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November 23, 2006

On Idealism (or, how Christopher Hitchens Lost the Iraq War)
Posted by Shadi Hamid

Let us talk about moral language. Let us talk about idealism, its dangers and its promise. I fully understand liberals’ (now more acute) fear of unabashed idealism in matters of diplomacy and foreign affairs. This is certainly reflected in our readers’ comments.

Idealism, whether it be of a secular or slightly religious/messianic nature, has played a vital role in American political history. It is the lifeblood of so many of our country’s achievements. Our greatest presidents have been idealists (FDR, John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan), but so too have our worst (George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter).

I remember when I first heard the quotation: “Some men see things as they are and say why; I dream things that never were and say why not.” If there was one quote I hoped would define my approach to politics, it was perhaps this. But there remains a lurking, potent danger. Sincerity and idealism can just as easily lead to personal and political destruction. It is all the more tragic because idealism raises expectations so high, only to shatter them. The higher the highs, the lower the lows, and the more acute the sense that we have been betrayed our own ideals, resulting in, first, anger, then dissillusion.

As the last few years have demonstrated, idealism, if unchecked, can lead to the most blatant abuses of power. Why is this? Because idealism gives one a sense that there is one right and one wrong, that the world can be ordered by moral absolutes, that, at some point, one must take a side and stand by it, no matter what the cost. If one is destroyed by this stubborn resolve, then this is what some call "courage."

I want to quickly mention a few examples of this phenomenon. For all his faults, Christopher Hitchens has been a major influence on me. A lot of people seem to think that “we” lost Hitchens to the neo-cons, but I can think of few people who are as defiantly Left as him (which I suppose says just as much about neo-conservatism as it does about the Left). The original Leftist – or, let us say, liberal – impulse has always been something particularly noble, an unwillingness to accept things as they are, and a willingness to right wrongs, more often than not through some kind of “intervention,” whether it be state intervention in the economy or humanitarian intervention to prevent genocide.

The problem, however, is that Hitchens is not only ideological but, in a way, consumed by his own abiding sense of moral clarity. He is an atheist but his brand of morality often, paradoxically, takes on a pseudo-religious tone. Unlike, say, Andrew Sullivan (another major influence), Hitchens does not engage in what one may call the politics of doubt and skepticism. A leftist friend of mine at Georgetown, who regularly accused me of selling out to the “forces of imperialism” or some other such nonsense, would sign his emails off with “there can be no compromise with reactionary forces.” I suspect on this point he and Hitchens would not differ.

Hitchens is a wonderful example of how a brilliant mind, in the name of such clarity, can get big things wrong. His passionate hatred of autocracy is what I admire most in him, but those of us, myself included, who elevate democracy as a revolutionary principle can sometimes lose sight of the human costs along the way. This led Hitchens to miscalculate, profoundly, on Iraq.

I spoke with a close friend a few weeks ago about the "failure of Arab democracy." And as often is the case, we found ourselves considering the temptations of realism in the face of the failure of idealism. Let me say here that contrary to what many in the comments section have asserted, I was against the war from day one. However, along the way, particularly during the heady days of last year’s Arab Spring, I found that my feelings were complicated by my desire to see Iraq become the Arab world’s first real democracy, paving the way for the democratic revolution I always hoped would be possible. January 30, 2005 was something of a turning point for me, albeit one short-lived. I remember the exhilaration I felt, the sense that history was ending before us, that we, finally, had freed ourselves from the past's heavy burdens. The facts on the ground had been resisted in a region where “facts” had always been an excuse for accepting them. It was simple but overwhelming. For those of us who wished for nothing less than to witness a free and fair election in the Middle East, it was a beautiful thing to watch.

I still wonder what might have been. It is too late now and it truly dawned on me not long ago that a momentous opportunity had been lost, perhaps forever. There comes a time when belief and the will to make things right can no longer serve as a replacement for a certain degree of clear-mindedness and sobriety. In any case, to return to the discussion my friend and I were having: when I started riffing rhetorical on what might have been, my friend quickly put me in check. Hold up Shadi, he said, we’re talking about a war here. Hundreds of thousands of people have died. At what cost must ideals come and who must carry the burden for realizing them? Indeed. This has always been the downfall of every ideological revolution – the willingness, initially in good faith and then out of an inability to accept that we have lost it, to utterly conflate ends with means. This is why, I suppose, religion and morality, in the hands of true believers, can be so dangerous if left unchecked. I’m sure Hitchens would heartily agree.


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Damn, Shadi, that was good--deep and thoughtful. I think we're seeing the maturing of Shadi Hamid before our very eyes. Now, to finish your education, get your idealistic soul off to a war zone (any one will do), see some people get blown apart, and round out your education.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and all. May there be peace on earth and good will to all.

The problem is not just true believers. Bureaucrats cause problems too.

I want democracy. But when the US army is in charge, what democracy can we expect? In iraq the politicians tried to tell us not to attack fallujah and not to attack najaf. We ignored them. Iraqi politicians, democratic or not, have no control over the US Marines. And if they can't restrain the US military, what good are they?

Iraqi politicians have been trying to do compromises of various sorts and we intervene and tell them how it has to be. The prime minister we imposed on them has trouble reining his coalition into line. And why? He wasn't their choice. We have a veto on their various choices. Selah! No wonder they're having trouble finding a political solution.

But how can we expect the US government to take over another country and not impose our will? How could we possibly expect the US military to serve under foreign command? We have traditions and institutions, not just fanatical true believers but established procedures that would be hard for us not to follow.

Using our military (or our intelligence services) to promote democracy is like using a sledgehammer and a scalpel to do subtle persuasion.

Once a large majority of a population is persuaded they strongly want democracy, it's hard to stop them. Note the philippines, and eastern europe. If they don't have a commitment to democracy themselves, they'll settle into whatever they're comfortable with. Note russia, burma, vietnam, liberia, etc. "No slave is ever freed, unless he frees himself."

Find ways to spread the word. If they agree then in the long run they can't be stopped. Spreading democracy with armies is like spreading chastity with orgies.

JT is correct.

The US never wanted democracy in Iraq. First General Garner, who wanted to turn things over to the Iraqis, was immediately dismissed, then Jerry Bremer tried to impose a caucus system, which the Iraqis (Shia) said no to, then came the handover of sovereignty on June 28, 2004 (ha), then the elections (which we countered as JT noted) and now our hand-picked PM is hamstrung. We let him control one division of his "army." In the meantime our army has been shooting anything that moves, which causes the shootees to become shooters and make things increasingly worse.

The point, as JT states, is that the US government never does anything without expecting something in return. If your college takes federal money, you'd better do what they tell you, and so with your country, which puts a damper on the whole US-aided democracy thing.

George W. Bush once said in a debate that the US should never be involved in nation-building and he was right. Going back aways, Jefferson was right and Hamilton was wrong. If one calls himself a Democrat (s)he should recognize that.

Having read Hitchens last essay on Iraq on Slate I do not believe he would agree with you that he made a mistake vis a vis Iraq much less that he lost the war on Iraq.

I was struck recently by the remarks of Nibras Kazimi on CSPAN, Iraqi journalist, that in no way can Iraq be considered to be in civil war, that there is no going back on democracy given the many elections so far, and other interesting remarks.

That the US public is mostly done with Iraq is clear. That Iraq is a failed state without a future is widely reported in the US but rarely confirmed by Iraqi's not living within the Green Zone. That Iraq can only be judged by events there 10-15+ years hence seems both a truism and such a widely ignored fact as to beg the question if the US has any ability to even consider perspective.

Without question Iraq was handled so badly as to almost defy belief- whether or not one agrees or disagrees with the original choice to invade. Without further question the US seems to be saying we are pretty much over this and you've had your time for us to help you stabilize the situation we're about ready to go home.

What seems lost is both the duty of the United States to assist a nation it chose to invade and the long term consequences of the US being seen again (Vietnam, Somalia, Beirut) of cutting and running and having no stomach for war- however rightly or wrongly that perception actually reflects reality.

Thus the long term effects of the US leaving Iraq in this mess seem ignored along with the not insignificant matter of what Iraq might turn into together with the terrorists and other radicals being able to claim one more victory vis a vis the US (and the west) in favor of the rather short term bring the boys home at any cost policy we seem intent on implementing.

The insurgency offers nothing but death. The Iraqi state provides paychecks to over a million on time, has no shortages of applicants for the army and police, and has a budget next year of around 40 billion dollars. If Iraq is lost who won and where are they?

Lane, you have brought a brand new perspective on this. I never thought of it this way before!

Let me spell out the details that you gloss over. For us to do a successful counterinsurgency, doesn't it make sense to try out the methods that worked in our last successful counterinsurgency? Clearly, our model should be el salvador.

In el salvador we faced a possible takeover by communists. So we backed the existing military government. With our aid they killed about 60,000 civilians out of a population of well under 7 million, many of them communists or supporters of the insurgency. The insurgents tried to do targetted assassination of government leaders but failed to kill nearly as many. After 12 years we allowed a negotiated settlement; our side had mostly won and the insurgents put down their arms.

Of course we should believe Nibras Kazimi! There is no civil war, there are only our death squads cleaning up iraq. The war is going completely according to schedule, what our media report as carnage is merely the first step in reconstruction. If we knew the truth we wouldn't count all these dead civilians as losses, the large majority of them are gains!

But the trouble with this kind of warfare is that we can't tell ourselves the truth, we can't admit that we're winning or how we're winning. We pretend that the killing is out of control, that the death squads don't have our funding or direction, that we are clueless about it all. And so we mistake victory for defeat and we get ready to pull out just when we're about to finish mopping up.

There has to be a way out of this. Somehow you must find a way to tell the media the truth in a way the US public will accept. We need to see that the US-funded death squads are doing the right thing, that there is nothing wrong here, that in less than 10 more years of this we will win. The iraqi people will beg for peace on any terms.

Without that media push the american public is likely to insist that we pull out because of some woolly-headed idea that we're losing to the death squads. How can we get them to understand?

Mr. Brody, I think a lot of those Iraqi citizens who might say that Iraq has no future have already voted with their feet and left the place. 1.2m out of a population of 25m, and not exactly slowing down.

Also who is telling you that the Iraqi government pays its million or so employees on time?

Nibras Kazimi is a member of the INC and a devotee of Ahmad Chalabi. That pretty much says it all, frankly.

Yes, according to LB we cut and ran in Vietnam, and look how badly things turned out.

News Report:
President Bush Meets with Business Leaders in Vietnam
Ho Chi Minh City Securities Trading Center
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you all very much for -- thank you very much for joining me and the Secretary of State. I find it really interesting that my first meeting in Ho Chi Minh City is at the stock exchange, and I'm meeting with entrepreneurs, people who have taken a look at the markets in Vietnam and have decided that this is a good place to invest.

I want to thank you all for coming to share some of your stories with me. I'm very interested in hearing what the opportunities are like and the obstacles you face and how, perhaps, the United States can help foster the market economy that is growing here.

So much for LB's fantasy world.

Duty. Has duty no place here anymore and must it only reside in "fantasy world"?

The US invaded Iraq. The US has a duty to not leave it in a mess. This is not only a moral duty but a duty under international law.

To argue that abadoning Vietnam in 1975 was not a bad thing because in 2006 we are trying to broaden trade relations is to argue Pearl Harbor wasn't so bad because one now drives a Toyota.

To argue that there is no perceived view that the US has little stomach for protracted conflict and that the "proof" of this lies in the US retreats from Vietnam, Beirut, and Somalia is to argue against the basic reality of what our actual and potential enemies say every day.

Duty. Honor. Has the nation any stake whatsoever in being seen as a nation that is both honorable and one that does not shirk it's duty? It might be "fantasy world" to many but duty is for others a very basic daily virtue.

How does Idealism (the title of this essay) exist without respect for duty?


Lane, Bush has saddled the USA with debts we cannot repay.

Sure, the honorable thing would be to fix up iraq as good as it was before we invaded. But we can't do it, and we don't do anybody any good to break our army and our treasury trying.

Our army is incapable of restoring security in iraq. We mostly can't tell sunnis from shias without asking them. We mostly don't speak the language. So the main thing we can accomplish with our military is to shoot back at people who shoot at us. Or sometimes shoot first. We cannot build security this way, we can't even be much help to somebody else who tries to get security.

We can train iraqi police and troops. We are doing so in jordan. We are training them in the MOUT and counterinsurgency techniques we got from israel. I see no indication that these techniques are particularly useful in dealing with a population that isn't already utterly hostile to the army that uses them. What you gain in ratio of soldier:civilian casualties you lose in cooperation. The iraqi army will never have the armor or the firepower we do, they can't possibly win doing the things that don't work for us. They must win by getting the civilian cooperation we can't get. Our tactics are useless to them.

If we have an obligation to the iraqi people, it's an obligation to do the right things instead of the wrong things. It's a moral travesty to say we have to continue in iraq, doing the same things that got us to this point.

Unless we come up with a plan that *clearlY* would do more good than harm, our responsibility is to remove the US troops that currently do far more harm than good, and send, say, half the money we are currently using to keep our forces in iraq to the iraqis to spend as they wish. If we were to send them a mere $6 billion a month that would come out to $72 billion in a year, enough to do a whole lot of reconstruction. They could buy medications for their hospitals which suffer a severe lack under our control. They could start rebuilding the roads. Or they might pick up the funding for our death squads. But their choice, not our choice.

If you want to claim we have an obligation to iraqis to keep our army in iraq, come up with a plan that's at least twice as good as giving the iraqis $6 billion a month.

Duty. A US prerogative only?

Other people, with the same human rights we have, also have a sense of duty. Just as we had a duty to counter-attack the Japanese the Vietnamese and Iraqis had a duty to counter-attack our imperialist colonial invasions. Quite successfully, too.
Or are they lesser beings because they weren't "fortunate" enough to be born in the US of A?

Brody, you really ought to get out more. See the world. Meet some people who don't suffer from your American ethnocentricity. It's really quite boring to read your infantile rantings about duty and honor. Get your lazy butt over to Iraq and employ your duty and honor--just lecturing others doesn't cut it.

That's "the plan." Brody to Iraq. Go Brody. But he won't do it. Better for really patriotic kids to die for nothing then himself being in any danger.

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