Vladimir Cheney

Peter Wehner huffs and puffs over my comparing Russia invading Georgia with the US invading Iraq. Reihan offers a semi-defense while still critiquing my position on Iraq. (Good point on Kosovo, though, and one the Russians are very keenly aware of). And Dean Barnett wants to know where my outrage is. Yep, as my readers have pointed out, I was a little too mad at Bush to express adequate sympathy for the plight of the Georgians at first. I tried to rectify that as graphically as I could. What Putin is doing is repulsive to civilized norms, and longtime readers of this blog will know I have no great love for Putin (unlike Bush, one might add).

But yes, my views on the morality of US intervention have changed, as Pete tartly observes, rather "emphatically and dramatically" since 2002. I've never disguised this, and in fact, find my own position now somewhat uncomfortable. I'm not used to instinctively suspecting America's actions in the world. For most of my life, however critical one might have been about America's occasional mistakes, I never doubted the core moral decency of the US. Or the benefits of benign American hegemony. I grew up deeply aware of this. I remain grateful as a native European for what America has always meant and the sacrifices Americans have often made for the liberty of others.

But I'm chastened now. I'm sorry to say but this administration has done it to me.

I simply cannot pretend that what we've learned about them these past few years - and what I've learned about the Middle East and wider dimensions of the struggle against Jihadism - hasn't deeply affected my views. Just imagine if the press were to discover a major jail in Gori, occupied by the Russians, where hundreds of Georgians had been dragged in off the streets and tortured and abused? What if we discovered that the orders for this emanated from the Kremlin itself? And what if we had documentary evidence of the ghastliest forms of racist, dehumanizing, abusive practices against the vulnerable as the standard operating procedure of the Russian army - because the prisoners were suspected of resisting the occupying power? Pete Wehner belonged to the administration that did this. It seems to me that, in these circumstances, the question of moral equivalence becomes a live one. When an American president has violated two centuries of civilized norms, how could it not be, for any serious person with a conscience?

The torture regime is the biggest reason I have had to reassess my view of the actions of the United States these past few years. But the case for war is the second. Pete hauls out my own passionate defenses of the case for war as if it's proof I'm off my rocker. But of course the passion of my advocacy in 2002 - fueled by my continuing hatred of Jihadism in all its forms - is precisely why my anger is now so great. I was deceived and feel terrible responsibility for my naivete. I think there was plenty of good faith in the run-up to the war, among many in the administration and out of it, but I now find it highly probable that there was also a clear and resilient element of bad faith in the office of the vice-president (and he, we now know, has been effectively running the country since 2001). I have come to see, by force of the evidence, that some, if not all, in the Bush administration knew that the WMD case was paper-thin, but pursued the removal of Saddam as a power-play in the Middle East because they wanted the US to become an even greater global power, wanted to secure oil fields, and wanted to do to the Arabs what Putin is now doing to his neighbors: teach them a lesson about raw power. Jonah Goldberg expressed the impulse before the war, in what he called "The Ledeen Doctrine":

Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

Viewd in retrospect, if you try and make sense of all the strange decisions the Cheney-Bush administration made, this seems by far the most plausible rationale. When you add to this the deployment of torture and abuse of countless innocent Iraqis as a weapon, the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis, the displacement of millions more, the ethnic cleansing the US presided over for years, it does become harder and harder to see the unquestionable moral superiority of the US. Certainly, it seems much more questionable than ever before in my lifetime.

We can argue over the analogies. Yes, Iraq was a wicked dictatorship, and Georgia is a nascent democracy. Yes, the US is not Russia in terms of democratic norms. But actions and context are important. Iraq is thousands of miles away from the US; Georgia is on Russia's doorstep. The US invaded without the critical second UN resolution, putting the US outside the kind of international legitimacy in a way not totally unlike Russia. There is no American population in Iraq; there is a sizable Russian population in Georgia. Russia is recovering from one of the most precipitous declines in power in world history; the US stood athwart the globe in 2003 with no serious competitors. The Russian intervention has not toppled the Georgian government and has been halted after a few days. The American intervention in Iraq is now in its fifth year, with the administration doing all it can to stay longer.

The point here is not that the invasions are obviously morally equivalent. The point is that the line between American actions in the world and Russia's are no longer as stark as they once were. Once you trash the international system, declare yourself above the law and even the most basic of international conventions against war crimes, you have forfeited the kind of moral authority that the US once had. Bush and his cronies speak as if none of this has happened. Their rigid, absolutist denial even of the bleeding obvious allows them to preach to the world about international norms that, when they would have constrained American actions, were derided as quaint and irrelevant. You really cannot have it both ways.

Americans  - and Georgians - are now living with the consequences. And I'm angry about it.