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Fixed Opinions, or The Hinge of History

One footnote on the Pledge issue, and the extent to which it intersects with the case the secularists are going to have a harder time making: a significant number of Americans now recite the Pledge with another new clause, which they hope to see made permanent by legislation. After the words “with liberty and justice for all,” they add “born and unborn.”

All of these issues or non-issues are, as they say, just politics, markers in a game. The flag-burning amendment is just politics, the school prayer issue is just politics—a bone to the Republican base on the Christian right and a way to beat up on the judiciary, red meat for the “Reagan Democrats” or “swing voters” who are increasingly seen as the base for both parties. The prohibition on the creation of new cell lines from discarded embryos that constituted the President’s “compromise” on the stem cell question is politics. The fact that Israel has become the fulcrum of our foreign policy is politics. When it comes to any one of these phenomena that we dismiss as “politics,” we tend to forgive, or at least overlook, the absence of logic or sense. We tell ourselves that this is the essential give and take of democracy, we tell ourselves that our elected representatives are doing the necessary work of creating consensus. We try to convince ourselves that somewhere, beneath the posturing, there is a hidden logic, there are minds at work, there is someone actually thinking out the future of the country beyond the 2004 election.

These would be comforting notions were they easier to maintain. In fact we have created a political process in which “consensus” is the last thing the professionals want or need, a process that works precisely by turning the angers and fears and energy of the few—that handful of voters who can be driven by the fixed aspect of their own opinions—against the rest of the country. During the past decade—through the several years of the impeachment process and through the denouement of the 2000 election—we had seen secular democracy itself put up for grabs in this country, and the response to September 11 could not have encouraged us to think that the matter was in any way settled.

We had seen the general acquiescence in whatever was presented as imperative by the administration. We had seen the persistent suggestions that anyone who expressed reservations about detentions, say, or military tribunals, was at some level “against” America. (As in the presidential formulation “you’re either with us or you’re with the terrorists.”) We had seen, most importantly, the insistent use of September 11 to justify the reconception of America’s correct role in the world as one of initiating and waging virtually perpetual war. And we had seen, buttressing this reconception, the demand that we interpret the war in Afghanistan as a decisive victory over al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and radical fundamentalism in general.

This was despite repeated al-Qaeda-linked explosions throughout Southeast Asia.

Despite continuing arson and rocket attacks on girls’ schools in Afghanistan.

And despite the fact that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs said in November 2002 at the Brookings Institu-tion that we had lost momentum in Afghanistan because the Taliban and al-Qaeda had been quicker to adapt to US tactics than the US had been to theirs.

3.

In 1988, a few weeks after George W. Bush’s father was elected president, I wrote a post-election note for The New York Review about a trip the senior Bush had made to Israel and Jordan in 1986, when he was still vice-president. He had his own camera crew with him in Israel, but not in Jordan, since, as an official explained to the Los Angeles Times, there was “nothing to be gained from showing him schmoozing with Arabs.” Still, the Bush advance team in Amman had devoted considerable attention to crafting visuals for the traveling press. Members of the advance team had requested, for example, that the Jordanian army marching band change its uniforms from white to red. They had requested that the Jordanians, who did not have enough helicopters to transport Bush’s traveling press corps, borrow the necessary helicopters to do so from the Israeli air force. In an effort to assure the color of live military action as a backdrop for the vice-president, they had asked the Jordanians to stage maneuvers at a sensitive location overlooking Israel and the Golan Heights. They had asked the Jordanians to raise, over the Jordanian base there, the American flag. They had asked that Bush be photographed studying, through binoculars, “enemy territory,” a shot ultimately vetoed by the State Depart- ment, since the “enemy territory” at hand was Israel. They had also asked, possibly the most arresting detail, that, at every stop on the itinerary, camels be present.

This is in fact the kind of story we expect to hear about our elected officials,” I wrote in 1988:

We not only expect them to use other nations as changeable scrims in the theater of domestic politics but encourage them to do so. After the April 1961 failure of the Bay of Pigs, John Kennedy’s approval rating was four points higher than it had been in March. After the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic, Lyndon Johnson’s approval rating rose six points. After the 1983 invasion of Grenada, Ronald Reagan’s approval rating rose four points, and what was that winter referred to in Washington as “Lebanon”—the sending of American marines into Beirut, the killing of 241, and the subsequent pullout—was, in the afterglow of this certified success in the Caribbean, largely forgotten.

That was 1988. Fourteen years later, we were again watching the scrims being changed, but in a theater we did not own. The Middle East was not Grenada. It was not the Dominican Republic. It was not, as they used to say in Washington about the Caribbean, “our lake.” It was nitroglycerin, an unstable part of the world in which we had managed to make few friends and many enemies. And yet, all through the summer of 2002, the inevitability of going to war with Iraq was accepted as if predestined. The “when” had already been settled. “Time is getting short,” The New York Times had warned us in July, “for decisions that have to be made if the goal is to take action early next year, before the presidential election cycle intrudes.” That last clause bore study.

Before the presidential election cycle intrudes.” In case the priorities were still unclear.

The “why” had also been settled. The President had identified Saddam Hussein as one of the evildoers. Yes, there were questions about whether the evildoer in question had the weapons we feared he had, and yes, there were questions about whether he would use them if he did have them, and yes, there were questions about whether attacking Iraq might not in fact ensure that he would use them. But to ask those questions was sissy, not muscular, because the President had said we were going to do it and the President, if he were to back down, risked losing the points he got on the muscular “moral clarity” front.

