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A One-Word Answer to All Our Problems in Iraq

The return of “do-something” diplomacy.
U.S. soldiers and Sunni Arab tribesmen scan for enemy activity in a farm field in southern Arab Jibor in January 2008. (Photo: Public Domain)

U.S. soldiers and Sunni Arab tribesmen scan for enemy activity in a farm field in southern Arab Jibor in January 2008. (Photo: Public Domain)

Why hasn't President Obama done something about Iraq? The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues its parade of devastation under the oversight of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Insurgent forces have claimed strategic enclaves along several hundred miles of the Syrian border. The 7th-century caliphate stirs in its bed with the dim sense that it has overslept.

The consensus on U.S. political television is bold, decisive: Obama must do something, he must do something quickish, and his heel-dragging in not having yet done something is an affront to our allies.

Or something.

Americans for the most part do not want us to do something, and professional pundits know it. They are not concerned with persuasion. They are concerned with brandishing false geopolitical bona fides.

This blithe brand of punditry is a sap on the national intellect. If “do-something”* diplomacy is most in circulation on right-wing and money-minded shows (e.g. the programming of Fox and its farm-team, Fox Business, and to a lesser extent certain shows on CNBC), the left's blushing, derivative hawkishness remains equally sickening in its hypocrisy. I had planned to collate a series of YouTube clips, but as usual Comedy Central got there first. Witness the Daily Show's supercut of political commentators intoning the phrase “do something,” in response to the question they pose to themselves—What should Obama do about Iraq? The anodyne idiocy of this know-nothing/do-something mentality is funny to a lot of reasonable people. To me, it is about as amusing as the strangling of kittens. The “do-something” reflex is so palliative, so unifying across traditional party divisions, that any moral vision is eclipsed by the notion that acting responsibly and acting promptly are, in essence, the same.

Among other ugly echoes, recent exhortations to do “something” recall Bill Keller's legendarily atrocious blinkered-hawk column that ran before the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Note the pronouns:

As the ash cloud spread, I set off on foot through the dazed city, feeling more than a little pointless, until I was summoned by my new boss to write. Something. Now. ...

My prudent punditry soon felt inadequate. I remember a mounting protective instinct, heightened by the birth of my second daughter almost exactly nine months after the attacks. Something dreadful was loose in the world, and the urge to stop it, to do something— to prove something — was overriding a career-long schooling in the virtues of caution and skepticism. By the time of Alice’s birth I had already turned my attention to Iraq, a place that had, in the literal sense, almost nothing to do with 9/11, but which would be its most contentious consequence. ...

I could not have known how bad the intelligence was, but I could see that the White House and the Pentagon were so eager to go that they were probably indifferent to any evidence that didn’t fit their scenario. I could see that they had embraced Chalabi, the exile cheerleader for war, despite considerable suspicion within the State Department and elsewhere that he was a charlatan. I could have seen, had I looked hard enough, that even by the more dire appraisals of Hussein’s capabilities he did not amount to what Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. called in a very different context “a clear and present danger.” But I wanted to be on the side of doing something, and standing by was not enough.

Emphasis added. The mystique of “something” is a shaky premise for military engagement, but Keller at least is more honest here than the mighty majority of liberal hawks. His testimony makes you cringe even as you realize that he's speaking for a lot of people who would never admit, not even to themselves, how deeply emotions swayed personal politics after 2001. It is a seamy transparency, but honorable in its way.

Keller acknowledges a list (incomplete, but he gets the main ones) of portents to which he had blinded himself, an inventory similar to that taken a year before by Christopher Hitchens, whose championing of the Iraq war was briefly provocative. In Hitch-22: A Memoir, Hitchens recounts being wooed by Paul Wolfowitz and largely taken in by the latter's boyish assurances that he was “the opposite” of Henry Kissinger. Hitchens:

All right, I admit I was intrigued.... It is here that I ought to make my most painful self-criticisms. I saw Wolfowitz a few more times between then and the ultimate decision to intervene, which was made about six months later. I also got to know a bit about the near-incredible incompetence and disloyalty of the CIA and the State Department. I was able to satisfy myself that those with the administration who were making the case for “regime change” were sincere in what they believed and were not knowingly exaggerating anything for effect.... Of course, what I should have been asking Wolfowitz, instead of bending his ear about these enterprises of such moral pith and geostrategic moment, was: “Does the Army Corps of Engineers have a generator big enough to turn the lights of Baghdad back on?” or perhaps “Has a detachment of Marines been ordered to guard the Iraq National Museum?” But, not being a professional soldier or quartermaster, nor feeling myself able to advise those who were, I rather tended to assume that things of this practical sort were being taken care of. It would have been like asking if we'd remembered to pack enough rations and ammunition.

The columnist, then, could have been asking hard questions about how battle-ready those light-armor Humvees actually were; instead, he spent time with Wolfowitz doing photo-ops and discussing the Turkish question from a certain intellectual elevation while eliding tiresome practical considerations—the “what precisely are we doing in Iraq” question, say.

