Conflict of interest

One of the saddest aspects of the prisoner torture scandal, among many to choose from, is that it all seems fairly predictable, a product of the inherent contradictions of the war itself. As the final nails have been hammered into the coffin of the pre-emptive defense rationale for the war, and Bush and company has gravitated towards a pure liberation argument, a yawning disconnect has emerged, most visibily in places like Falluja and Najaf.

Our days in Iraq were always numbered, despite how the WH PR machine said things would go. The idea that a massive American army could successfully set up shop in a part of the Arab world raised on bitter oppression and anti-American rhetoric and arrest and kill civilians for any extended period of time only ever bore the most tenuous relationship to reality. The central fallacy of that proposition is revealing itself now. Less obvious has been the fallacy on the flip side of that equation--the idea that you could set a massive American army in the heart of a hostile Arab world, justify the mission as a vital defense of the homeland and not a little bit as revenge for a bitter national tragedy, and have that army act like social workers instead of soldiers.

Moreover, the military and civilian leadership has made it very clear that military prerogative outweighs niceties and conventions in this conflict, between Guantanamo and other well publicized contraventions of prisoner codes. Don't think that climate was lost on the soldiers and the officers of all people, or that somehow standards not enforced in the Western hemisphere would be respected in the midst of war zone with soldiers picked off by the objects of their liberation day after day.

Conservative supporters, despite the degeneration on all sides of this operation, are increasingly backed into a corner (see Brooks today, I would be worried my head would explode if I tried these feats of logic), trying to reconcile the failing of the post war mission with the embers of the neocons' democracy project and the unassailable good of the end of the Saddam regime. It must be funny being them right now, reduced to challenging the world with the zero sum question: was it not worth forfeiting our global credibility, hundreds of billions of dollars, and possibly igniting the decline of American hegemony to oust a genocidal dictator?

And morally, at least, they may very well be right. Certainly the left has shown a callous disregard for the suffering of Iraqis under Hussein in their refusal to address that factor leading up to war, and with their subsequent facile equations of the invasion with Saddam's 20 years of brutalization, i.e., look, we're no better! That is a wretchedly ignorant thing to say. The fact that every insurgent in Iraq right now is using the same phrase to advance his bloody political calculus should give some clue as to why that is not OK.

But then again, the business of being a good global hegemon is not so black and white, and attempts to reroute history are notorious for the unintended consequences they produce, a scorecard that should give any begnin conquerer pause, regardless of the quality of her intentions. This is especially true when one is waging 'war in the name of peace.'

This justification is patently absurd, on its face, and empires throughout the course of history have proved just how fragile a proposition this proves. Nonetheless, we have recognized, especially in recent times, the necessity of disinterested force in the name of justice. But this force is of a special character, which we have chosen to ignore in the campaign in Iraq. Rebecca West provides a useful example in her book, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, speaking about the Dalmation coast, a region certainly familiar with the vicissitudes of empire under all sorts of banners. The towns she visited there all speak of there oppression under various foreign tyrants, but praise is universally reserved for the French. Not because Napoleon was any better a conqueror--he sold out those lands as bad as the Austrians or Turks which came before and after him, but because the military governor he sent to control those areas was something of a genius among colonial administrators.

The devil truely is in the details when one embarks on missions of foreign conquest, whether they be charitable or self interested, and history judges the conqueror accordingly. This point has been entirely lost on the Bush administration, and may very well be its downfall in Iraq. Human memory is too short and too immediate (in the most unforgiving sense of the word) to understand the logic of "Our killing of you now is preferable to others' killing of you before".