Saturday, June 30, 2007

How to Talk to a Neoconservative (If You Must)

You are washing dishes at the kitchen sink with your step-mother “J” next to you. From the dining room, you hear the first two anti-terrorism propositions related in the previous post, and you get pissed.

You know that “J” does not like political discussions in the family. Once, in the past, you had a raging argument with your father in her presence, and later she told you it was not good for his blood pressure. But another time, Christmas Eve of 2005 to be exact, you stayed up until 3 AM talking to her about why we went to war in Iraq. She had just read America’s Secret War by George Friedman, and her favorite reason for the war was his assessment, in chapter 11, that the source of al Qaeda’s sentiment and funding was really Saudi Arabia, but that we could not attack that country directly and also could not count on it to police al Qaeda itself. So, we needed to stage a victory against some Arab country to show our strength and persuade Saudi Arabia to come back into strong alliance with us.

It would be interesting to know how she feels about this now. While we may have wanted Saudi Arabia to fear our military might and our “freedom,” what they may actually fear is our ability to iraquidate a country, plunge it into chaos that neither we nor it can control. In Iraq we have been like a little kid playing a board game who sees no better option than to upset the board and scatter the pieces.

Of all your parents (two step-, two biological), you feel closest to “J.” She may harbor basic conservative values about God, family, and country, but you know from the fact that she likes all the short story collections you buy for her for Christmas that she understands irony, can accept ambiguity, does not cling to dogma. And she has been relatively silent about U.S. relations in the Middle East lately. You think that maybe she agrees with you more on some issues now, maybe understands your suspicion from the moment our tanks rolled into Iraq that the U.S. does not know what it is doing. But she will not take your side vocally either, because of your father’s blood pressure and whatnot. So you think, standing next to her at the sink, that she does not want you to get involved in the conversation in the next room. But then you hear from the next room the third ridiculous neocon proposal for fixing the Middle East described in the previous post, and you leave the sink and go in.

Step-sister-in-law “E” is running her rant about how we should give safe haven to the women of Iraq, for surely they want the education we would provide to enable them to take control of their own lives. You interrupt. You tell her this sounds like the past neocon scheme hatched in the late ‘90’s to invade southern Shiite Iraq, protect the Shiites from Saddam, let them start the democracy that neocons were certain they would start. Such an arrangement, according to neocons, would be devastating to Saddam’s regime.

“E” puts her hand on your forearm and gives you, surprisingly, an understanding look. She knows how you disagree with her. Three summers ago you said that our country had been hoodwinked into supporting this war, and she said the WMD issue was “academic,” that an evil dictator had been ousted, that she could not count on Democrats to defend her family. Two summers ago she had said that we had to spread self determinism in the Middle East, that it was the only way to protect ourselves, that we were doing it for them, but really we were doing it for ourselves. One summer ago (when she was reading some collection of writings of St. Thomas Aquinas) she said, out of nowhere, that she would not talk about politics.

This summer she is reading A Christian Manifesto and is apparently willing to talk about politics again.

You tell her all neocon expectations for the Iraq war were based on presumptions. Neocons presumed that Iraqi Shiites were ready to start a democracy. Some presumed that if they open up Iraq as a completely free market, that the country would blossom as an example for the rest of the world. But also, you say, some neocons presumed that Iraqi Shiites would accept the Jordanian monarchy as their rule (not a democracy!) as stated by David Wurmser in an essay called “Clean Break” excerpted here at the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies. Still other neocons wanted to install Chalabi and other members of the Iraqi National Congress as the new government. For information on this, see George Packer’s The Assassin’s Gate chapters 3 and 4, or Juan Cole here. Both sources do not give any outright quotes from anyone saying the wanted to install Chalabi and the exiles, but there is strong evidence implying that this is true.

