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August 26, 2005

Death of a Salesman, 2005
Posted by Michael Signer

Amid more news that the Iraq Constitution is faltering and splintering, that American support for the engagement has dropped to an all-time low, and that President Bush has been forced to take a vacation from his vacation and try personally to salvage the process, I want to propose an argument (with the proviso that it's perhaps a little Theory of Everything-ish, and maybe, just maybe, has a teeny-tiny bit of partisan schadenfreude in it):

Most of the problems about America's situation in Iraq can be traced back not to faults in intelligence, to the Bush's failure at international diplomacy, or to internal disputes in Iraq.  They're instead rooted in an earlier, domestic catastrophe:  the Bush Administration's failure to convince the American people of the moral rightness of invading Iraq.

It's August, so it's worth remembering this is the month that Andy Card said was, "from a marketing point of view," a bad time to introduce new products.

If they know so much, why was the Bush Administration so bad at selling us this product?

Americans are willing to suffer great numbers of casualties when they believe there's a cause that, morally, rises to the level of mass sacrifice.  Osama bin Laden famously said America in Somalia was "paper tiger" that "after a few blows ran in defeat."  This belief underlies the ferocity of Al Qaeda's attacks. 

The American people want to be convinced by their leaders that they should summon collective moral passion for a military engagement.  We tend to approach casualties in a binary fashion -- either they are good (and worth dying for) or not (and worth protesting against -- by the way, Cindy Sheehan is back).   

Our casualty level in Iraq is very low, compared to our great battles -- the Civil War, WWI, and WWII.  (Though, as Phil Carter and Owen West note, the casualty levels are very similar to Vietnam). 

But unlike many other countries who routinely support grandly bloody conflicts almost as a matter of national culture, Americans apply a high moral standard to casualties:  we will not tolerate casualties if they're the result of a conflict in the morally gray area between -- which explains why we are convulsing over fewer than 2,000 casualties in Iraq.

Moreover, American constitution-making and nation-building only works when Americans are solidly behind the efforts.  Americans fall behind these efforts when they are convinced of their moral rightness. We were more than willing to plow billions of dollars into the Marshall Plan, and to rebuild Germany and Japan, because we were fully convinced of the moral rightness of the missions.

The Bush Administration sold the American people on this war in a hurried, political-blunderbuss, sort of way.  They worked through politicians first, rather than going to the people.  They staged the first vote in Congress a mere three weeks before the 2002 Congressional elections, meaning that the votes (and the "deliberation" that went before them) were shot through with intensely political calculation. 

The Administration could have gained more public support for military action in Iraq by focusing less on WMD and more on the stories of Saddam's brutalization of Iraqis, and the fact that his hostile posture threatened our post-9/11 pax Americana.

But, alas, they didn't.  They jammed a conclusory war down Congress's throats and presented the package to the American people (the ultimate arbiters) as a done deal. 

Americans were willing to accept the war -- odd and incidental as it seemed -- on faith.  But they didn't evince that burning, moral passion that has undergirded our greatest military campaigns; the absence of which has gradually corroded our weakest ones (Vietnam, Korea, smaller engagements like Panama, and, now, Iraq).

The lack of American moral passion for this engagement underlies everything:

1)  A successful Iraq constitution could well take many years of patient cultivation.  In America (which was far more stable and internally cohesive), we took ten years.  And each of our states (like Iraq's regions) developed their own constitutions in the meantime.  But the Bush Administration can't be that patient in Iraq because they need to have a deadline, because they want to get out, becausethey  failed to sell the American people, morally, on the war.

2)  To truly establish rule-of-law in Iraq, and stamp out rebellion, would require large numbers of troops, perhaps gained through a draft. Americans have supported drafts before, especially where we've had moral passion for the engagement.  But the Bush Administration would never consider a draft, because they failed to sell the American people, morally, on the war.

3)  To truly win in Iraq (rather than leave behind a fragmented and faltering country) we might well have to suffer more casualties, in the 10,000-or-more range, over the next few years.  The American people would certainly grant that sacrifice, if they were behind the war.  But the Bush Administration is panicking, because they failed to sell the American people, morally, on the war.

And it goes on and on...

This all goes back to America's own constitution.  Our military is under civilian control, and we run our military decisions through democratic circuitry.  The Bush Administration doesn't particularly like this, and their military and foreign policy is suffering today because they ignored the importance of the people. 

They wanted this war on the cheap and on the sly.  And they have reaped a whirlwind for it.

Schadenfreude, anyone?


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I disagree with your basic premise. Americans can easily forgive a President for leading them into war for dubious reasons. But they cannot forgive a President for losing a war. The reason Bush has lost the vast middle of the American electorate is not the failure to find WMD but the failure to bring about a stable post-war democracy. The WMD issue is water under the bridge. The future of Iraq is not. If the American people feel that Bush has lost control over the future of Iraq - and it appears that is what the American people believe - then Americans will give up on the entire effort. There is nothing noble about continuing to send good young Americans to their death when the leadership has no idea what it is doing.

I'm pretty much in agreement with Heather. I don't think it was that hard to anticipate an insurgency, the need for a draft, and a long-term commitment to troops and casualties in the region.

An administration with foresight would have said to themselves, "to sustain this kind of effort, we need to get the voters and the citizens behind it." And sold it that way.

But this administration interpreted any calls for further troops, or plans for running the peace or reconstructing Iraq as naysaying, and ignored them. Thus the seeds of defeat.

Of course, if they had tried to do things that way, then they would have to admit the possibility that we wouldn't invade, or that we wouldn't follow their optimal timetable. On the other hand, it's my feeling that without this kind of support, they were doomed to fail, and shouldn't have gone in.

So, I think you are only half-right, Elrod. Everyone loves a winner and hates a loser, but in their hearts they also know that winning takes preparation and commitment. The only commitment Bush has ever asked for from them is "vote for me".

I agree, Jay. I'm only commenting on why the disillusionment now and not in late 2003 when it became obvious that there were no WMD. The poor planning, strategy, arming, execution, etc. all go into why the war has failed in its basic objective up to now. And all Bush offers in response is a) flypaper, b) don't let those who already died die in vain, c) "we cannot fail", d) everybody wants to be free. The American people aren't looking for a cheerleader with his vague "resolve". They are looking for answers. And not just a rehash of Arthur Chrenkoff's latest "Good News in Iraq" column but a real assessment of the political future of Iraq and how we can stablize it. They want to know: can we really succeed? If not, why are we still there?

We went to Iraq to advance Neocon imperialistic dreams and to gain control of the World's second or third largest known oil reserves to be followed by an attack on Iran in order to gain control of the world's second or third largest known oil reserves. Cheney and company knew only too well that we are facing a near term peaking of the world's oil production and they knew what that would mean in terms of the fierce competition for less and less oil and to our ability to maintain our consumption based economy. Unlike the Chinese and others, who are seeking to lock up the oil they will need with capitalistic contracts and jointly funded projects, our leaders decided the US solution to the coming crisis would be to essentially steal someone else's oil. Now with this as the real reason we attacked Iraq, how easily do you think it would have been to sell the American people on supporting a drive to become the modern day Rome and on a program aimed at becoming the world's premier oil Robber Baron? I agree with the notion that a major part of Bush's problems now is the fact that the American people are not behind the war. However, I also believe they are not behind the war because they know they were lied to, deceived and manipulated into it for totally spurious reasons. Just as Ms. Sheehan would like to know what the real reason was for our attacking that country, the American people think that they too would like to know. However, if they were in fact given the reasons I have cited as being the real ones, I really do not believe they would be any more supportive than they are now. In fact, I believe they would be a whole lot less supportive and that Bush and company would probably be facing impeachment followed by indictment, both of which they so well deserve. I could be wrong about that support though. I know at least one conservative, who when I made the case that we attacked Iraq for the reasons I cited above, responded by saying, " Well. we need the oil, don't we?"

Amid more news that the Iraq Constitution is faltering and splintering, that American support for the engagement has dropped to an all-time low, and that President Bush has been forced to take a vacation from his vacation and try personally to salvage the process,

Well, first of all if the news is that the Constitution is faltering, and it turns out that it's doing no such thing, then all that happens is that the reporting media lose one more notch on the credibility scale.

And as for whether the President "convinced the American people of the rightness of the cause," I submit that your obligation as a citizen to understand is at least as great as his Presidential obligation to explain. And there are plenty of people you, and anyone else, could have listened to in order to grasp the immense import of this project.

As for entering a war, and explaining or justifying it under false pretenses, look no further than "Honest Abe." He sold that war as an effort to keep the Union together, but he could have easily accomplished that had he been willing to acquiesce on slavery. And in the final analysis citizens of the North not only tolerated the deaths of close to a million soldiers, but re-elected Lincoln in 1864 over the opposition of the Copperheads and their many Cindy Sheehans.

So, you know... stop complaining and get on with it. Or complain, and get on with it. Either way.

Well, let's see what an honest appeal to the American people would look like. Bush would have made the following points:

1) Every Middle East expert -- from the CIA to the State Dep't to independent risk assessment companies like Kroll and Associates) -- says democracy in Iraq will be extremely difficult or even impossible to achieve, but I think it's worth a try.

2) We will have to divert Special Forces from the hunt for bin Laden to Iraq, even tho this will give bin Laden a chance to re-group and attack us again. (And BTW, Saddam has little or no connection with Al Qaeda and poses almost no threat to our country.)

3) The cost of this coming war is estimated to be around 10,000 casualties per year for several years and over $1 trillion total. We'll need to start a draft and raise taxes.

4)In the likely event that we will fail, a civil war will probably result and bin Laden will be that much closer to fulfilling his nihilistic ambitions.

Please join me in this noble cause.

No, Michael, if you wanted this war it had to be sold dishonestly. Only a small majority of Americans supported it when they thought Saddam was a direct threat to the country. How many do you think would have supported an invasion with Osama on the loose and success in Iraq so costly and uncertain?

They lied because they had to.

Why is it that the only people talking about a draft are on the Left? That's only one of the points you made that I want to bring up- the troops needed to mantain law and order in Iraq aren't going to come from a draft (which the military certainly does not want)- they're going to come from Iraq. Precisely the reason that Iraqi police and troops are being trained.

You say that they "wanted the war on the cheap and on the sly"- think again, your elected representatives voted to give Bush the authority to go to war. There was nothing sly about it.

Odd that the polls out today proclaim that those who know someone serving in Iraq have a much different view of the progress of the conflict than those that do not- and consequently only hear about Iraq from the media? As Demosophist points out, the situation in Iraq is not going as badly as is being painted. A vote is to be taken on the constitution today or Monday I believe? And far from establishing an Islamic theocracy, the articles cite the equality of all, regardless of gender or religion. Progress is occurring all over. Anyone with an internet connection can find it out- it's a shame that your political blinkers won't allow you to see that.

Is everything perfect? No, absolutely not- but that's how wars and rebuilding tend to go. Can we do things differently? Again, absolutely. There's plenty of room for discussion- but crowing about a possible US military defeat, simply because you don't like the way Bush took the country to war, which will only encourage further terorism seems to be absurd.

Don't you realise that *all* Americans have a vested interest in seeing Iraq succeed? You want to see what the terrorists will do if America pulls out of Iraq? How much will that embolden them when, as you yourself point out, Somalia made Bin Laden call America a "paper tiger"?

Where the hell is the schadenfreude in that? Don't you get it yet? The Islamists don't hate Bush and the neo-cons- they hate all of America. A defeat in Iraq isn't a defeat for Bush or Republicans, it's a defeat for AMERICA.

It's often been noted how comfortable President Bush is with the language of (Evangelical) "faith" -- but, less noted is his extreme discomfort with moral argument and the traditional language of small "d" democracy. (Demosophist -- Lincoln was a master of both.)

Bush explicitly rejects moral argument as nothing more than attempts to make him justify, second guess or explain himself.

And it never occurs to him to appeal to us, in the democratic tradition, as fellow citizens he hopes and needs to inspire to unite with him in a great cause or enterprise because, frankly, he doesn't see us that way.

He is, at heart, an authoritarian and autocrat. And his speeches, whatever the subject, tend to be not about us (we, the people), but, primarily about himself -- his resolve, his faith, his beliefs, his responsibilities, his suffering ("It's hard work").

This, for instance, is how he opened his latest speech on Iraq,"My greatest responsibility as president is to protect the American people." It is a sentence (that he uses often) that asserts the centrality and importance of the leader and seeks to reassure and comfort those who follow -- but it is not one that can, or is meant to, inspire or activate. It reflects an attitude that sees "the people" as dependent, childlike,waiting to be
reassured and led by the leader's higher resolve and wisdom. Not as, in the democratic tradition, a powerful, active, moral force.

There are many Americans -- and perhaps more today than in the past -- for whom the language of simple faith,
unyielding authority and comforting assurance are enough (and the complexity of moral judgement and ethical choice, perhaps, too much). If that wasn't true Bush wouldn't have won the last election.

But, as new information and events undermine Bush's credibility, and therefore his authority, and more Americans feel less protected -- from the realities on the ground in Iraq, from the suffering of military families, from the shock of oil prices and health care costs, from doubts about the economy, etc, -- it may, for more and more Americans, no longer be enough.

But, with his authority tarnished, and their faith (in him) waning, it is probably too late for Bush to now make the moral arguments, and the democrat appeals to shared sacrifice, he failed to make earlier.

Sorry, that last sentence should read "democratic appeals to shared sacrifice"

I just want to point out that nearly all of the anti-war comments deal almost exclusively with George Bush, as though his mere involvement begs the issue of the war's rightness or wrongness. I submit that George Bush has absolutely nothing to do with it.

Secondly, to the point that the war was or wasn't "sold" honestly: the fact that Lincoln had to "sell" the Civil War as a war to preserve the Union, because the North's population just weren't going to see the need to sacrifice a half-million of their sons merely to establish the freedom of a few million negroes, didn't make that war wrong, nor did it make Lincoln evil. And it certainly would have made him worthy of our contempt had he not propagated such a "deception."

So you know... grow up.

What the left sees looming are the fruits of their unremitting opposition to a project that, if it proves successful, with render them worthy of precisely the contempt that the Copperheads during the Civil War earned the Democrats. Between Lincoln and FDR the Democrats were in the White House only twice.

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