Sunday, July 15, 2007


‘Anyone, no matter how ignorant, can discover what is repulsive and absurd in standards different from their own; and one’s learning, no matter how detailed, is wasted if one gets no further than that.’
-Hilaire Belloc

I was going to write a short story, and I was going to write ‘I is for…’, but I’m not doing either of those things right now. You may have noticed I haven’t written anything ‘political’ for some time, not because I have stopped thinking about ‘political’ things, not because I am not continually agitated and disturbed about ‘political’ things, but because I have nothing new to say. I have no original ideas, no insights, can offer no glimmer of hope that is not but a faded shadow of a glimmer of hope I once offered in years gone by. My incomprehension of my own civilisation, which daily more and more ‘goes into exile for lack of understanding’, is near total. The number of classes of statements I am liable to hear on the ABC radio news that impel me to angrily change to a neighbouring station continue to grow. So it was that today I changed to a commercial station, and there heard half of a song called ‘Dear Mr President’ before I changed it again.

Q. Can you even look me in the eye and tell me why? (Pink)

A. Yes. To keep the barbarians from the gate, you silly bint. (suggested by Dr Clam)

Like I said, I have nothing new to say. I remain baffled by the position of the Labor Party, of the Democratic Party, of the average fellow-citizen who reads the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald, or works at the same institution as me, or- if the opinion polls can be believed- walks the streets and drives the roads of any city in the Western World. I do not comprehend their narrative. Specifically, that part of their narrative which connects and explains events in Iraq over the past twenty-five years. I cannot imagine a rational vantage point from which that narrative, as it has been communicated to me by the Devil Bunny City Morning Herald and its fellow travellers, makes any sense at all.

Since I have nothing new to say, I am going to present my narrative to connect and explain events in Iraq over the past twenty years. Please, if it offends you, offer up your counter-narrative for the same events!

Let us begin with the way the world was twenty-five years ago. It was in the last years of a titanic struggle between two great powers, and every single event that happened anywhere in the world was seen, and had to be seen, firstly and most importantly in relation to that titanic struggle. What opportunities did it afford for the advantage of our side? What opportunities for the other side? Who benefited in the long term, in the short term? It was an age of game theory in international relations, of conspiracy theories that were credible and even true, of brinksmanship and mind-numbing terror. Perhaps you do not remember it like that. This is my narrative, and I am saying how I remember things.

In that titanic struggle our side, the West, supported many unworthy allies; in a calculated fashion, because those allies were important in in the existential struggle. Hence Suharto, the Shah, Pinochet, at certain times a certain Iraqi strongman.

In the milieu in which I lived, I breathed in a certain cynicism about this titanic stuggle. Sure, our side was ours, but we were not enthusiastic partisans. Our side had high ideals, and failed to live up to them; the other side, too, professed high ideals, and likewise failed to live up to them. They were two great grey colossi locked in an interminable struggle. We were weary unto death of their fighting and wanted something, anything, to make it end.

One day it ended. We had won.

Over the next few years- the next several years- it gradually dawned on me that my cynicism had been misplaced. The other side had been, in its essence, wrong and evil, and our side was, in its essence, right and good. The crimes that had been committed by our side had been committed, rightly or wrongly, as calculated moves in a struggle against a far greater evil. The crimes of the other side had been committed as calculated moves to still all voices of opposition and dehumanise mankind.

I realise this must sound breathtakingly naïve to many people. But I think there is no other plausible reading of the historical evidence. I am prepared to justify it at appalling length in subsequent posts.

Almost the last, but far from the least evil to spring from this titanic struggle happened in the first half of 1991. A tyrant who had made unprovoked war on most of his neighbours, who had caused the deaths of upward of a million people, who was a bad egg overall, had been brought to bay by a vast alliance of many nations. He could have been cast down, as all tyrants should be cast down, with relative ease. And yet he was not. President George Bush called upon the oppressed people of Iraq to rebel against their ruler, and did not aid them as they fought and died. The vast armies were dispersed and sent back to their homes. The tyrant remained in power. Why was this allowed to happen? I believe it was the final catastrophe of the Cold War. Forged in the crucible of a Cold War spy agency like Vladimir Putin, President George Bush the Lesser could not bring himself to make a move in the great game that was beyond the bounds of precedent, that might throw out too far the balance of power, that might unleash too many uncontrollable variables. This is the first axiom of my narrative. Saddam Hussein should have been removed from power in 1991. The crimes he had committed up until then fully justified his removal by force. All that happened in the next twelve years did nothing to diminish these crimes.

