Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Five Years Ago Today, We Made a Historic Mistake

If you've been reading this blog even semi-regularly, you know that I teach women's studies. But my actual degree is in German history with a minor field in women's studies. So today I'm donning my historian's cap to say a few words about the Iraq war as I think it might be viewed in history books 50 or 100 years from now.

It's not the case that every last historian opposed the war from the get-go. But it's also not an accident that most of them did. Some of the leading luminaries of the profession are involved in Historians against the War, as are lots of us humbler practitioners. Thousands more who haven't signed the HAW petition still ardently opposed Bush's war of aggression.

Yeah, we're a bunch of liberals and pinko lefties, but by golly, those of us who earned a Ph.D. have spent a decade or so being formally trained to do something most Americans, left or right, never do: to take the long view.

Now, a good historian always relies on evidence to back up her assertions. We fetishize footnotes. Most of us are pretty fixated on archival research, too. With regard to the Iraq war, all of our usual goodies will be classified for decades to come, so we can't yet draw historical conclusions that would satisfy any historian's standard of evidence. And yet I think it's possible - by taking the long view - to advance a few educated guesses about how future historians will view this debacle.

First, the evidence for prosecuting a war of aggression was self-evidently weak to non-existent in the summer of 2002. This was obvious to any thoughtful, critical observer outside the Beltway even at the time, not just in retrospect. It was also glaringly obvious that this war was being marketed to us. This came out in Andy Card's famous statement about August being a bad month to sell a war: "From a marketing point of view, you don't introduce new products in August.'' Dick Cheney's blatantly overblown insinuations of a connection between Saddam and Al Qaida also ought to have been a dead giveaway that none of the "evidence" for war was trustworthy. Even Colin Powell's famous speech to the UN - which postdated the Senate resolution authorizing war, let's not forget - should have been no more than a call for the UN inspectors to step up their search for weapons of mass destruction on the basis of the intelligence Powell cited. Future historians will likely judge all of the actors - from the Senate to the Pentagon, from the New York Times to the White House - quite harshly for their blindness, stupidity, and mendacity.

And speaking of mendacity, I think it's likely that only the declassified archival material will show just how many lies we've been fed. We all know by now (or we should, if we don't watch too much Fox News) that there were no WMD, that George Tenet spun the "slam-dunk" evidence to support the administrations case for war, that Saddam and Al Qaida were sworn enemies, that Rumsfeld and Cheney were pushing an Iraq invasion just days after 9/11 following the agenda of the Project for the New American Century. We're going to have to wait at least a couple more decades to discover just how very intricate a web of lies Bush and his cronies spun; this assumes that they haven't been massively destroying documents as they've already been busted doing with emails. In that case, historians will view the administration even more balefully, because we really don't like it if you fuck with our source base.

Finally, I'm pretty sure that the Iraq war will mark the end of American hegemony as we've known it. The war has bankrupted us for a generation to come, financially and morally. It's undermined our military readiness; troops are burned out, and understandably so, as they spend months in the desert hoping and praying they won't be blown up, only to return to a homeland where the V.A. lacks necessary services and no one else is being asked to make sacrifices - and where they face redeployment mere months later, never mind that many of them only signed up for the Reserves or the Guard. We're stretched so thin in Iraq that we don't have the strength to respond to crises elsewhere, as Katrina proved. Add to this skyrocketing oil prices, a tanking dollar, a historically unfavorable balance of payments, strained relations with our long-time allies, the inexorable rise of China - and we can only conclude that the long American party is over.

The New American Century is stillborn, thanks to our friends at the PNAC, and the old one is dead. Historians 50 or 100 years hence will almost certainly pinpoint March 19, 2003, as the date when the American hegemon went on life support.

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