April 16, 2004,
For the past two years we have lamented the rise of a supposedly new doctrine of preemption or whether the United States should hit inveterate enemies while they are still vulnerable and have not yet finalized their plans to strike America. The debate arose around, but also transcended, the wisdom of invading Iraq. The possibility of preemption seemed to question the very nature of American morality as if somehow Mr. Bush had taken the United States in a new and unfortunate direction. Reasonable observers pointed out that preemption was not unknown to recent American presidents, especially with regard to Grenada, Panama, Kosovo, and Iraq in 1998. Yet still the impression was established that Mr. Bush had done something new and that this supposed departure was, for the most part, very bad indeed.
Then came these 9/11 hearings in the midst of war, and a most surprising new thesis was advanced. A Clinton administration that had done very little to retaliate during some eight years of terrorist attacks and provocations was now seen as less culpable than the newly inaugurated Bush team. About-face critics alleged that the latter, in its initial dozen weeks of governance, had not properly digested intelligence data, steeled its will and, yes, preempted the terrorists by sending American troops far abroad to kill them before they could kill us. Apparently, the notoriously preemptory Mr. Bush was now to be condemned as not preemptory enough.
For most of late 2002 and early 2003, many of these same critics decried America's supposedly imperial obsession with the petroleum reserves of the Middle East. Our war with Iraq ("no blood for oil") was emblematic of American machinations to steal a nation's natural treasure or at least rig the circumstances of its exploitation. And then suddenly war came. In victory, Iraqi oil was put under the transparent auspices of the Iraqi people even as some surrounding Gulf sheiks were furious at American efforts to bring not dictatorship but democratic reform to the Middle East.
The result? The price of gas skyrocketed, in part because at least some Gulf OPEC autocratic states vented by cutting production. America was shown in fact to have had little influence concerning, much less any control of, the very petroleum that lay beneath the country it now occupied and had bled for. Suddenly Mr. Kerry and other senators decried not the worry over petroleum theft but the spikes in energy prices, demanding redress from the administration. Apparently Mr. Bush, the one-time unilateralist who had turned a deaf ear to Arab entreaties and had been too tough with Arab regimes, now suddenly was not unilateral enough with such greedy despots. Indeed, he was to be condemned for not confronting those about oil whom he had already "unnecessarily" once confronted purportedly over oil.
The great flaw in the reconstruction of Iraq, we were told, was this nebulous word "security." Apparently that meant the inability of the United States to guarantee safety to civilian contractors and everyday Iraqis from insurrectionists who killed and bombed and then melted away into an apparently friendly mosque, police uniform, or civilian population. But then recently the resistance emerged in the light of day, confident that it could take control of the country. Instead, the terrorists were taken up on their foolish offer of conflict and soundly defeated, and at times even decimated in the light of day.
Suddenly, supposedly invincible cells and cabals were lamenting their losses in the hundreds and seeking truces, taking hostages anything other than continuing the fight that they had once boasted so eagerly to have wanted. The old mantra that we were not providing security against terrorists was replaced by a new one that we were killing too many terrorists. Western television crews went from filming the past scenes of burned-out humvees and bombed-out police stations to new images of the graveyards outside town, where hundreds of "civilians" were now being buried to purportedly widespread lamentation.
Is there any general explanation for all these contradictions? I think very little other than the general lesson that we can draw about a rather humane, affluent, and leisured society after September 11 finding itself confused and in a baffling war against medieval enemies it thought were not supposed to be around in the 21st century. Who, after all, wishes to relax on the sofa to watch The Apprentice or Extreme Makeover and then channel surf to images of barbarians promising to roast and eat Japanese aid workers or scenes of charred bodies being dissected by Attila's modern-day spiritual successors?
Apparently, even after 9/11, we trust that we really are so strong and so competent that our military can provide us with the (false) assurance that American soldiers alone without our own engagement, consistency, or sacrifice can stop such savages from once more crossing the Rhine and Danube to mass murder us. So here at home in Rome, in our world of utopian perfection and material surfeit, we fiddle in hearing rooms and in focus groups while our enemies burn on the assumption that there is no room for human error, that hindsight is always perfect, that the messy choices of the present are never between bad and worse, and that humans are always expected to be godlike rather than fallible.
The truth is that in the past 20 years there were plenty of signs that terrorists, cruel and fanatical, planned to kill thousands of Americans. Yet to marshal the forces to preempt them in a time of peace was felt by most to be politically suicidal at least at a time when Americans under no circumstances wished inconvenience, much less war. Had Clinton invaded Afghanistan after the USS Cole attack, rightists might have lynched him for diverting attention from Monica. And had Mr. Bush after the Florida fiasco entered office promising a massive attack on the Taliban, congressional Democrats would have pursued their own articles of impeachment.
We are glad when dictators fall like Milosevic, the Taliban, and Saddam did. But we all prefer that they tumble spontaneously even though we accept privately that such is never the case in this present unipolar world, where all the smug talk about the U.N., EU, and multilateralism means absolutely nothing without the will and skill of the American military. So let us feel terrible about not preempting the genocide in Rwanda; let us hate ourselves for belatedly preempting in vain to save a quarter-million Bosnians and Kosovars in the Balkans; and then let us be ashamed even more that we finally really were preempting to take out a mass-murderer in Iraq and let us scream and slur about all this all at once!
Deep down we know that some sort of freedom is what most Iraqis want and what Islamic extremists in and outside Iraq most fear. But we wish its creation to proceed flawlessly without loss of blood or treasure. And at all times we insist on gratitude from those we aid, who are humbled, perhaps even furious, because we are giving them precisely what they seek but also what in the past they lacked the resources, skill, or courage to obtain on their own.
What a weird war we are in. The president of the United States gives a press conference to steel our will and endures mostly inane cross examination at the very time the New York Times best-seller list has five of its top ten books alleging that he is a near criminal. Various disgruntled, passed-over or fired employees (Clarke and O'Neill), buffoonish provocateurs (Franken), and conspiracists (Phillips and Unger) all assure us in their pulp of everything from Bush family ties with Nazis to a First Family perennially plotting to get Americans killed for nothing other than cheap oil.
If that was not enough, a U.S. senator, with a reprehensible record of personal excess and abject immorality, now in his dotage damns the war in Iraq on moral grounds even as young Marines seek to protect a nascent and tottering consensual government from thugs and killers. An ex-president who calibrated his campaign for a Nobel Prize by criticizing his successor in a time of war to the applause of foreign powers now steps forward to call for a more principled nation. Such are the moralists of our age.