I remember the removal of Saddam from power being a bipartisan policy throughout the 1990s, once the habits of thought of the Cold War began to recede. I was angry about sanctions. I was angry about the bombings of 1998. I was angry then because these things because they impacted disproportionately on innocent civilians, and they had no hope of achieving what is most precious to God, in the words of Baha’ullah, which is justice. The invasion of Iraq was carried out to make amends for the shame of 1991 and bring this long overdue justice. It was obvious that it should be done, long before 2001.

Now for the marvellous thing I have seen with my own eyes in my own time, the success of the Big Lie. Ceaselessly, everywhere, it is repeated that the leaders of the West lied to us, because they said that the Despot had Weapons of Mass Destruction, when he did not. They say this, and they say this: but it does not make it true. I was alive in 2003, and I remember. The Ministry of Truth cannot erase the following from my mind:

* It seemed quite clear from the pronouncements of George Bush et al that the goal of the invasion was what I have said above, to crush a wicked despot like a weevil.

* In a move stupid in retrospect, George Bush et al sought to obtain an imprimatur from the United Nations for the invasion. This brought the Weapons of Mass Destruction issue to the forefront, because the UN resolutions that Iraq had flouted were concernd with these.

* Because Iraq had not complied with these resolutions, a murderous regime of sanctions was daily punishing the Iraqi people.

* Everyone was agreed that the Despot had Weapons of Mass Destruction: the French, the Russians, Uncle Tom Cobbley, etc. If anyone had good evidence to the contrary, they sat on it.

* The ‘fact’ that he had Weapons of Mass Destruction was a commonly used argument against invasion, and by far the best one in my opinion. You cannot bring a tyrant who has Weapons of Mass Destruction down unless the situation is desperate, because you cannot know how much he will be able to destroy in his death throes.

There was an invasion. For a little while, the unelected unrepresentative swill governing states near Iraq had trouble sleeping. Libya decided to make nice. Was the Coalition of the Willing happy to throw down the tyrant and then leave? No, that would be irresponsible. They stayed behind to reconstruct things. They made a lot of appalling mistakes while doing so. There was an election. They stayed on at the request of the elected government.

Everything in Iraq was better, except for security.
Security was absolutely appalling primarily because of the interference of unelected unrepresentative swill in neighbouring countries, primarily Iran.

I have these last two statements not from some right-wing blog, but from an actual Iraqi, unprompted and unaware of my opinions.

This is my narrative.
It is a narrative in which the role of President George Bush the Greater is, in its essence, heroic and decent. It is the narrative of a wrong and an attempt to right this wrong, an attempt admittedly limited and flawed, but an attempt that has not failed and need not fail.

I welcome alternative narratives. Any plausible counter-narrative must, however, supply a plausible alternative motivation for George W Bush to initiate, carry out, and persist with, such a deeply and widely unpopular action.

Success to the old fashioned doctrine, that men are created all free;
and down with the power of the despot, wherever his stronghold may be.
Wherever his stronghold may be, wherever his stronghold may be;
and down with the power of the despot, wherever his stronghold may be.

[May 4th, 2012: I'm still waiting hopefully for a plausible counter-narrative.  Blogger tells me people are still visiting this page, so please, if you have one, feel free!]


Dave said...

My head is too stuffy today for rational thought, so I will supply my knee-jerk response initially and come back later when my brain works:

I think your narrative got it right: Bush thinks he is doing the heroic thing, and that that alone is enough justification to do it. But he fails on the simple moral litmus test that it is not enough to do the right thing for the wrong reasons.

And it's especially not enough to do them on the cheap against the express recommendations of your qualified analysts and military strategists, whose business it is to advise. If Bush chose to ignore those recommendations, as he did, his sin is hubris and the failures are his to own. Also, you will never convince me that oil security wasn't at least in the top three reasons for going into Iraq.

My own thesis is that you are, again, essentially correct about the fallout of the Cold War, but I absolutely don't share your conclusions. Afghanistan and Pakistan are where the main problem was in 2001, and a concerted effort to eradicate the planners and moral guardians of the Wahabists at the time - as opposed to an under-resourced half-arsed sweep of the border and a desperate strategy of securing a few important cities - would have been more productive and morally sound. It would also have actually had something to do with September 11, you may recall.

