After The Cold War


I've made this point before, but a reader puts it more succinctly:

You should not be surprised by the reactions you report to the Russia-Georgia conflict. I still think a part of you believes (or hopes) that the many of the people you write about are conservatives in any recognizable sense of that hallowed word. But they are not what Burke or Santayana or Oakeshott would recognize as fellows. They are brute nationalists and defenders of their own power positions.   

That position is augmented by a Manichean sense of the world that is underpinned by a crude and mistaken version of Christianity. What is truly sad is that so many highly educated people are willing to cast a veil over their naked aggression and self interest and call it a coherent philosophy.  I know, from your writings, that you realize this; however, there seems to be a part of you that is still stunned by the last 10 years.

No shit, Sherlock. One of the good things about having a blog that has published almost daily for almost a decade is that one's own evolution and zig-zags through a period of history are exposed to the glare of day. It isn't pretty at times - especially when one is not fixed to a set ideology which allows you to plug the events of any given day into a pre-existing template. And especially when you're as passionate as I can be on any given day after a strong cup of coffee.

And so my support for what looked like a reasonable, moderate, inclusive, tax-cutting, realist in 2000 became moot on 9/11. At first the decision to take out the Taliban and to squeeze Saddam to prevent WMDs getting to Jihadists seemed exactly right. Defending the West from theocratic mass murderers with terrifying technology was vital - as long as we understood we were defending the West's core values: freedom of speech and religion, self-determination, secular government and human dignity (which would require an absolute prohibition on torture). Trusting the administration on WMDs, I supported a US-UN effort to force Saddam's disarmament, and if that failed, was perfectly prepared to see the West go to war to forestall a threat and remove a dictator. The rest is archives. I'm still thrilled that the Taliban were knocked for six and that Saddam is deposed and dead. Thrilled beyond belief. But not beyond reason. And two lessons were learned, one of which bears directly on this Russia-Georgia conflict.

The first was that the Bush administration's public stance and their actual one were different. The case for WMDs was much weaker than they let on in public, and at the very best was insufficient to base an invasion on. The claim that their goal was not revenge against a symbol of Arab contempt was belied by the lack of any preparation for a post-invasion phase, the allowance of chaos and mass looting in the wake of the invasion, the use of the war as a partisan bludgeon in domestic politics, and the institution of torture as the central weapon in the war. By the time of Abu Ghraib, the founding myths of the war had been brutally exposed, and many of us were reeling. These were not forgivable errors of the kind that happen in any war; they were evidence of bad faith in going to war, criminal negligence in conducting it, and betrayal of core values in conceiving of it. We saw with our own eyes the actual nature of the torture policy and the extent of the chaos. Since then, we've been trying to rescue the invasion, botched in practical terms and undermined in moral ones. Thanks to Iraqis' own natural power-balancing, the stabilization of the country by mass ethnic cleansing, brutal over-reach by al Qaeda, miscalculations by the Sadrite opposition, and brilliant counter-insurgency tactics by Petraeus, we have somehow been able to craft an opening to extricate ourselves from there without too much damage going forward. That's a huge achievement, and Petraeus deserves all the praise he has received. So do Gates and even Bush after 2006, even though so much had been squandered by then.

So we can leave, right? Now the other shoe drops. No, we don't want to leave. If we can turn Iraq into a pliant, non-despotic state, we should be able to keep troops there indefinitely, and use Iraq as a critical base in the Middle East to control oil, allegedly protect Israel, and pressure Iran. We can add more troops to Afghanistan, turning that vast region into a zone for American and allied soldiers in another counter-insurgency operation in an ungovernable region. And now, we have a border dispute in the Caucasus, with Russia flexing its muscles against a young democracy with an impetuous leader, and, again, in the eyes of McCain and Bush and Lieberman, it requires even more American commitment. Put all these things together and you can see that, for some, the end of the Cold War was not a golden opportunity to set up an international security structure that helped channel and constrain the hyper-power in ways that advance our interests while avoiding classic counter-balancing from emerging powers.

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