The passage above is meant as measured contrition: I stand by the war but maybe should have reported those cocksure columns a little deeper. Even in the mea culpa there is a puerile and inflated sense of the man's importance, of the sway he held over statesmen.

If only Hitchens had considered the generator, and the possibility that someone might loot one of the most significant archaeological museums on the planet! Instead, he admits to being star-struck by photographs of a young Wolfowitz in the Situation Room, while Wolfowitz's quasi-unified theory of 20th-century geopolitics—fermented in rightist think tanks and, yes, concentrated by the aging ideologies of Kissinger and Charles Hill—exerted a seductive force on the ex-Trotskyite, expat Hitchens. Workaday considerations of body armor and power grids are forgotten in the heady rush to do something. (Andrew Sullivan flagellated himself yet further, comparing his Iraq cheerleading to the brainless shrieks of a Jonas Brothers fan.)

For every American who wants Obama to be more like Putin, there are at least two who want nothing of the sort. Political commentary in favor of intervention thus becomes even more of a performance than usual.

Naturally no one, not even Hitchens, had to remind Bush's men about guarding Iraq's oil apparatus.

Over a decade into the invasion, we have entered a period of retro-chic political television, wherein 2016's shortlist for the White House includes the surnames Bush and Clinton and erstwhile proponents of Operation Iraqi Freedom emerge from their lobbying firms and congressional offices and retirement homes to dust off talking points from 2002. (The ongoing archaeology of 2002 and its ideologues includes multiple televised daily exhumations of Dick Cheney.) For reference, some of these same armchair strategists materialized last September to insist on military invention in Syria before we knew whether the flag was false, before we knew who had actually deployed chemical weapons.

The cynicism of “do-something” diplomacy is doubly evident when you consider that its peddlers are pandering to a very specific minority of the populace. As Frank Rich notes: “Such is the bipartisan backlash to both post-9/11 wars that a Pew survey last fall found that 52 percent of Americans want their country to 'mind its own business internationally’—a record high in the poll’s five-decade history.”

In other words, Americans for the most part do not want us to do something, and professional pundits know it. They are not concerned with persuasion. They are concerned with brandishing false geopolitical bona fides, concerned with maintaining visibility (even journos care about “optics”!), concerned with diverting the shock-and-awe wing of the Republican base—those rightists who find Rand Paul's isolationism too namby-pamby. Their battle-cries are not about fire-fights in Tikrit but about pissing-matches in Washington.

As with those who kept yammering about “boots on the ground” in Syria, this month's grandstanders oversimplify ethno-political stratification in the Gulf and South Asia, and again they rattle their rusted sabers without causing real trouble among Obama's message team. For every American who wants Obama to be more like Putin, there are at least two who want nothing of the sort. Political commentary in favor of intervention thus becomes even more of a performance than usual. The National Review's Mona Charen is wise to stress the hypocrisies of the leftist commentariat:

A number of leading liberals declare that anyone who supported the invasion of Iraq in 2003 is terminally discredited.... If Bush lied, then he must have been quite the Svengali, because he got many leading Democrats in America to tell the same lie.

Rich likewise takes aim at “the so-called liberal media, much of which cheered on the war with a self-­righteous gravity second only to Dick Cheney’s.” Charen is right that lots of liberal thinkers (and non-thinkers) share responsibility with Bush and Cheney. But the apodosis to her second point is a logical absurdity: Bush and his praetorians were playing the svengali, the shaman who dispenses snake-oil in crude. How many of us made the hopeless, honest error of believing Colin Powell's WMD declamation before the United Nations in 2003?

Pete Hegseth, a veteran and another NRO commentator, identifies the “two key ingredients” that Obama has renounced in his Iraqi dealings: “commitment, and resolve.” If anyone can explain to me the distinction between these nouns, or why someone would need both of them, I will be grateful and surprised. As is, the phrase merely suggests that Obama is a failure because he lacks Bush's “do-something” panache. (Like nearly all right-wing pundits, Hegseth persists in forgetting that it was Bush who signed the U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement, whereby the full American force was to withdraw by the end of 2011.)

Obama has now sent special forces back into Iraq, hardly lip-service, and appropriately it is the supercarrier named after Bush I that floats in the Gulf and is set for airstrikes. Obama has also pledged to shoot more drones into Pakistan, if this is any consolation; certainly it counts as something. If do-something pundits are disappointed in Obama's refusal to annex the fertile crescent, they can take further consolation in knowing that most Americans stand behind him.

*I would like to distinguish my own distrust of “do-something” chatterers from that of Matt Welch, whose widely read December 2011 cover story in Reason magazine (which Welch edits) took David Brooks and Thomas Friedman to school for their tendency to suggest that government “do something,” largely about matters domestic: the deficit, education, etc. Naturally Welch will argue against the “do-something” mentality. He is a libertarian. Writing that story was as natural as the American Cancer Society lambasting the “smoke-something” mentality. My truck here is rather more specific and concerns foreign-policy commentators who don't know foreign policy.