Frankly I think Bush rolled the dice on a long shot in Iraq and still doesn't realise that he's blown his wad. And the reason he can't concede that it was a fool's venture in the first place is because he believes he's the hero. Worse, that he's God's hero, The Decider. Fuck me.

He's not the action star hero of ABC's new political drama The Decider. He's just a man. And history won't look on him as the great man that these times called for.

Dr Clam said...

I assume you mean the simple moral litmus test that it is not enough to do the *wrong* thing for the *right* reasons? I would argue that it is always right to do the right thing, no matter how stupid your reasons are.

I still think invading Afghanistan was a much more morally dubious exercise than invading Iraq (balance sheet here).

And wasn't paramount among those 'qualified analysts' was Rumsfeld, who has always been painted as the architect of the 'doing things on the cheap' strategy? Not to mention every Congressman and Senator, who always want to do things on the cheap. I don't think it is tenable to say that there was a consensus of advice not to do things on the cheap and GWB overruled it: for all we know it was the other way around, and GWB wanted two million men on the ground and a simultaneous invasion of Syria, Iraq, and Iran, and was overruled by his cost-cutting minions. I agree that doing things on the cheap was a bad strategy, but I don't think this can be put down to one man's hubris: it was a product of the entire decision-making process of the West. And the critics who demonise GWB never seem to complain 'He didn't have two million men on the ground.'

I'm sure oil security was up there as well, but that is not a bad thing. 'Oil security' to the Third World means 'lower food prices'; it means 'hospitals keep running'. It is a much more noble goal than 'revenge for September 11' or even, given the numbers of people involved, 'ensuring nothing like September 11 happens again'.

If I am reading your comment correctly, you are saying that Bush's motivation is basically that he shares the narrative I outlined, but that the narrative is wrong? I shall await your unstuffed head and counter-narrative!

Sorry again for trawling over the same old ground. I just couldn't help myself. I am exposed to all these shiny fragments of a vision inimical to my own constantly, but I can't piece them together to make a worldview that I can fit my head around.

Dr Clam said...
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Marco Parigi said...

I guess my attitude with a very uncertain world is to look back in complete retrospective optimism in the decisions that were made. For instance one can pick a critical decision made (eg. invading Iraq in the way that it happened) and imagine an alternative history where that decision was the difference between our relatively stable world, and triggering a freak sequence of (unpredicted) events of such calamity that the whole of civilization would have broken down (exercise for the novel writer - write a brief outline of events to describe in an alternate history novel) Of course one can do it evenly on both sides of the debate (if 9/11 didn't happen, if the UN approved war, if Al Gore had been given the election etc.)

Marco Parigi said...

Suffice to say, I never actually "believe" anyone who says "if person X had done Y the world would be better" I only exaggerate the possible disasters with alternative decisions (only in retrospect mind you - this does not apply for current or future decisions)

Dr Clam said...

I'll write that novel outline for you, Marco.

Consider how hawkish Joe Lieberman is today.

Consider how he could have (should have?) been Vice-President on September 11 2001.

Consider what accidents might have befallen President Gore (a plane falling on his head, for instance).

We might well have had an incredibly-peeved Democrat President pursuing the mother of all land wars in Asia these past few years.

[Hmm, the word verification is "baaoil", appropriately mimicking the bleating of 'No Blood for Oil' protesters...]

Marco Parigi said...

Great! I'll promise to read (and or talk about) everything you write along those lines :)

Dave said...

Rumsfeld: Actually he's the one I blame 100% for going in on the cheap. It was he who championed the slimline attack, and for going in fast (i.e. without a security strategy beyond "hit the Baghdad finish line and git that goldarn Saddam" or any kind of long term reconstruction plan beyond "through pallet-loads of greenbacks on a C130 and get the power back on").

Rumsfeld argued for that, successfully, over the explicit recommendations of the various generals and intelligence strategists who had a clue what they were talking about (they're the ones I was referring to in my first post - sorry for not being clear). Bush's abject failure was either that he was not aware or considered and rejected the substantial evidence that the approach was deficient. At the very, very least it was a colossally bad call. But I would suggest that he had, as with decisions before and since, made up his mind (quite possibly before he got into office, but let us not slide into rhetoric and conspiracy theory) and was merely listening for useful sound bites for the press gallery.

