When people are attacked, they feel a great temptation to strike back in revenge. States, which are collectivities of people, are hardly immune to this psychic need, and it is the job of statesmen to channel the natural desire to hit back into actions that do not make a bad situation worse.
They often fail to do so, especially when they are led by autocrats or dictators who need answer to no one. It is one of the tragedies of our time that the United States produced leadership that desired to exploit the great opportunities provided them by 9/11 for their own narrow ends at whatever cost and that this occurred with the quiet backing and legitimization of the sovereign people that democratic forms provide.
The PBS/Frontline documentary entitled Bush’s War, Part One of which aired last night, will be the definitive review of the events leading to the conquest of Iraq in 2003 for the foreseeable future. It offered two central conclusions about what happened: that the bureaucratic struggle for power between Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, allied with Vice President Cheney, and the rest of the foreign policy apparatus grouped around Powell at State interfered with the pursuit of bin Laden in Afghanistan. Specifically, the program argues that Rumsfeld held back needed troops and materiel until he could take over the reins of the war, thus allowing bin Laden to escape.
The second conclusion, which no doubt will be fleshed out in Part Two, is an oft-told tale: that to pursue their overwhelming desire to seize Iraq, the Bush Administration created a parallel intelligence operation led by Cheney, which intimidated and browbeat weak bureaucrats like CIA Director Tennet into endorsing phony propaganda and with it led the country into the war from which it now cannot escape.
The aftermath of this disaster will rival or even surpass the debacle of Vietnam and will be with us for as long as I draw breath. I suspect, however, that in the long run this war will generate more national shame.
In Gunter Grass’s memoirs, Peeling the Onion, he recalls how as a teenager he was seduced by German propaganda and eventually volunteered for the front in 1944. He could argue that he was an ignorant child but refuses to do so. He looks back and saw that there were signs, had he chosen to heed them, about what was occurring. Instead, he realizes with unconsolable regret, that he allowed evil men to whisper into his ears and make him an accomplice to criminal deeds.