By God he was right

Of all the people now entitled to _Schadenfreude_ we should give special consideration to Anatol Lieven. In _September 2002_ he wrote an “article in the LRB,”: which has been at the back of my mind “ever since”: His foresight was just about 20/20. To reread him now is like watching the one man in a shooting booth at the funfair whose rifle hasn’t been bent by the management.

bq.. The most surprising thing about the Bush Administration’s plan to invade Iraq is not that it is destructive of international order; or wicked, when we consider the role the US (and Britain) have played, and continue to play, in the Middle East; or opposed by the great majority of the international community; or seemingly contrary to some of the basic needs of the war against terrorism. It is all of these things, but they are of no great concern to the hardline nationalists in the Administration.

… The most surprising thing about the push for war is that it is so profoundly reckless. If I had to put money on it, I’d say that the odds on quick success in destroying the Iraqi regime may be as high as 5/1 or more, given US military superiority, the vile nature of Saddam Hussein’s rule, the unreliability of Baghdad’s missiles, and the deep divisions in the Arab world. But at first sight, the longer-term gains for the US look pretty limited, whereas the consequences of failure would be catastrophic.

p. We haven’t, yet, reached the long-term consequences he foresaw:

bq.. A general Middle Eastern conflagration and the collapse of more pro-Western Arab states would lose us the war against terrorism, doom untold thousands of Western civilians to death in coming decades, and plunge the world economy into depression.

p. Yet there is hope, I suppose, in the paragraph that immediately followed:

bq. These risks are not only to American (and British) lives and interests, but to the political future of the Administration. If the war goes badly wrong, it will be more generally excoriated than any within living memory, and its members will be finished politically – finished for good. If no other fear moved these people, you’d have thought this one would.

p. But this is a limited and unsatisfying hope. To consign to oblivion or even jail the people who led us itno this mess won’t get us out of it. It’s merely a preliminary to the long and painful efforts to undo the damage, which have no guarantee of success.

Like everyone else, Lieven underestimated the speed at which the occupation would turn sour, and the astonishing incompetence of the Bremer régime. But that turns out, in retrospect, to have been the one entirely novel feature of the Iraqi war. Can there ever have been an army, an occupying power, less competent at its stated aim? There are some things you can’t predict just by studying the past.

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6 Responses to By God he was right

  1. quinn says:

    i wish that i believed this would cost them their political careers, but it won’t. they represent a huge swath of american ideological that has no where else to turn, even i didn’t understand that when this all began. somewhere in the psychology of american exceptionalism is the belief that we can’t really be *that* wrong, and so many people still believe we won the vietnam war, and so nixon had a long and fruitful career, and no one spoke ill of him when he died, and so henry kissenger is still an active politician. even segragationist speech is still common in the elite of washington- we are not as evolved as we have tried to convince the world. no, this will no more destroy the republican right than the intifada has destroyed likud.

  2. el Patron says:

    I don’t think it’s entirely true to say that “no one”: spoke ill of Nixon when he died.

    bq. “If the right people had been in charge of Nixon’s funeral, his casket would have been launched into one of those open-sewage canals that empty into the ocean just south of Los Angeles. He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning. Even his funeral was illegal. He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin.”

  3. Rupert says:

    Satisfying though the above is, it doesn’t much help with the question of what can or should be done next. I don’t even see people discussing the necessary precursor to that: what is the desired end? Is it really liberal democracies across the region, or might we just as well plan a picnic on Venus? Is it a stable region that doesn’t create thousands of people who hate us? Is the best we can hope for an uneasy equilibrium where we at least get enough oil to keep driving our SUVs, at the price of a bloated, suspicious anti-terrorist bureaucracy?

    What is it that we want, that we can reasonably hope for? And is anything invoving Israel doomed anyway?

    R (recovering after a birthday party where a friend brought a bottle of something back from Beijing. Only two things were recognisable among the ideograms: ‘56% v/v’ and ‘ISO 9001’.

  4. el Patron says:

    Now you’re asking. I have no idea any longer what the least worst outcome is. This is only partly because I am a natural pessimist.

  5. Rupert says:

    I realise now that I should have written that last line “Is anything involving Israel doomed anyway: is anything not involving Israel doomed anyway?”. But then I feel profoundly miserable about the whole Zionist experiment.

