Iraq: The Limits of Permissible Debate

The world is what it is; peace of mind requires recognizing that there is no use getting indignant at certain galling situations; all we can do is work, patiently and with good-humour, to change things.

Still, it’s worth recording that five years after the beginning of the Iraq War, major media outlets (for example, the New York Times, The Washington Post, are far more receptive to those who supported the war (Richard Perle, Christopher Hitchens, Andrew Sullivan, William Saletan,  L. Paul Bremer, Danielle Pletka, Kenneth Pollack, et cetera ad nauseum) than those who had the foresight and wisdom to oppose the war (Andrew Bacevich, Michael Massing, Noam Chomsky, Katha Pollitt). It’s telling that when Pollitt is invited to write for the Times or the Post, it’s invariably on issues relating to feminism, despite the fact that her thinking on foreign policy is every bit as cogent as her gender politics.

Liberal hawks and neo-conservatives dominated all the media retrospectives on the fifth anniversary of the war starting.

The limits of permissible discourse are defined by the New Republic on the left and National Review on the right. Anti-war voices (whether leftists, libertarians, or traditional conservatives) remain marginal freakish outliers, although they articulate ideas shared by wide swaths of the population and almost all their arguments have been vindicated by the actual course of the war.

One of the very best writers on foreign policy to emerge in the last few years is the libertarian blogger Jim Henley. In a just world, Henley would be a columnist for the Times or the Post. As it stands, he has a growing audience on the web. His reflections on the Iraq war’s fifth anniversary is very much worth reading.

A few excerpts:

As a libertarian, I was primed to react skeptically to official pronouncements. “Hayek doesn’t stop at the water’s edge!” I coined that one. Not bad, huh? I could tell the difference between the government and the country. People who couldn’t make this distinction could not rationally cope with the idea that American foreign policy was the largest driver of anti-American terrorism because it sounded to them too much like “The American people deserve to be victims of terrorism.” I could see the self-interest of the officials pushing for war – how war would benefit their political party, their department within the government, enhance their own status at the expense of rivals. Libertarianism made it clear how absurd the idealistic case was. Supposedly, wise, firm and just American guidance would usher Iraq into a new era of liberalism and comity. But none of that was going to work unless real American officials embedded in American political institutions were unusually selfless and astute, with a lofty and omniscient devotion to Iraqi welfare. And, you know, they weren’t going to be that.


What all of us had in common is probably a simple recognition: War is a big deal. It isn’t normal. It’s not something to take up casually. Any war you can describe as “a war of choice” is a crime. War feeds on and feeds the negative passions. It is to be shunned where possible and regretted when not. Various hawks occasionally protested that “of course” they didn’t enjoy war, but they were almost always lying. Anyone who saw invading foreign lands and ruling other countries by force as extraordinary was forearmed against the lies and delusions of the time. It’s a heavy burden, I’ll admit. But the riches and fame make it all worthwhile.

2 thoughts on “Iraq: The Limits of Permissible Debate

  1. There are two things I admire equally. Sticking to your guns, and changing your opinion when you believe that you are wrong. I have to confess though, I feel sorry for a lot of the liberal molting hawks like Andrew Sullivan et al. Given the amount of vitriol they’ve been subjected, I have to wonder if going on record as having a change of heart was worth it.

  2. Well, maybe I’m too churlish to guys like Sullivan. On the other hand I very much agree with what Barack Obama has said: it’s not enough that people who supported the war now oppose it; what we need to do is change the thinking that led to the war.

    There’s much in Sullivan’s writing to admire but I don’t think he’s changed his basic thinking in a fundamental way.

    There’s a problem of policy (is this particular war good or bad) and there is a problem of philosophy (should the Anglo-American nations act as the world’s policemen?). Many like Sullivan have changed their policies; what we need is for them to more searchingly realize the limits of their philosophy.

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