You’ve raised your voice at “E.” Tell her that, with respect to each of the neocon presumptions, the invasion of Iraq has had the opposite of the desired effect. Tell her that concurrently to our military involvement in Iraq, that country has become one of the biggest incubators of terrorism the world has ever known. If she wants to continue espousing neocon ideology, it would behoove her to explain what we can do from here forward to reverse this awful trend of increasing terrorism.

She says that we have to stick with it, that we can’t expect positive results so soon. Ask her if she believed Rumsfeld when he said we would be out in 6 months.

“Did he say that?” she says.

And did she believe Wolfowitz when he said we could do it with 150,000 troops?

She looks away. “I didn’t know that.”

Ask her what planet she has been living on. Tell her that, continuing the parade of neocon presumptions, William Kristol and Robert Kagan are now presuming that the turning against al Qaeda by moderate Sunni tribes is a sign that things are going well. Note that, while these genius writers had once cast their lot with Iraqi Shiites, now it is with Sunnis. Ask her what happened the last time the U.S. supported Sunni tribes against a common enemy.

She doesn’t know.

Tell her those were the precursors of al Qaeda. (Read Ghost Wars by Steve Coll.)

Tell her you read at least one article per week in The Weekly Standard and The National Review. Ask her if she reads anything outside the conservative media, and she admits she does not.

She starts on the comparison to the American Revolution. “I believe that every human ultimately wants self determinism,” she says. “I believe that democracy is what all people are striving for.”

Tell her you are not an expert on the American Revolution, but ask her if, before we started that war, our thirteen colonial governments were not pretty much running things for themselves. Ask her if it would have worked for France to invade the American colonies, kick England out, and then continue to occupy us and guide us to forming a democracy.

“No, that would not have worked,” she says.

Tell her that before we invaded Iraq, George Packer wrote a New York Times article called Dreaming of Democracy (free account required) which contained the following paragraph:

The chances of democracy succeeding even in Iraq under American occupation are highly questionable, [Thomas] Carothers [of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace] argues. War seldom creates democracy; according to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, of the 18 regime changes forced by the United States in the 20th century, only 5 resulted in democracy, and in the case of wars fought unilaterally, the number goes down to one -- Panama. Democracy takes root from within, over a long period of time, in conditions that have never prevailed in Iraq. For democracy to have a chance there would require a lengthy and careful American commitment to nation-building -- which could easily look to Iraqis and other Arabs like colonialism. Nor can we be sure that democracy, in Iraq or elsewhere, will lead to pro-American regimes; it might lead to the opposite. ''The idea that there's a small democracy inside every society waiting to be released just isn't true,'' Carothers says. ''If we're pinning our hopes on the idea that this will lead to a democratic change throughout the region, then we're invading for the wrong reason.'' Jessica T. Mathews, president of the Carnegie Endowment, adds, '''We've suffered so much that the only alternative is democracy' -- as soon as you say it, you realize there's a mile between the beginning and end of that sentence.''

“E” starts on her World War II analogy: we have to fight, we can’t let totalitarianism remain as a threat to us.

Ask her what WWII had that the Iraq war does not have. Tell her it was post war reconstruction. This was why Germany and Japan did not continue to wage war against their neighbors after WWII. This was what has been sorely lacking in the Iraq war.

“Then that’s the State Department’s fault,” she says, and you cut her off. No. The Pentagon suppressed State Department planning for post-war Iraq because it felt that such planning would delay our invasion. (Read The Assassin’s Gate chapters 3 and 4.)

The beach house has been vacated; all other family members are out on the beach. “E” wants to go out there too, so you both go, and while walking along the boardwalk over the barrier dune, she says “Look, I know Rumsfeld was an arrogant jerk.”

Tell her you are very sorry that the Bush administration has screwed up her dreams for a new Middle East. Remind her that at any time, Rumsfeld could have been fired by a discerning president.

“J” walks past you quickly while you are saying this, does not speak to you. You’ve been wondering if she will ask you to stop, but she does not.

