Sunday, March 30, 2008

Schadenfreude, the Surge, and the Ethics of Pulling out of Iraq

Does It Make It Easier…You’ve got someone to blame…

Five years is a short marriage but a long war. The news media, with its usual shoulder-shrugging has been spending time looking at polls and showing scenes of the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down and smacked with sandal heels. A handful of stalwarts on the right continue to view Iraq as a frontline in a real global war (rather than as a distraction from the continuing criminal activities of terrorists in just about every country except where we are); Goldwater/Regan Republicans (the “realists?”) bite their lower lips, rend their garments in disdain over the incompetence of the “aftermath follies” of Rumsfeld, Bremer, et al, while simultaneously speaking in terms of “victory” and playing up the modest successes of Bush’s surge strategy; Democrats drool over November and forward bromides about withdrawals, and progressives and democratic socialists (a few of them around. Never in the media.) want to wash their hands of the whole fiasco. Leave. Don’t look back.

These are, of course, extremely crude, sweeping generalizations. I wouldn’t want to be categorized by someone like me. Pigeon-holing and defining the narrative arc of complex individuals is the role of the media and politicians. But the categories serve a purpose. Namely, they force a libertarian/progressive/lib-dem like myself to confront a very dicey ethical dilemma. To put name to myself, to place myself in the spectrum of political thought, is to take up the chorus of that old union song “Which Side are You On” and say, finally, this is what I believe, not what I’ve been told to believe. This is what I own.

“My side” hates Bush (often personally) and his administration. This is a club which is becoming increasingly diverse in its membership. Truly, these past eight years have been disastrous on so many levels – from the criminal negligence of ignoring intelligence reports about al-Qaida prior to September 11th, to the lying about links between al-Qaida and Iraq as a pretext for war, to illegal surveillance, to the illegal detentions, to a generalized shift towards a unitary executive office, to an embarrassingly mishandling of the economy (amazing how Democrats are seen as bad for business when two generations of Bushes have been responsible for recessions), to a whole-sale erosion of our diplomatic clout on the world’s stage – but if it’s been bad for us, think for a moment about the lives of typical Iraqis have been turned upside down for years to come. The “successes” of the surge have done nothing to improve the daily lives of Iraqis who have had to endure up to 22 hours without electricity, scarce sanitation, and the daily terror of not knowing whether wearing a particular color of scarf will get you killed or save your life when you go to get your groceries.

Meanwhile, solider number 4,000 just left the planet after being destroyed by a roadside IED while another 130,000 play the four-out-of-a-hundred game of Russian Roulette. (Perversely, the fact that it took until this week to reach the 4K mark is seen as evidence of the surge’s success by boosters. Presumably, if things were worse, we would have been at this number in… January?)The law of averages, of course, is on the side of the average solider. The good money is on them coming home. Of course, what condition they will be in when they arrive is another question. There are no flag-draped coffins for missing limbs or tortured psyches.

All these things make it easy dig a fork into Bush. It is easy to look at that vacant visage and find the taproot all of the problems of the past eight years. It is easy to view Bush’s reign as a petty powergrab by bottom-feeding opportunists spurred by a Freudian drive to destroy his father (himself a lumpen, though by all accounts, a serviceable functionary.). It is easy, because it is probably true that he is the worst executive we have ever had.

The ethical problem, however, has little to do with Bush himself, or the coven of incestuousness that is his “team,” but rather my personal investment in a narrative that views his failures as evidence of validation. That validation – that “we” were right in 2000 and 2004 – requires that Bush succeed at nothing and fail at everything. This is beyond mere schadenfreude, and a good deal more than sour grapes. It is a notion that in order for things to get better, they have to get a lot worse. “Success” for Bush means emboldening him for possible future actions… a sense that “well, if this worked… maybe we can do the next thing…” such as saying yes to war with Iran or a continuation of the fascistic unitarianism that has become the hallmark of the Bush reign. Failure and humiliation will somehow redeem us as a nation. It will allow us – Democrats and Republicans alike – to point at a single individual and say “it wasn’t us… it was always him.” Scapegoat or sacrificial lamb… either way, the fiascos of the past eight years suggest a way out for all concerned; a possibility for renewal.

Were that the case, then there would be no ethical problem. If we fail the Iraqis or the Afghanis, if we don’t return some semblance of social order and material infrastructure, we will be responsible for a slow, indirect genocide that will result from civil wars, intolerable poverty, disease, and generalized hopelessness. For them, the war is not a “folly,” or an example of extreme hubris on the part of a cadre of neo-cons, it is a catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions. It is not an embarrassment which will go away on January 9, 2009, it is a daily smothering of civilization within its very cradle.

This desire to see the surge fail informs the instinct for withdrawal. I say instinct because one naturally recoils from the flame when it first licks the underside of the palm. But we lit that fire and fed it with gasoline before we ever started getting burned ourselves. Now we want to pull away because our flesh is being seared, leaving the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to put out the fire with little more than sand.

It is unethical…immoral, possibly criminal… to leave Iraq in this state. Far beyond the “you broke it, you bought it” platitudes coming from the apologists there is simple humanitarianism to be considered. We did the wrong thing for the wrong reason. I liken it to taking over for a quack surgeon. The wrong limb has been amputated… the kidneys are shot… gangrene is spreading like kudzu… for sure the quack needs to be removed from scene (and punished), and his support crew should be changed over as well. But the man on the table will die and organ harvesters will crawl out from the dark corners of the operating theater to collect whatever is left that isn’t rotting. … It may not be the world’s greatest metaphor, but I think it does demonstrate a simple fact: we have a responsibility to the those for whom the invasion and the occupation has meant a lingering death sentence. This concern must trump any concerns we might have for our “standing on the international stage” or our strategic interests in the region. And on the left, this concern must trump any fear that a kind of success and peace in Iraq down the line will be credited to Bush. (I simply don’t think that sentence will ever be written in a high school text book, but if it doesn’t I hope to hell there are better historians TEACHING the class.)

Any success must be measured by the quality of life for Iraqis rather than Halliburton stockholders, military pragmatists, and campaigning politicians. Ideally, we should remove or downgrade our own military presence in favor of UN Peacekeepers. ( I realize this can’t happen under current conditions. But I don’t think our military can keep a civil war from happening. I think it is essentially inevitable and we should do what we can to shelter and protect “average” Iraqis… whoever or where they might be.) Ideally, the blue helmets would work in concert with an international coalition of NGOs and local organizations to Marshall-plan the hell out of the country. 18 hours of guaranteed electricity will speak much louder than an insane mullah calling for jihad.

These programs will not be popular with Americans as we enter the long recession. They will want more money for their own programs and the will rage over the sky-rocketing price of flour due to the ethanol bubble. Politician will forward populist rants about how we need to focus on our poor and our children. And they will be right. But we must pay this debt that we owe to Iraq. Not because it is the American way, but because it is merely the right thing to do.

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