So to elaborate - I know I shouldn't single out Bush. Cheney and Rumsfeld were just as bad - worse, actually, since I ascribe to them both quite a high degree of analytical ability and intelligence, and they still screwed it up.

Oh, the "right thing for the wrong reasons" thing? I was being (inarticulately) rhetorical. I maintain that it was the wrong thing for the wrong reasons. But I do take your point, I could have expressed it better.

Dave said...

Lieberman: is a fucking nutbag, and the main reason to argue that the Democrats are really no better than or different to the Republicans. The only real saving grace of [insert "rather dubious court decision in 2000 which I still think warrants rather closer scrutiny than it has thus far received" here] is that it kept that rabid loon out of the White House.

Gore dropped quite a few points in my estimation on the strength of his choice of running partner (although having now watched several seasons of The West Wing and having gained a greater comprehension of some elements of the US pre-electoral processes* I suppose it is possible he didn't have a lot of choice, though I see no reason to grant the benefit of doubt on that one).

* Yes I am aware that Aaron Sorkin is a coke-addled rabidly unabashed lefty. but he writes great dialogue, so I forgive him.

Dave said...

Re: The Balance Sheet. I think you have a point about the number killed and where,

As a secular whateverist I must dismiss point 2 as no more than a plea of diminished responsibility by way of mental impairment.

Point 3 is an interesting one, given that Afghanistan has been a punching bag for Western countries for hundreds of years. Perhaps that's why most of the rest of the world had no real problem with the US hitting back at the Taliban - they figure one more invasion wouldn't make a real difference?

Dr Clam said...

I agree with the position of the two parties being much closer together than the appearance. I've written before that I believe the real dynamic is government/opposition, not right/left, and that a Gore administration would have followed a substantially similar path (though with more internal opposition, like the Labour party in the UK), while the Republicans would have pursued a no-great-enthusiasm-for-war line more like the UK Conservative party

Dave said...

Yep, that sounds about right. I like to fantasise that Gore would have taken a bit more time with his planning, and he almost certainly wouldn't have reopened Alaska for oil exploration, but frankly he would still have been President Gore rather than Saint Al...

But you know I think a few of the key issues for me with this administration (and I freely admit to being deeply opposed to Bush and Co well before the dodgy election outcome) are:

- the lies (too many to count)
- the rollback of pretty good laws (Gonzalez should be strung up in the village square and beaten with blackberry switches) and the appalling disregard for others (that whole "I can wiretap whoever I want to" thing)
- the treason (I cannot for the life of me understand why more Americans aren't up in arms about Cheney's sock puppets outing Plame, endangering an active intelligence unit engaged in exactly the kind of work that actually helps in the WoT)
- the laziness ( and ineptitude - read that article, the bit about Democratic staffers wandering about trying to find the room where key meetings are being held is hilarious and scary as hell
- the control of information ( is a fun little example)
- the regular and abject failures of diplomacy, and really, just the disregard for diplomacy as a relevant tool of engagement with other sovereign states

I'll leave my views on the separation of church and state as an exercise for the home viewer :)

Dave said...
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Dr Clam said...

I thought before I prove Fermat's Last Theorem and get some room temperature cold-fusion happening this afternoon, I would have a go at being an apologist for the Bush Administration in response to your comments,Dave!

Re the lies, the rollback of laws, and the control of information: I agree that all of this stuff is bad. I haven't seen anything to convince me that the other 'side' of politics would behave any better in this regard- see, for example, a certain genetically-modified salamander: I am in agreement with every word in this hatchet job by well-known crankpot Theodore Dalrymple. I'm not au fait enough with
the situation in the Old Country to think of good examples there, but look how our opposition has loyally fallen into line behind the government on the abominable treatment of Dr Haneef, leaving dear, sweet, sorely-misguided-on-Stem-Cells Andrew Bartlett and the endearingly fanatical Greens the sole voices raised in support of the rule of law and other quaint old fashioned concepts. The only difference is that the ends which the 'right' is pursuing by these despicable means are in most respects more consistent with my worldview than the ends which the 'left' would pursue by equivalent despicable means.

