June 11, 2006

Aaaaand . . . We're Back!

Lately, there's been an upsurge of popular demand -- ok, so it was only one person, but it was not my mother and one person is about 50% of my readers -- for more DBIAM. Intrigued by the idea that someone actually wanted more from this website, I took advantage of an idle moment to read Brooks's latest column and see if I could recapture the fervor of the early days. Well, let's just say that I have been forcibly reminded of just why I thought Ted's idea of starting this website was so brilliant. I don't know if it would be correct to say that this column plumbs new depths for Brooks -- as I believe I've mentioned before here, such is probably not possible, or at least not until Brooks throws off all restraint and begins openly calling for all true patriots to begin purging liberals -- but it's pretty damn low.

Brooks begins by saying that, as we all learned from the stories we were brought up on -- Brooks has apparently taken to heart those posters that say "Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten" -- evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. He then laments that in Iraq such is not the case: instead, the insurgents are winning precisely because they're so savage. Leaving aside Brooks's willingness to base his interpretation of world politics on the stories his parents told him when he was a child (and the fact that, while evil does contain the seeds of its own destruction, it often manages to be victorious for quite a while anyway, even in children's stories), there's another obvious story here that fits all the facts. In this story, a group of powerful people decide that the U.S. needs to invade Iraq. They have a number of different reasons -- some want to do it to help out Israel, some because of the oil, some because they think that the U.S. needs a bigger presence in the Middle East, some simply because they believe that a show of force is necessary to remind the world who's boss, and some because they are so stupid and naive that they think that democracy can imposed at the point of the gun and that once so imposed it will spread across the Middle East like, well, like something, but NOT like a bunch of falling dominoes, ok? We do NOT want to hear the d word, got it? Not to mention the one who is desperate to do something better than his daddy. Oh, and the ruler of Iraq is a bad guy who the American public is already conditioned to hate from the first Gulf War. And when 9/11 happens, they see their chance, and using a combination of lies, insinuations, and creative stretching of the truth, make many Americans believe that Saddam was at the very least involved with, if not directly responsible for, 9/11, and that he's getting ready to do it again, only with nukes. Alas for them, the same arrogance and overconfidence that creates a mindset that believes in American empire and lying to the public to make the case for war (not to mention causing the deaths of innocent civilians and American soldiers for no good reason) proves to be their downfall: after an initially victorious stage, it becomes clear that preparations for anything beyond the invasion were essentially nonexistent and that they were wrong in almost all of their assumptions about the war and its aftermath, and their project of creating a peaceful, democratic, and America- and Israel-loving Iraq that sells cheap oil collapses into civil war between religious and ethnic militias.

In this story, the vicious insurgency is the natural consequence of the American invasion. The hubris of the invaders leads them to believe that the Iraqis will become approximately the only country in history not to form some sort of resistance movement when invaded. Their incompetence leads them to completely ignore this possibility and Iraq's ethnic and religious fault lines, making the situation even worse. And their lies and rhetoric compound the error: conflating the war on Iraq with the so-called war on terror, they invite Iraqis to see Al Qaeda as friends and natural allies; larding their speeches with words like "crusade", they give ammunition the jihadis can use to claim that the war in Iraq is a war against all Muslims, further radicalising the population; telling the American people that the war "could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months" and "The Iraqi people . . . view us as their hoped-for liberators" sets up the subsequent collapse of support for the war when, as any idiot could have predicted, both of these claims are demonstrated to be entirely false. The war, conceived in lies, error, and dreams of empire, is evil, no matter the good motives of some of its supporters, and it's pretty clear that in this case, evil does indeed contain the seeds of its own destruction.

But back to Brooks, whose despair over a three-year insurgency ignores the story of Sleeping Beauty, whose curse could not be defeated for a hundred years. Even worse, though, he apparently believes that if Jesus, Mother Teresa, and Ghandi had been running the United States and its military over the past few years, they could not have compiled as spotless a record as the Bush administration, and that all of the savagery in Iraq is due to the insurgents. "The defining feature of their violence is not merely that they murder, but that they torture those they are about to kill." Let's see, I remember reading something about Aba, or Abo, or Abu, Abu something. It's on the tip of my toungue . . . nope, it's gone. "Videos of such acts are posted on the Internet or sold in the markets of towns like Haditha." Because Americans would never dream of doing any such thing. "Far from motivating most Americans to fight harder, cruelty on this scale is unnerving. Most Americans simply want to get away." Except for the Americans at Haditha, or Hamandiya, or Ishaqi, or, most likely, a number of other occurences that we haven't yet heard about and may never hear about. Of course, the various Iraqi militias are considerably more vicious and bloodthirsty than the Americans -- Saddam didn't exactly encourage a brotherhood of man in Iraq -- but for Brooks to say "Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game" is breathtakingly naive. After a while, the constant IED's and ambushes start to wear on you. You start to wonder if you're really fighting for the Iraqi people: they don't seem to be too grateful, do they? Plus, as Brooks says, the insurgents are filled with "blood madness." They're barely human, right? Completely crazy, anyway. The only thing they understand is force. We're hear to bring civilization, and by God, we're going to bring it, no matter how many of them we have to kill. Apparently, Brooks never read "Heart of Darkness" in high school (though his trouble with fairy tales suggests that Joseph Conrad may be a bit beyond his intellectual level).

Brooks follows up with some muddled thinking: "The insurgents' second great advantage is that they seem able to create an environment in which it is difficult to survive if you are decent." As evidence, he points out that every civilian is a possible suicide bomber. The connection between these two things is tenuous at best. Perhaps he means that one has to become a barbarian in order to survive? But then he spends two paragraphs discussing how most American soldiers are not becoming barbarians. In the end, it appears that this sentence sounds good but means nothing: a Brooks special.

