Monday, September 29, 2003

The Neocons Strike Back: David Gelertner has the cover story in the Weekly Standard, called "Bush's Rhetoric Deficit." It begins like this:
On Iraq the administration likes to talk interest, not duty. "We did ourselves and the world a favor." But interest is always arguable; duty can be absolutely clear. Torture, mass murder, and hellish tyranny make for the clearest case possible. Yet too often the administration has sounded hesitant and defensive on Iraq. It has a compelling, open-and-shut moral case but prefers to make pragmatic arguments about global terrorism and Arab politics. Of course security is important, but mass murder is even more important. In Iraq the torture is over, the gale of blood is finished; we put an end to them. What else matters next to a truth like that?
It continues into an extended meditation on appeasement in the 1930s, morality's role in foreign and defense policy, and the current positions of Europe and the UN. What Gelertner doesn't say, but which is implied, is that this administration, pace the critics, is uncomfortable with the neoconservative worldview. Recall that Bush was famously wary of "nation-building" in the 2000 campaign. Gelertner's thesis is that Bush has done the right thing in Iraq; his subtle message is that Bush would be better equipped to say so had he followed the neoconservative map from the start.

The neocon view on Iraq, like the view from modern liberals like TNR, was that the actions of Saddam's regime were justification enough for regime change. The supposedly neocon hawks like Cheney (and Bush himself) were more inclined to sell Iraq as a national security issue. It may well have been, albeit not an imminent one, but now the administration is reaping what it sowed. Iraq may not have been that big a threat (although better not to have taken the chance, I say), but it still was a murderous, torturous, merciless regime. It's obvious now that Bush wished to avoid the responsibility that the neocons welcome: to remake the world, by American sacrifice, in the image of American ideals. It's a worthy goal, though easily caricatured by Jose Bove and his crowd of McDonald's burners; more importantly, it's a tough sell to a post-cold-war American populace -- though I'd argue that September 11th made us as ready for it as we'd ever be.

I don't want to put too fine a point on it. I don't think this is the beginning of a neocon "I told you so" campaign. But I think what Gelertner points out, in the abstract, is true enough. TNR often editorializes on Iraq with the mention that they supported the invasion of Iraq, but for reasons not dependent on the discovery of WMD evidence. The case was already made, they say, by the actions of the regime itself. It's fair enough to quibble with the point: Do we invade every country run by a murderous thug? That's a fine question for neocons and non-ostrich liberals to contemplate, and one I've contemplated.

Here's one possibility; call it the Psycho method. Remember Francis ("Everybody calls me Psycho") from Stripes? He had his famous list. "You just made the list," he'd say, implying that he had a list of folks he'd get even with some day -- a shit list, for lack of a better term. Well, we should have one, too. We should be ready to tell Iran or North Korea, when they declare that their obvious nuclear-weaponry programs are only energy related, "You just made the list." Can we invade every cruel dictatorship? Not all at once. But take a number, buddy; we'll get to you. This doesn't necessarily require that we send in the armed forces. Some folks might get the message, the way Khaddafi has, and consider reducing their advocacy and support of terrorism, or their acquisitiveness for weapons -- things that might bump them up the list. The UN would be an ideal partner in this venture, if we could get them to stop playing the "After you, Alphonse" charade in which countries like Iran, Iraq, or Libya are worthy of the same unqualified membership and respect despite ties with terrorists, proliferation, and human-rights abuses. The UN should be tiered, requiring, at minimum, a free press, the rule of law, not cutting off Habib's hands for having picked up a copy of the Arabic equivalent of Hustler (and you know they've got it), and not throwing Chang in jail for writing "the government sux" on the notebook he takes to classes at Beijing University.

This, I suppose, is Gelertner's point. Moral certainty may be unfashionable in the salons of Paris, and the common room at Berkeley, but we can pretty much agree who's killing their own citizens, who's censoring, who's violating human rights. (America, right?) We all shake our heads later at the Hitler, the Stalin, the Pol Pot; someday, the goofball left might even shake its collective dreadlocked tresses over Castro. Distance lends some perspective. But if anything is to improve -- in economic terms, or even in terms of the vaunted social justice (whatever that means) that the left talks of -- we have to shorten that distance. We have to cut down on the time spent justifying atrocity, for whatever reason, and see the threats to human rights, and human life, as early as possible -- as everyone finally realized, too late, that Churchill did.

[Wow, a screed. Sorry this post got out of hand. Can anyone lend me a red pen?]

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