    I do try to discount your natural pessimism, in the same way that the markets discount quarterly results before they happen, but in this case I’m having problems finding any optimists (who aren’t raving neo-cons, and even *then*…) for balance.


  6. Koko Taylor says:


    A second chance to learn the lesson of Vietnam: ANATOL LIEVEN.

    844 words
    8 June 2004
    Financial Times
    USA Ed2
    Page 15
    (c) 2004 The Financial Times Limited. All rights reserved

    Many members of the American establishment who supported the Iraq war are now backing away from it at great speed. They are blaming the debacle on unforeseeable and extraordinary mistakes by the Bush administration and its officials in Baghdad. This is correct as far as it goes. But the failure in Iraq also reflects deeper flaws in US political culture, which must be recognised by Americans if such disasters are to be avoided in the future.

    Above all, this is true of that very curious combination: belief in the possibility of the immediate, successful adoption of democracy by all the peoples of the world; and contempt for the cultures, interests and opinions of those peoples. This was seen with regard to Russia in the 1990s, when many American analysts believed that Russia’s adoption of democracy meant that ordinary Russians would agree to US policies that were evidently contrary to their country’s interests and economic policies that were ruinous for their wellbeing.

    The abuses at Abu Ghraib are only the most grotesque expression of this contradiction as far as attitudes to Arabs are concerned. In the articles for the New Yorker magazine that brought the abuses at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere into the open, Seymour Hersh attributes part of the philosophy behind the interrogation techniques to a book by Raphael Patai called The Arab Mind, described as “the bible of the neocons on Arab behaviour”. From it, according to Mr Hersh’s sources, they drew beliefs that Arabs only understand force and that their greatest weakness is sexual shame. I was not aware of the latter belief, but can attest to the former from some of my own conversations.

    The combination of these attitudes with professed belief in democratising the Arab world is one for which terms such as “hypocrisy” or “cognitive dissonance” are quite inadequate. This is Orwellian doublethink, an offence against fundamental human standards of intellectual decency. That such a mixture can be taken seriously and exert influence reveals starkly the hideous muddle into which US thinking about the Muslim world has fallen.

    Contempt for the Muslim world was displayed in the very decision to go to war in Iraq, which was opposed by the overwhelming majority of Arabs. Parallels have been drawn between the Iraq war and that in Kosovo, which was also launched without the sanction of the UN. But the war over Kosovo was supported by a consensus of most of the states of the European region and of the leading regional organisations. This gave Nato the moral and political right to override the views of more distant states. If the US had tried to intervene in Kosovo against the will of the vast majority of Europeans, it would have lacked all legitimacy and would have failed utterly.

    Since the war in Iraq began, US forces have displayed their respect for the Iraqi civilians they came to liberate by failing even to keep count of the numbers they accidentally kill. President George W. Bush in his May 24 speech on Iraq policy gave an extremely qualified apology for Abu Ghraib but could not be bothered to learn how to pronounce it.

    And this in turn reveals a deeper flaw in the approach of dominant sections of America’s political elite to the outside world. It is not just that messianic belief in spreading the American Way co-exists with deep suspicion of the outside world in large sections of US society. The dream of Americanisation itself embodies and to some extent depends on an implicit, if unacknowledged, contempt for other traditions.

    This has been encouraged still further by the decline in regional studies and the rise of academic “disciplines” such as rational choice theory, which seek to render the study of other cultures irrelevant but which are themselves frequently no more than an expression of contemporary western cultural assumptions in their most shallow and banal form. Hence the US administration’s belief that Iraq was a political blank slate on which it could write a new system that would be at once democratic and subservient to the US. The combination of naive belief in the universal applicability of democracy with disdain for the study of other cultures is a lethal one when it comes to policymaking. It offends against the oldest and wisest of all military maxims: know thine enemy.

    These were very much the errors that led the US into Vietnam. That searing experience should have been a lesson in the need to study one’s enemy, in the dangers of messianism and in the fact that US troops are no less innately capable of atrocities than any other soldiers. So contrary, however, was this lesson to fundamental US national myths that it could not be properly learned. We must hope that the experience of Iraq changes that.

    The writer is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His next book, America Right and Wrong, will appear in October

    Document FTFT000020040608e0680007k

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