I made up my mind,” he had said in April, “that Saddam needs to go.” This was one of many curious, almost petulant statements offered in lieu of actually presenting a case. I’ve made up my mind, I’ve said in speech after speech, I’ve made myself clear. The repeated statements became their own reason: “Given all we have said as a leading world power about the necessity for regime change in Iraq,” James R. Schlesinger, who is now a member of Richard Perle’s Defense Policy Board, told The Washington Post in July, “our credibility would be badly damaged if that regime change did not take place.”

There was of course, for better or for worse, a theory, or a fixed idea, behind these pronouncements from the President—actually not so much behind them as coinciding with them, dovetailing in a way that made it possible for many to suggest that the President was actually in on the thinking. The theory, or fixed idea, which not only predated September 11 but went back to the Reagan administration and its heady dreams of rollback, had already been employed to provide a rationale for the President’s tendency to exhibit a certain truculence toward those who were not Americans. Within the theory, any such truculence could be inflated into “The Bush Doctrine,” or “The New American Unilateralism.” The theory was this: the collapse of the Soviet Union had opened the door to the inevitability of American preeminence, a mantle of beneficent power that all nations except rogue nations—whatever they might say on the subject—were yearning for us to assume. “We run a uniquely benign imperium,” Charles Krauthammer had written in celebration of this point in a June 2001 issue of The Weekly Standard. “This is not mere self-congratulation; it is a fact manifest in the way others welcome our power.”

Given this fixed idea, as if in a dream from which there is no waking, and given the correlative dream notion that an American president, Ronald Reagan, had himself caused the collapse of the Soviet Union with a specific magical incantation, the “Evil Empire” speech, the need to bring our force for good to bear on the Middle East could only become an imperative. By June 2002, Jim Hoagland was noting in The Washington Post that there was

a growing acceptance at the White House of the need for an overwhelming US invasion force that will remain on the ground in Iraq for several years. The US presence will serve as the linchpin for democratic transformation of a major Arab country that can be a model for the region. A new Iraq would also help provide greater energy security for Americans.

A few weeks later in the Post, Michael Kelly was sketching an even rosier outcome, based on his eccentric reading of the generation now coming of age in the Middle East as a population poised by history to see the United States not as its enemy but as its “natural liberator.” “It is right to think that we are living in a hinge moment in history,” he wrote, and then argued against those who believe that the moment is not necessarily ours to control. “But it is wrong to think that the large forces of this moment act on the hinge to shut the door against American interests.” The contrary may be true, he wrote, if only we take the next step, which is “to destroy the regime of Saddam Hussein and liberate the people of Iraq.” This will be, he said, “when history really begins to turn on its hinge.”

It so happened that I was traveling around the country again recently, talking and listening to people in St. Louis and Columbia and Philadelphia and San Diego and Los Angeles and San Francisco and Pittsburgh and Boston. I heard very few of the fixed ideas about America’s correct role in the world that had come to dominate the dialogue in New York and Washington. I encountered many people who believed there was still what we had come to call a disconnect between the government and the citizens. I did not encounter conviction that going to war with Iraq would result in a democratic transformation of the Middle East. Most people seemed resigned to the prospect that we would nonetheless go to war with Iraq. Many mentioned a sense of “inevitability,” or “dread.” A few mentioned August 1914, and its similar sense of an irreversible drift toward something that would not work out well. Several mentioned Vietnam, and the similar bright hopefulness of those who had seen yet another part of the world as a blackboard on which to demonstrate their own superior plays. A few said that had they lost relatives on September 11, which they had not, they would be deeply angered at having those deaths cheapened by being put to use to justify this new war. They did not understand what this new war was about, but they knew it wasn’t about that promising but never quite substantiated meeting in Prague between Iraqi intelligence and Mohamed Atta. They did not want to believe that it was about oil. Nor did they want to believe that it was about domestic politics. If I had to characterize a common attitude among them I would call it waiting to see. At a remove.

Like most of them, I no longer remembered all the arguments and inconsistencies and downright contradictions of the summer and early fall. I did remember one thing: a sequence of reports. It was June 1 when the President announced, in a commencement address at West Point, that the United States military would henceforth act not defensively but preemptively against terrorists and hostile states in possession of chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. It was June 6 when the secretary of state advised NATO in Brussels that NATO could no longer wait for “absolute proof” of such possession before taking action. It was June 10 when Thomas E. Ricks and Vernon Loeb reported in The Washington Post that under this new doctrine, according to Pentagon officials, the United States would consider using high-yield nuclear weapons on a first-strike basis. The use of such weapons would be reserved, according to these officials, for deployment “against biological weapons that can be best destroyed by sustained exposure to the high heat of a nuclear blast.” Some bunkers in Iraq, the Post was told by Stephen M. Younger, the director of the Defense Department’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency, are in fact “so incredibly hard” that “they do require high-yield nuclear weapons.”

I never saw this mentioned again. I never heard anyone refer to it. Not even during the discussions of nuclear intentions that occurred six months later, after the administration released a reminder that the US reserved the right, if it or its allies were attacked with weapons of mass destruction, to respond with nuclear as well as conventional force. But let’s look at where we are.

The idealists of the process are talking about the hinge of history.

And the Department of Defense was talking as early as last June about unloosing, for the first time since 1945, high-yield nuclear weapons.

In the early 1980s I happened to attend, at a Conservative Political Action conference in Washington, a session called “Rolling Back the Soviet Empire.” One of the speakers that day was a kind of adventurer-slash-ideologue named Jack Wheeler, who was very much of the moment because he had always just come back from spending time with our freedom fighters in Afghanistan, also known as the Mujahideen. I recall that he received a standing ovation after urging that copies of the Koran be smuggled into the Soviet Union to “stimulate an Islamic revival” and the subsequent “death of a thousand cuts.” We all saw that idea come home.

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