why the United States is 'friendly' with 'apostate regimes.' Democratic outcomes do not always ensure friendly governments. Often the contrary is true."

Showing that our ideals, in the Middle East, directly contradict our interests. Democracy in Iraq would serve our interests only if it conformed to our fantasies, and why should or would it? What a pipe dream that, given the vote, a majority Shi'ite Muslim country would choose a secular democracy with separation of mosque and state!

 
At 9:48 AM, Blogger amba said...

Bin Laden's triumph:

"He had struck at the American will, and his strategy, which relied in effect on the persistent reluctance of American leaders to speak frankly to their people about the costs and burdens of war and to expend the political capital that such frank talk would require, had proved largely correct."

 

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