Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Five for Fighting

The younger sister of ASWOBA works at Columbia when she's not lighting up the stage, and she was kind enough to alert me to an event there tonight that featured five prominent thinkers debating the war in Iraq three years after it started. Joe Klein moderated a conversation between Andrew Sullivan, Victor Davis Hanson, Noah Feldman, and Kenneth Pollack.

It dawned on me as I sat down that at least Pollack, Sullivan and Hanson were for the war in one way or another before it started. Turned out Feldman was, too (I'd seen him speak about it many times since its commencement, but not before). Klein was the lone exception. Surely, I thought, this coterie of supporters would disappoint the upper Manhattan spectators, or rile them into a frenzy (which, come to think of it, might be just what the crowd was looking for on a cold Monday night). As someone whose thinking (on a much less informed level) has followed the same basic trajectory as Sullivan's, I was eager to hear how the four would currently stand after the last year or two of events.

To avoid boring you to tears, and to meet my goal of getting to bed before 3 a.m., I'll just provide a thumbnail sketch of each participant's take.

I read Sullivan's blog religiously, so his comments were the least surprising to me. His body language was something to see, though. He often slouched deep into his chair while listening to the other panelists. When he talked, he sat up straighter, but shuffled his feet a bit and generally seemed quite emotional and worn down about the subject. In fact, he's been writing a lot about the possible effects of pure exhaustion on the Bush administration, and he seemed to exhibit some of it himself. Can't blame him. I blog a hundredth as much as he does, and I can barely remember my middle name.

Feldman was the star of the night, in my opinion. Late in the discussion, he described himself as the only lawyer on stage, so it's not surprising that he has some serious rhetorical tools at his disposal. I'd seen him speak on television, where, frankly, he sometimes seemed a bit too eager and polished, but I realized tonight that that's only an issue of scale; the medium's the problem, not Feldman. He perfectly combined pessimism about the current state of things with a hard-headed pragmatism about what our options are (cutting and running is not one of them, everyone on stage agreed).

His most compelling point, only because I hadn't heard it articulated quite as well before, concerned the inevitability of destabilization in any plan that involved democratization. Again, I'd love to get into this more, but I'm already nodding off, and you're dousing yourself in gasoline like that character who can't escape a chatty neighbor in Airplane!

Pollack, like Feldman, has a lot of experience deep behind the curtain of current events. A member of the National Security Council for years, he made the point that Sullivan's also made recently: Before the war, the number of people who deeply doubted the WMD intelligence from several sources was fairly small. But afterwards, suddenly everyone knew. (And I'm talking about experts; I don't listen much to Bush-bashers on the street who say, "I told you Hussein didn't have any WMD." Oh, OK, what was everyone thinking not listening to you? Are you gonna finish your fries?)

Hanson was the saddest case, for two reasons. The first is a legitimate criticism, which is that he seemed unprepared to talk extemporaneously about things and ended up mangling a couple of his points. The second is less his fault. He's certainly a neocon in many ways, and thus the NY crowd was most agitated by his presence, I think. Sullivan, after expressing respect for his work, called him out on his lack of criticism of the war's execution. (Though Hanson did eventually reel off a mini-diatribe about the administration's faulty plans, his overall tenor was more apologetic.) But Hanson is an incredibly smart guy, so on the train ride home I was wondering why he came across badly, and aside from his politics, something dawned on me: he's an expert on ancient warfare, and someone who's started classics departments, and basically has a much, much longer-term frame of reference than the average commentator or concerned citizen. And his posture throughout the night was decidedly more resigned than the other guests. When people brought up the war's mistakes and shortcomings, he rattled off the mistakes and shortcomings of previous wars, even more retroactively popular ones. (He joked at the beginning of the night that Lincoln's approval rating was probably 10% in August of 1863.) My point is this: Presumptuous as it is to say, I really think Hanson's interior monologue during the evening ran something like, Why are all these people surprised we're at war? Why are they surprised others are dying in armed conflict over ideas and resources? Why are they surprised humans aren't perfectly executing something that's inherently messy and morally ambiguous, at best? This has been going on for tens of thousands of years.

And seen that way, I can almost forgive Hanson his seemingly aloof and stubborn take on things. A lot of people give lip service to "remembering history's lessons," especially when they feel we're taking an initial step down the wrong path. But Hanson's studied those lessons more than almost anyone. And I think there's a chance that it keeps him from being as eager to offer neat solutions for today's problems. After all, those problems are less likely to get solved than they are to just keep mutating, for better or worse, and eventually be placed inside certain explanatory parameters by academics. By morticians of our always deepening history, like himself.

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Blogger Dezmond said...

Sounds like an interesting evening. My take, in a nutshell, is similar to Hanson's (but with a probably shorter timespan for analysis). This is a time of flux, and it is often difficult to accurately assess the outcome of something when you are in the middle of it. Especially something with such historical ramifications. I like to consider myself something of a historian as well, so I take that longer view.

I do not think we will be able to accurately assess whether our Iraq venture has been a "success" or a failure" for at least another 10 or 15 years or so. We can't determine the success of something until it has played out. It has not played out. It was not as quick and easy as this administration had hoped, I will admit that. But also, those on the Left who demand withdrawal because there have been some deaths and setbacks...no shit there have been deaths, it's a war. And war is messy and unpredictable, what war in history has gone exactly according to plan of any of the combatants? Look at WWII, now there were some tough, costly years before final victory.

The points about WMD are good as well. (Almost) EVERYONE believed the WMD intelligence. Do you know who agreed / came up with similar intelligence assessments? The French, the British, the Russians, the Israelis...we were far from alone in our intelligence assessments of Saddam's capabilities. And nobody can argue against the fact that he was at least trying to get there anyway. We just thought he was much further along than he turned out to be. So we sit around for a couple more years and wait for him or his even crazier sons to get there? (Thank god they were taken out).

So, was Bush a dangerous failure as a president or a brave visionary who saw beyond the popularity polls of his day? We need to ask this question in 10 to 15 years, not now.

3:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I really like VDH. He's the kind of intellectual I'd like to be: well versed in the classics and the classical world, and with an august kind of perspective. And while his writing tends to be biting, he never says anything that wouldn't pass in polite company (whereas the oldest thing I've read was an US Weekly from 1987, and when I argue with someone, I tend to use the word "jerkbutt" excessively).

But I do share his perspective on the war in Iraq. *Of course* there have been mistakes. It's a war. There has never been, and will never be, a war fought in which there aren't mistakes made. That's what happens when you give 20 year olds guns and tell them to go kill each other.

And this war is amongst the cleanest, most efficient, and delicately fought wars in history. And as with all big issues, there are good arguments on both sides. The Bush admin and military chose the tactics that it did for very good reasons. But the state of war reporting is so uninformed that readers aren't given any perspective. For example:


VDH is very aware that conservatives have been running out on the Iraq war. And he does seem exhausted by it:


And frankly, I'm right there with him.

-- Comish

6:16 PM  

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