And then we return to Brooks-land, where the United States bears no responsibility for anything bad that happens anywhere: "Similarly, in our debates at home we are searching for ways to exercise enough power to defeat the insurgents while still behaving in accordance with our national conscience. We are seeking a sweet spot that satisfies both the demands of power and of principle. But it could be that given the circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create, that sweet spot no longer exists." Circumstances we have allowed the insurgents to create! Is the man mad? The circumstances are as follows: for years, Iraq has been ruled by members of an ethnic-religious minority, the Sunni Arabs. Not just under Saddam, either (whose regime the U.S. may have had a hand in installing and certainly propped up for years as a counterweight to Iran): the British installed a Sunni king and worked closely with the Sunnis when they ruled Iraq, and prior to that the Sunnis had been treated preferentially by the Ottomans. However, under Saddam, the oppression of Shiites and Kurds became worse, especially following the abortive Shiite rebellion immediately after the Gulf War. In the meanwhile, fundamentalist Islam gained steadily in Iraq, just as it has done throughout the Arab world, partly due to the discrediting of secular alternatives (through association with autocratic rulers sustained by Western powers: see, e.g., the modern history of Iran) and partly because it was encouraged by Saddam who hoped to use the anti-Western inclinations of fundamentalist Islam to prop up his regime and move the focus of popular discontent from him to the U.S. Then the United States invaded and overthrew Saddam and, symbolically (especially in a highly tribal society like Iraq) the Sunni Arabs. It was fairly clear that the new Iraq would not have nearly as big a place for the Sunni Arabs in it as the old one, and the Americans did nothing to dispel the impression, dissolving the Iraqi Army and allowing Shiites to move forward with hard-line deBaathification plans. American rhetoric also fueled Sunni paranoia about a war against Islam (furthering the radicalisation of the Sunni population and the legitimitisation of the jihadis as on par with the nationalist resistance in what was once one of the most secular countries in the Middle East), and the Americans did little to prevent Shiite militias from enacting reprisals against Sunnis for the long list of Saddam's crimes, or, really, to keep order and provide security, instead forcing people to turn to militias for defence. The result is a vicious and bloody sectarian conflict, and while we are certainly not responsible for the viciousness and bloody-mindedness (or not all of it), we do bear considerable responsibility for "the circumstances". But, again, as we know, the United States models its foreign policy on the life of St. Francis of Assisi, so clearly it cannot possibly be at fault for any of the bloodshed currently happening in Iraq, and it certainly cannot be the case that we are not winning because the war as it was conceived by the Bush administration was not winnable.

Finally, Brooks offers definitive proof that he is living in his own world with this: "The insurgents' third malicious advantage is that they have no agenda. . . All they have to do is destroy . . . ." This is only defensible because Brooks mashes the jihadis, Iraqi nationalists, and Shiite militias into one all-encompassing insurgency, and then claims that it has no overarching goal. Well, duh. However, each of the groups has an agenda, and at the moment, the agendas of the various Sunni insurgencies are the same: force the Americans to withdraw, which is best done by attacking them constantly and creating as much chaos as possible to make it clear that the Americans and the government they have installed will never be able to fully control Iraq. This involves lots of destruction, yes, but to claim that it's meaningless destruction is simply foolish and betrays a deep lack of understanding. "Every day they spread mayhem is a victory" Brooks writes, and this is true not because they are nihilists who rejoice in destruction, but because the spread of mayhem shows that the Americans are failing.

To this point, Brooks has been content to paint the Iraqis as blood-lust crazed savages while ignoring everything bad the U.S. has done in this war, including starting it. In other words, this is basically par for the course for Brooks. In the last paragraph, though, Brooks takes his game to a whole new level. "And so the hunger to leave Iraq grows. A dissenting minority is furious that so many Americans are willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority in order to preserve some parlor purity. And the terrorists no doubt look at our qualms not as a sign of virtue but of weakness, and as evidence that savagery will lead to victory again and again." Remember, only six paragraphs above Brooks wrote "Because American troops come from the culture they do, they have not become the sort of people they would have to be to defeat the insurgents at their own game." And "Indeed, the people who are most furious about what happened at Haditha are those marines who have been in similarly awful circumstances but who have not snapped, and who fear that their heroic restraint will be tainted or overshadowed by comrades who behave despicably." So, apparently, among those who are "willing to betray the decent Iraqi majority" and who are too weak to prove to the terrorists that savagery will not lead to victory are the U.S. Marines and Brooks himself. Of course, all the evidence suggests that the "decent Iraqi majority" is more than happy to be betrayed, and would not appreciate it if the Americans started to imitate the ethnic militias they are supposed to be controlling. But these are mere quibbles compared to what is really beyond the pale here, Brooks's suggestion that Americans who are unhappy about, say, Abu Ghraib or Haditha are seeking only to maintain a "parlor purity". I sincerely hope that the "dissenting minority" that Brooks speaks of is indeed a minority, and a tiny one at that, since it would be uncomfortable to live in a country with many people who believe that an opposition to torturing prisoners and massacring civilians is merely a veneer of high-mindedness. Of course, we can easily measure the size of this minority: it happens, not-so-coincidentally, to coincide with the fraction of the population that still supports Bush, about 1/3 of the country. I suppose that this is a large enough group that it deserves to have its views heard on the editorial page of the New York Times, though you'd like to believe that the Times would be willing to draw the line at its columnists suggesting, no matter how carefully, that what the U.S. really needs to do to win in Iraq is be more savage. But if you're naive enough to believe that, you're probably naive enough to believe that the media is actually liberal, or that David Brooks is a sensible conservative with worthwhile opinions, and if you believe that, you'll believe anything.

PS: I will try to update regularly over the summer, when I should be less busy, but I make no promises.