Out on the beach, the kids and adults are waving flashlights around or venturing into the darkness to look for crabs. Tell “E” that you hope our country has learned something from our experience in Iraq: that if we invade a country and oust its government, then that whole country becomes our problem; that we can not predict the outcome of an invasion, particularly if we don’t make a very earnest and well-informed investment in the well-being of the people we intend to liberate; that regardless of how much we love freedom and democracy, we can not control how a population will vote, and it is the pseudo democracies of Iraq, Iran, and the Palestinians that are causing more trouble than the entrenched dictatorships of Saudi Arabia and Jordan.

Tell her that next time she wants to “help” the people of a country, she needs to first learn all she can about those people, and not just assume that some “Thomas Jefferson” will arise in their midst and steer them toward becoming like us.

You hope, in light of all this, that she does not want to invade Iran.

“No, I don’t want to invade Iran,” she says. “That would be stupid. But we should bomb Damascus into glass,” she says.

WTF? “I can’t believe you said that,” you say. “That is evil.”

She takes it back. “But Syria is totally useless,” she says.

Tell her that Syria is a big “middle manager” in all this. They are not a source of fundamentalism, nor of oil. Their “president” is secular, a former ophthalmologist working in Paris who was called home by his father to succeed him. (All this comes from George Friedman’s America’s Secret War chapter 11.) Syria has its interest in Lebanon, and it has an interest in making money, and it probably enjoys seeing us bogged down in Iraq. Syria is not to be trusted, but should be talked to, because talking is cheaper than fighting, and anyway, as I said, hasn’t our experience in Iraq taught us something about fighting? And mostly, throughout the whole Middle East, people are just trying to live their lives -- make bread, wash clothes, keep a job, raise food, raise kids. A nuclear attack on some population because of it’s dumbass government would be a despicable act and would surely earn us more enemies than it would kill, would kill far more than just our enemies, and earn us the increased distrust of what allies we have left now. Even William Kristol has described himself (to Stephen Colbert) as a no-nuke-neocon.

“E’s” husband “M” comes over. He is holding her toddler son who, “M” says, has been looking for her. “E” turns her attention to him, and you tell her thanks for talking, tell her to read Informed Comment, which she says she will.

You don’t think she will. She will run across his occasional emotionally charged Bush-bashing, and she will write him off as a crazy liberal.

While this discussion has been going heatedly, the rest of the family has been on the fringes, minding its own business -- finishing the dishes, getting the kids ready to go out to the beach, crabbing. None of their comments from political discussions of past summers entered this one -- not the plea “There have been no terrorist attacks since 9/11” as a justification for the Iraq war; not your father’s mantra, “We have to kill them all. Innocent people will die, but that is the way it has been for thousands of years”; not “We have to fight them at the source,” which everyone knows is not what we are doing.

Back in the beach house later, only your father and "J” are in the living room, working a puzzle. You are in the upstairs loft which overlooks the living room when they ask “E” how the discussion went. She says, “Your son is very engaging and well informed,” and you wonder if she knows you are listening.

The thing about neocons is, they want to keep the discussion in the abstract. That is where ideology lies. So, hit them with specifics that they can’t address. And see if they do address it. Give them a chance and listen, ‘cause you might learn something. But be prepared to blow apart the usual comparisons to WWII and the American Revolution, and remember to identify their presumptions as just that, and remind them of how their past presumptions have turned out to be invalid. If all they know comes from Rupert Murdoch outlets (“The Weekly Standard” and “Fox News”) then you’ve got them right where you want them.

Here’s another pro-war mantra that didn’t come up in this discussion. “We can’t cut and run.” Your repsonse for this is, “We can’t keep pretending a generation four war is a generation three war.” This will likely stymie them if they have not read Thomas Hammes’ The Sling and the Stone, a discussion of why insurgents, from communists in China and Vietnam to the Sandinistas to the Iraqis, have been fought ineffectively by superior military powers. I have not finished it yet, but I look forward to posting on it soon.

No comments: