Politics & Prose May 2004

History’s Fools

In the wake of Iraq, the term "neo-conservative" may come to mean "dangerous innocence about world realities"

Paul Wolfowitz could not come up with the right number when he testified on Capitol Hill recently—he was off by about 30% in his estimate of the number of Americans killed in Iraq, which at this writing is 786. He's a busy man. You can't expect him to remember how many young Americans have died for the ambition of his adult life. Had he been asked what they died for, he would not have repeated what he told Vanity Fair last year. He would not have said, "For oil." By now, on message with the rest of the administration, he'd have said, "For democracy."

Tragically, any good the US could have obtained from bringing democracy to Iraq has been vitiated by the mayhem Wolfowitz's obsession with toppling Saddam Hussein has inflicted on the Iraqi people—the 7,000 to 10,000 civilians killed, the torture victims, the populace so brutalized and humiliated by an occupation to which Wolfowitz appears not to have given a thought that over 80% want us out now. And those are just the short-term, intra-Iraq harms. Long-term, according to the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Joseph Biden, US interests in the Middle East have been set back a decade by Abu Ghraib.

Shortly after September 11, Sir Michael Howard, the British military historian, issued what sounded then like an apocalyptic warning: that in the context of the "war of civilizations" between radical Islam and the West a US occupation of Iraq would be tantamount to a nuclear exchange between the superpowers during the Cold War. It sounds like realism now. The fallout from the photographs will poison Muslim minds against the US, and possibly against democracy, throughout this century. Before the war, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak cautioned that a US invasion of Iraq would create "a hundred Bin Ladens." That is likely to prove a conservative estimate.

As for US credibility beyond the Middle East, a friend writes: "I'm guessing that another result of this adventure is that much of the world will now see us as a paper tiger (which has both good and bad aspects). After seeing how incapable we are, with our 135,000-man army, of dealing even with a weak, backward little country like Iraq, is any heavily armed tyrant quaking in his boots? All we can do is blow up things. Don't our hinted warnings to China (China!) about Taiwan sound hollow now? If China decides to take Taiwan, we will ... what? Send Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle over there with a company of Marines?"

Paradoxically, the very scale of the debacle in Iraq may yield one long-term good: the repudiation of neo-conservative "democratic imperialism." The Americans killed in Iraq will not have died in vain if their sacrifice keeps other Americans from dying in neo-con wars to "remediate" Syria, Iran, or North Korea. After Iraq, "neo-conservative" may achieve the resonance of "isolationist" after World War II—a term of opprobrium for a discredited approach to foreign policy, shorthand for dangerous innocence about world realities. Like the isolationists, the neo-cons are history's fools. The strategy they championed was the wrongest possible strategy for the wrongest possible moment in the wrongest possible region of the world.

History showed what worked against threatening states—containment and deterrence. Behind them, confident of the melting power of its way of life, the West waited out Soviet Communism. Containment had its critics—a wing of the Republican Party demanded a "rollback" of Soviet power from Eastern Europe. The neo-cons are the heirs of rollback. They ditched the strategy that worked against a nuclear-armed superpower to launch a pre-emptive war against a toothless Iraq, which has been contained and deterred—and disarmed—since the Gulf War. They identified the wrong enemy (a state), attacked it for the wrong reasons (WMD), and in a way that strengthened our real enemy, the transnational terrorists of September 11. America has made mistakes in foreign policy, but nothing compares to this. In the larger context of the Cold War, Vietnam made a kind of sense. In the context of the struggle against Islamist terrorism, Iraq is an act of self-sabotage. Of the neo-cons and their neo-con war Auden might have written: "Intellectual disgrace stares from every human face."

Presented by

Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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