Pride and Prejudices
How Americans have fooled themselves about the war in Iraq, and why they’ve had to
Sept. 19 — A sturdy-looking American matron in the audience at the American University of Paris grew redder by the second. She was listening to a panel talking about the Iraq war and its effect on U.S.-French relations, and she kept nodding her head like a pump building emotional pressure.
Finally she exploded: “Surely these can’t be the only reasons we invaded Iraq!” the woman thundered, half scolding, but also half pleading. “Surely not!”
What first upset her was my suggestion that, looking back, the French were right. They tried to stop the United States and Britain from rushing headlong into this mess. Don’t we wish they’d succeeded? (Readers, please address hate mail to email@example.com)
Then she listened as another panelist and I went through the now-familiar recitation of Washington’s claims before the war, and the too-familiar realities since: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction and the inevitable conclusion that Saddam Hussein was not the threat he was cracked up to be, the fantasy that this war could be waged on the cheap rather than the $1 billion per week American taxpayers are now spending, the claim that occupation—called “liberation”—would be short and sweet, when in fact American men and women continue to be shot and blown up every day with no end in sight.
As we went down the list, I could see the Nodding Woman’s problem was not that she didn’t believe us, it was that she did. She just desperately wanted other reasons, better reasons, some she could consider valid reasons for the price that Americans are paying in blood and treasure.
It’s not the first time I’ve come across this reaction. I just spent a month in the States and met a lot of angry people. A few claim the press is not reporting “the good things in Iraq,” although it’s very hard to see what’s good for Americans there. Many more say, “Why didn’t the press warn us?”
We did, of course. Many of us who cover the region—along with the CIA and the State Department and the uniformed military—have been warning for at least a year that occupying Iraq would be a dirty, costly, long and dangerous job.
The problem is not really that the public was misinformed by the press before the war, or somehow denied the truth afterward. The problem is that Americans just can’t believe their eyes. They cannot fathom the combination of cynicism, naiveté, arrogance and ignorance that dragged us into this quagmire, and they’re in a deep state of denial about it.
Again and again, you hear people offering their own “real” reasons for invading Iraq—conspiracy theories spun not to condemn, but to condone the administration’s actions. Thus the “real” reason for taking out Saddam Hussein, some say, was to eliminate this man who rewarded the families of suicide bombers and posed as an implacable enemy of Israel. (Yet the bombings go on there, and surely the chaos in Iraq does nothing for the long-term security of the Jewish state.) Or the “real” reason for invading Iraq was to intimidate Syria and Iran. Yet Tehran, if anything, has grown more aggressive, and may actually have stepped up its nuclear weapons program to deter the United States. (After all, that strategy worked for North Korea.) Or the “real” reason was to secure America’s long-term supply of oil, but the destabilization of the region, again, may make that more tenuous, not less.
But the real problem with such “real” explanations is that they were not the ones cited by President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the compelling reasons to rush to war last March. Then, they talked about weapons of mass destruction, and the fight against terrorists.
Which brings us to the grandest illusion of all: the link between Saddam Hussein and September 11. A Washington Post poll published earlier this month concluded that 69 percent of Americans thought it “at least likely” that the former Iraqi leader was personally involved in the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. There’s nothing to back this up. So puzzled political scientist and pollsters, with evident disdain for the public, suggested the connection is just the result of fuzzy thinking: Al Qaeda is evil, Saddam is evil, the attacks on 9/11 were evil and folks just draw dumb conclusions. Other analysts pointed the finger at the administration, which spins harder and faster than Hurricane Isabel to convince us the war in Iraq is part of the war on terror begun on September 11, without quite explaining where it fits in.
Yet just this week President Bush himself (and Donald Rumsfeld, too!) admitted that information to substantiate this popular fantasy just doesn’t exist. “We’ve had no evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved with September 11,” Bush said flatly, almost matter-of-factly, on Wednesday.
Is the president taking a chance here? Will the public recoil in horror, claiming he’s somehow lied to them? I don’t think so.
Bush knows what a lot of his critics have forgotten: the Iraq war is not just about blood and treasure, or even about democracy or WMD or terror. It’s about American pride. And people—perfectly intelligent people—have always been willing to sacrifice sweet reason in order to save face, to protect pride. As George Orwell pointed out, they will refuse to see what’s right in front of their noses. He called this condition a kind of political schizophrenia, and society can live quite comfortably with it, he said, until “a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield.”
Well, that’s what’s happening right now. It’s not only American money and lives that are being lost, it’s pride. But people in the United States will try to deny that for as long as they possibly can.
Unfortunately for those of us who live abroad, that’s much harder to do—and that’s why the woman at the American University in Paris the other evening was really so angry. When I stopped her in the hall afterward she said she was terribly upset because even though she’s lived in France for years, and is married to a Frenchman, the behavior of people here in the last few months has made her bitter.I know just how she feels. The media talk about anti-Americanism, but what’s really noxious right now is an insufferable smugness, a pervasive air of schadenfreude, and I fear it’s a symptom of still worse to come from this Iraq adventure. Because the bitterest contradiction of all may be that this war was waged—first and foremost—to save face after the humiliation and suffering of September 11. It was meant to inspire awe in the Arab and Muslim world, as former CIA operative Marc Reuel Gerecht and others insisted it should be. And in that it truly has failed. Every day we look weaker. And the worst news of all it that it’s not because of what was done to us by our enemies but because of what we’ve done to ourselves.
Published on www.newsweek.com, Saturday, September 20, 2003