As for "I cannot for the life of me understand why more Americans aren't up in arms about Cheney's sock puppets outing Plame, endangering an active intelligence unit engaged in exactly the kind of work that actually helps in the WoT", I can venture an answer, I think. With most of the things that people disagree on, there are significant tangible observables that need to be explained: burning Humvees, protesters waving placards, etc. This on the other hand is very much a 'He says, she says' sort of thing, and as a result the narratives on the 'left' and 'right' are more divergent than on any other recent event I can think of. In the 'right' narrative this is basically a conspiracy to smear the Administration, while the people who adhere to the 'left' narrative are the ones who are quite prepared to impeach Bush anyway. People in the middle looking at these two narrative are, I think, saying 'there they go, indulging in hyperbolic attacks on each other again in their usual deranged way,I wonder what's on the other channel.' This analysis may be off base, of course, since I'm very far away from the Old Country...

Re the laziness: I would ascribe this to the System, not the Administration, since the Rolling Stone article is basically identical in content and style to a P.J. O'Rourke article about the working of Congress I once read, written in 1991.

Re the regular and abject failures of diplomacy, etc.: I realy don't know if this is real, or spin. CAFTA, which is abused in the Rolling Stone article, is a worthwhile diplomatic achievement. That climate change framework incorporating China and India, whatever's it called, is a diplomatic achievement. These six party talks on North Korea might turn out to be a diplomatic achievement, what with them shutting down their reactor and all. Getting UN backing to trash the Taliban and put Afghanistan back together was diplomatic stuff. And whatever you think of the aims of the 'Coalition of the Wlling', putting it together was a diplomatic achievement.

Dave said...

I'll certainly give you your points on the diplomatic outcomes where they've occurred. And I grant that the Bush administration has had to deal with a lot more sabre-rattling idiocy than its recent predecessor (although I will also assert that they provoked some of it). If they manage to dig the North Korea situation out of the hole its been in for the past few years, it will certainly be a great achievement.

I also see your point about the middle-grounders' view of Plamegate (to give it as unimaginative a shorthand title as I can think of), but that one does still baffle me.

Sigh. I guess what I rail at more than anything else is the sense that in Western governments (or at least the ones I am most familar with, to whit the US, UK and Australia) standards of personal integrity and ethical conduct have declined, sharply, over the last ten or fifteen years. I agree that in nearly all cases the opposition parties are just as feeble.

It makes me sad. Especially as a public servant who is expected to uphold high standards on pain of dismissal or prosecution. If it's good enough for me and the vast majority of my colleagues, why is it so hard for our leaders.

Bah. Ennui. I'm going to go use my day off from work and go fishing in World of Warcraft ;)

Dr Clam said...

I find myself in complete agreement. I am also sad about the low ethical standards of our so-called leaders. The only consolation I can think of- if it is a consolation- which I doubt- is that Western democracy has always been operated in the main by people of about the same bottom-feeding level and we have somehow managed to muddle along. Could collect a whole bunch of depressing quotes by Ambrose Bierce, Hilaire Belloc, George Orwell,etc., and put them here, but ought to get back to work. Have fun fishing! :)

Marco Parigi said...

I don't agree with any of that at all. Their achievements are as much an illusion as their failures. Leaders are just actors that play their parts. Their parts are practically scripted by the political structures and landscapes in their sphere of influence. The main game to me is the "policy wonks" - ie the ones who dream up and analyse policy directions and argue them out behind the scenes.

Dr Clam said...

I am too confused to figure out what it is you don't agree with. Are you invoking some sort of determinism to exonerate our leaders from being lying, cheating, miserable swine of men? I do not believe in 'policy wonks': I've never seen one, so they don't exist. Political policies are obviously determined by focus-groups of pixies and leprechauns.

Marco Parigi said...

Well, I'm not quite saying that our leaders are puppets of an elaborate conspiracy. I just think their decisions are nowhere near as discretionary as they seem to you. I do not feel right either criticising, nor praising individual leaders. I do and will praise and criticise party policy directions, constitutional details and methods of "nation-building"

Dr Clam said...

I'm still hanging out for a plausible counter-narrative.
I think you can realisticaly critique the Neoconservative enterprise from the 'right' for being idealistic and muddle-headed, or you can realistically critique it from a hardline pacifist Tolstoyan/Papal point of view... but I still cannot imagine any logical narrative in which the Iraq intervention is 'bad' and the Kosovo intervention is 'good'. They are both bold, perhaps stupid, entirely open-ended nation-building projects whose consequences are still up in the air.