Wednesday, June 30, 2004

# Posted 2:42 AM by Ariel David Adesnik  

HOW THE EVIL CONSERVATIVES TRICKED ME: Last week, The New Republic devoted itself to asking the fundamental question facing every liberal who supported the invasion of Iraq: "Was I wrong?" It's a damn good question.

At the moment, TNR has made about half of its "Was I Wrong?" essays available on its website. There is one excellent essay in the bunch. In their column, the editors of TNR write that "We feel regret--but no shame." Knowing now that Saddam had no weapons of mass destruction, one cannot be glad that America went to war. Yet given what we knew in April of last year, there is nothing to be ashamed of.

In contrast to the editors, Ken Pollack, Fareed Zakaria and Anne Applebaum all refuse to accept responsibility for their decisions. Instead, the accuse the Bush administration of putting on a moderate face and tricking them into believing that the President and his advisers would deal responsibly with the aftermath of an invasion.

Given the Bush administration's early opposition to nation-building and irresponsible neglect of Afghanistan after the occupation of Kabul, I don't see how anyone could have expected the Bush administration to do much better in Iraq. After all, the reason Josh and I founded OxDem was because we believed that conservatives and liberals would have to work together in order to ensure that the Bush administration didn't abandon Iraq the way it had Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, TNR's contributors invent some impressive rationales for explaining away their faith in the Administration. By the far the most elaborate and the most delusional belongs to Anne Applebaum, an author for whom I have great respect. Applebaum writes that
I had taken it for granted that the administration's big hitters--Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, and, to some extent, even Powell--were united, if nothing else, by one common experience: All had been staunch opponents of the Soviet Union. That meant not only that they'd been right about the cold war, but that they knew that we had won it only partly thanks to U.S. military strength...

After September 11, I was certain that the Bush administration, packed with old cold warriors as it was, would also treat the war on terrorism as a moral and ideological battle, a struggle for hearts and minds, and not just an opportunity for the United States to show off its advanced weapons systems.
If Applebaum had been paying attention in the aftermath of Reagan's death, she would have noticed that conservatives eulogized the President by praising his unmitigated commitment to confronting Soviet aggression. That is how the Cold War was won. It had nothing to do with compromise. Only strength.

That is the same point that conservatives have been making for years. It is the same argument they made while Reagan was President. That goes for neo-conservatives like Wolfowitz as well as hawkish realists such as Cheney and Rumsfeld. Powell (and Rice?) may have been more moderate, but no one suspected them of being the dominant force within the Bush administration.

Zakaria's self-justification is similar to Applebaum's, except without the historical baggage. He writes that
The biggest mistake I made on Iraq was to believe that the Bush administration would want to get Iraq right more than it wanted to prove its own prejudices right. I knew the administration went into Iraq with some crackpot ideas, but I also believed that, above all else, it would want success on the ground. I reasoned that it would drop its pet theories once it was clear they were not working. I still don't understand why the Bush team proved so self-defeatingly stubborn. Perhaps its initial success in Afghanistan emboldened it to move forward unconstrained. Perhaps its prejudices about Iraq had developed over decades and were deeply held. Perhaps the administration was far more divided and dysfunctional than I had recognized, making rational policy impossible.
What on earth persuade Zakaria that the Bush administration was in the habit of changing course under fire? From tax cuts to the war on terror, the Bush administration has distinguished itself by sticking to its guns come hell or high water. If you like what the administration has done, you praise its Reagan-esque resolve. If you dislike what the administration has done, you criticize its stubborn intransigence. But you can't pretend that the administration is known for accepting compromise.

On a related note, I'm not sure how Zakaria can reasonably depict the occupation of Afghanistan as an example of responsible policy making. As Patrick's recent post illustrates, there was never much of a commitment to Afghanistan by either the Bush administration or any other NATO powers. This much has been self-evident since the first months after the fall of the Taliban.

In addition to Applebaum and Zakaria, Leon Wieseltier and Ken Pollack also try to present themselves as innocent victims of Bush's faux moderation. I won't go into examples, however, especially since I already commented on Pollack's essay in an earlier post.

What I will comment on is Kevin Drum's take on Applebaum. As Kevin reminds us, he was one of the very few liberals who supported the war almost until it began, but backed out specifically because he didn't believe Bush was serious about post-war reconstruction. Savoring Applebaum's conversion from hawk to dove, Kevin forgets to ask why she had faith in the Bush administration even when it was so obvious to him exactly what to expect.

Back when Kevin changed sides on the war, I thought he was behaving somewhat strangely since Bush, in his address at AEI, had just made his most explicit commitment to promoting democracy in Iraq. Since that time, Kevin has periodically insisted that the Bush administration was about to cut and run, abandoning Iraq to civil war rather than risking a backlash at the polls when Bush came up for re-election. Instead, the President -- true to form -- has only become more emphatic and intransigent in his insistence that Iraqi will be rebuilt and democratized, come hell or high water.

While there is ample room to criticize Bush's follow through on this sort of ambitious rhetoric, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Bush has shown far more dedication to the daunting task of nation-building than anyone (especially OxBlog) expected. Thus, it is doubly ironic that embarrassed liberal hawks now insist that they only supported the war because they were tricked.

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