A new book from Foreign Policy in Focus explains what made the Iraq war possible, and how we can stop the factors that precipitated it before they breed.
"We can't move on. The damage done by this war has to be examined if it is to be repaired."- Miriam Pemberton, editor of "Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War"
A silent mythos is enveloping the liberal consciousness in the waning days of the Bush presidency.
It spins like this: When it comes to Iraq, Americans' one reassurance is that this war can't possibly be repeated, not now that we've watched its consequences play out and caught a glimpse of the deception that caused it. As a result of Iraq, the logic goes, we will likely elect a new leader who railed against the war from its inception. We'll then shift toward a foreign policy that disavows offensive interventionism. We will make new friendships and repair old ones. We will live in peace.
However, in the forward to "Lessons From Iraq: Avoiding the Next War," a collection of essays from the progressive think tank Foreign Policy in Focus, editor Miriam Pemberton warns against such now-we-know-better thinking. She cautions against the oft-uttered mantra surrounding large-scale deeds of evildoing, "Never Again."
"The lessons in this book will not be a guarantee against the next war, even supposing they all took hold," Pemberton writes. "There will be a next war."
I winced as I read that line. I wanted to close the book. But because I also wanted to review it, and because the contributors to "Lessons From Iraq" are smart people, and because - despite all pacifist inclinations - I know that, throughout history, there has always, always been a next war, I kept reading.
If you too are riding the "hope" wave into 2009, holding your breath for a war vaccine, you too should keep reading, and not because your bubble needs bursting. You should keep reading because "Lessons From Iraq" delineates a realistic path along which we can direct our hope. It also teaches us to recognize those other, pernicious species of bubble, to ensure that, when they evolve again, we can burst them before they get too big.
The 16 bite-size essays that make up "Lessons From Iraq" are divided into three sections: Purposes, Ways and Means and Collateral Damage. Some of the freshest essays lie in the Purposes section. In Neta C. Crawford's "The Dangerous Leap: Preventive War," the author distinguishes between "preemptive" and "preventive" wars. A preemptive war is one that defends against an immediate, certain threat. (Picture Saddam with his finger poised over the nuclear button at the point the US stormed Baghdad.) A preventive war is initiated based on an amorphous, ambivalent, might-be threat. (Picture what really happened: an attack based on shaky intelligence and overconfident statements about a potential - not actual - risk.) An attack motivated by only the possibility of a threat turns war into a self-fulfilling prophecy, according to Crawford.
Much of the rest of the book addresses these problems: the unwise reasons for and disastrous consequences of preventive war. In "American Imperialism," Chalmers Johnson looks at the transformation of US foreign policy into an agenda that is both imperialist (regarding the "East") and isolationist (regarding Europe). It's an archaic model, according to Chalmers - one used by provincial-thinking presidents of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, for whom far-off lands were "pure abstractions" waiting to be conquered.
The imperialist isolationist project is a particularly dangerous one, Chalmers says. It assumes that the US bears the responsibility of making sure no threats emerge in the world, all the while avoiding cooperation with - let alone consensus from - its allies. He describes the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rice ideal as "a world where the United States, unfettered by treaties, international law, or commitments to allies, could attack any country at will and where this demonstration of power and resolve would cause all other governments to fall in line behind it - or topple one another."
Yet, perhaps more sinister than the bizarre imaginings of neocon utopians are the concrete goals driving the imperialist movement, according to the book's later essays.
One of the more obvious of these - the quest for a "secure" oil supply - also fits neatly into Crawford's "preventive war" mold. But instead of preventing nuclear war, this motivation is about heading off oil shortages. In a mixture of imperial zeal and oil-seeking desperation, according to an essay by Michael T. Klare, the Bush administration has advanced a movement to forcefully stamp out any barriers to Gulf oil. That may sound like a grandiose plan, but when a groundwork has been laid that justifies preventive war, American entitlement and unilateral military action, the path to free and easy US oil access becomes alarmingly clear.
How was that groundwork laid? In its "Ways and Means" section, "Lessons From Iraq" spells out the careful crafting of public and Congressional opinion - the creation of a "legend" - to meet the needs of the imperialist plan. In John Prados's excellent piece on the political manipulation of intelligence, he shows how the strategic silencing of some people and data and the emphasizing of others generated a body of "evidence" to back that legend. Norman Solomon's essay examining the media's relationship with the legend is especially revealing: Mainstream news sources, with their power to decide what is "objective truth," quickly banished antiwar sentiments to the sidelines as the war in Iraq mounted. Even now, he notes, their "objective" perspective on the war is vastly skewed. For example, mainstream reports on Iraqi casualties are practically nonexistent.
How to remedy the vast damage wrought by the legend, as the Iraq war still rages? The book offers a few concrete steps. A piece by Ivan Eland suggests a straightforward yet weighty solution: reduce the US military presence worldwide. Former UN Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix urges an emphasis on rigorous weapons monitoring as an alternative to preventive military action. Phyllis Bennis, author of the recent book, "Challenging Empire," recommends a heightened regard for international popular opinion. A foreboding essay by Fred Barbash calls for a revival of checks and balances in the US government, lest we, like Rome, abandon our democracy for empire.
Summed up, these essays share a clarion call: It's time to stop the legend in its tracks. For it is useless to call for policy change without recognizing the deep-seated psychological currents that keep the legend going. An uncanny ability to play on those currents allowed the administration and its cheerleaders to implement their destructive policies in the first place. Now, says "Lessons From Iraq," it's time for us, the American people, to take our emotions - and our policies - back.
Somewhere between the generous "learning experience" model and the conversation-killing mantra of "Never Again," "Lessons From Iraq" attempts to rebuild from the language on up, refashioning our national discourse - and our dinner table discussions. It urges us to grit our teeth and plunge into the piles of official lies and rhetoric-coated secrets that cloak the horror of the past five and a half years of our country's life. Before the official story is ossified, before the mainstream media pave over public outrage with euphemisms and softened narratives, this book asks us to preempt revisionism, to think long and hard about the way we will remember Iraq.