Obama Vs. The Smart Guys (And Dumb Wars)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., talks with the media aboard his campaign charter in flight from Las Vegas to Los Angeles, Tuesday, June 24, 2008.(AP Photo/Alex Brandon) AP Photo/Alex Brandon

This column was written by Eric Alterman.

One of the many (many) salutary aspects of Barack Obama's impending presidential nomination is the sea change his victory marks in the battle for the mind-set of the American foreign policy establishment. Not only was Obama unambiguously opposed to the American invasion of Iraq back when it mattered but - in marked contrast to the Clinton campaign - so were most of his advisers and supporters. Indeed, without this essential distinction from his opponent, coupled with her unwillingness to repudiate or apologize for her vote for George W. Bush's war, the Obama campaign would likely never have found the base of support it needed to mount a serious nomination fight.

Recall the bracing good sense of Obama's October 2002 speech to a rally organized by Chicagoans Against War in Iraq: "I...know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military [has] a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a US occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of Al Qaeda."

Though it fueled his primary victories, Obama's prescience regarding Iraq was actually a handicap with many in the media. Amazingly, given the scope of the catastrophe the war has visited on the United States and the world, the spectrum of punditocracy opinion on foreign policy remains dominated by people who got Iraq entirely wrong and are proud of it. On the right we get arguments like that from The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes, who believes that "Obama's not in quite as strong a position on the war in Iraq as he really thinks he is, because the entire world believed that Saddam Hussein in Iraq had weapons of mass destruction." Much of the left and center, meanwhile, remain wedded to the view articulated by liberal pundit Richard Cohen, who, borrowing from the French ex-Stalinist Pierre Courtade, insisted, "You and your kind were wrong to be right; we were right to be wrong." As Slate's Timothy Noah, a repentant war supporter, noted not long ago, "Five years after this terrible war began, it remains true that respectable mainstream discussion about its lessons is nearly exclusively confined to people who supported the war, even though that same mainstream acknowledges, for the most part, that the war was a mistake." And yet the "people who opposed U.S. entry into the Iraq war, it would appear, are insufficiently 'serious' to explain why they were right."

It would nevertheless be a mistake for those of us who knew better at the time to dismiss forever the judgment of everyone who was taken in. Mistakes, after all, are endemic to foreign and military policy given the unpredictability of events and the difficulty of securing reliable information in a place like Iraq. But the onus ought to be on those who drove this SUV off the cliff to explain why we should ever strap ourselves into their vehicle again. Slate's Jacob Weisberg is surely correct to observe that "it's incumbent upon those of us who blew the biggest foreign-policy decision of the past decade to try to understand our mistake--and to try to learn something from it."

That learning process, however, has been stalled not only by the unwillingness of the hawks to look in the mirror but also by a lack of intellectual rigor on the part of those who did. Typically, neocons either deny the fact of a mistake or blame the Iraqis for what has gone wrong. As Charles Krauthammer explains it, "The root problem lies with Iraqis and their political culture." Liberals and moderates tend to foist all the blame on the Bush Administration's incompetence and fecklessness, as if this was somehow news to them in 2003 and now makes their criticism all the more valuable. As Leon Wieseltier views things, their position as supporters of the war "gives them a perverse and somewhat paradoxical authority in expressing their criticisms of the way the war was conducted." Others blame - pace Michael Ignatieff - the fact that they are academics, because "a sense of reality doesn't always flourish in elite institutions." Yet these same elite universities happened to be the locus of opposition to the war when Ignatieff - now a politician in Canada - was braying for it.

While The Atlantic's Andrew Sullivan - there, I said it - and Jonathan Rauch, along with others, have engaged in serious self-critiques, I was recently reminded of just how rare these are when reading a partial draft of a lengthy manuscript by former New Republic editor and especially aggressive liberal hawk Peter Beinart. He was one of the few journalists Bill Moyers interviewed for his Buying the War documentary to demonstrate Beinart's genuine contrition for the irrational exuberance he exhibited when arguing on behalf of war. Inspired by his mistakes in Iraq, he's embarked on an examination of the role that "toughness" and "hubris" have played in determining America's response to world events. Whether Beinart succeeds is to some degree beside the point; in undertaking the effort, he is demonstrating what it means to be a responsible member of the nation's elite. Just how few of his fellow hawks of the left, right and center have joined Beinart on this journey serves as another reminder of how fortunate this country is to have before it a presidential candidate who needed no instruction in the first place. "I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars," Barack Obama explained six years ago. He got it right. Now, perhaps, so can we...
By Eric Alterman
Reprinted with permission from The Nation

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