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Impolite Society

The fall of 2002 was one of the strangest eras that I have seen in Washington in my 30 years here. The certainty of a war that only a tiny inner circle could understand hung over the beautiful and usually loquacious white city on the Potomac like a drear cloak. Everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the United States was irrevocably at war with a faraway country it little knew, but only an illuminated handful could answer why.

Strangest of all was that in place of the deep discussions over America’s pressing issues that such a time always demanded, there was only silence. The American people seemed mute, apparently preferring not to challenge a war that they were being told was linked to the humiliations of 9/11. While the think tanks, which have in recent years taken up the foreign-policy discussions formerly left to the universities, were scheduled up to their ears in conferences on Iraq, virtually all of the discussions were on the pro-war side. Even when the war’s proponents made the most naïve or downright false observations and predictions, they were greeted by a silence that I have never seen in this disputatious capital, where intelligent discussion, it was always historically believed in America, would ultimately lead to truth.

Things were no better in the Congress, where there seemed to be no discussion at all except for the spry and pugnacious old Sen. Robert Byrd, who, even while he was taking a highly intelligent position on the coming war, seemed in that strange echoless chamber to be a ranting figure, a partly mad Capitol Hill Hamlet tearing his hair as he stalked the empty ramparts.

I made it my duty to attend session after session that fall to try to sense what was happening in Washington—and to the United States.

The end of September at the Heritage Foundation, I listened to the neoconservative writer Robert Kagan speak volubly about the “large middle class in Iraq” and how Iraq could “become a protectorate like Bosnia and Kosovo.” Those of us who had bothered to go to Iraq over the years knew that most of the middle class had left two decades ago and that the cruel realities of Iraq made the Balkans look like Switzerland.

At the beginning of October at the American Enterprise Institute, the Iraqi writer Kanan Makiya, who like most of the exiles had not been home for decades, described the coming war as “an opportunity as large as the fall of the Ottoman empire in 1917” and said the new Iraqi state would be composed not of ethnic minorities but of citizens and insisted that it would be “demilitarized and renounce the use of force.” At the same meeting, asked why he thought Iraq could be democratized, Princeton Islamic scholar Bernard Lewis repeated what he said at each of these meetings: “I had four graduate students from Iraq and they were very impressive.”

When you think about it, of course, the fall of the Ottoman empire let loose chaos across the Middle East from Iraq to the Balkans, abolishing the Caliphate, which until then controlled all of Islam, and thus, in the absence of authority in Islam, led to the schisms—the fundamentalists of al-Qaeda against the traditionalists of Cairo’s Al Azhar, for instance—which we are still dealing with today. The idea of the consummately violent Iraq “renouncing force” was bizarre: Iraq is a country that keeps reinventing new methods of force. But then, of course, those four intelligent graduate students would take care of that.

The most stunning example in these days and days of meetings, however—I attended seven, that I can count—came another day at Heritage, where Reuel Marc Gerecht, a hard-line neocon and former CIA man, was talking about how it would be up to American troops to divide the good local elites from the bad old Ba’athists. Dan Serwer, a well-informed former State Department man by then with the U.S. Institute of Peace, asked, his voice full of irony, “And how is the second lieutenant from Iowa going to decide who the local elites are and who are the Ba’athists?” Gerecht was unbowed. “It’s not hard,” he responded blithely, of arguably the most secretive and conspiratorial country on earth. “In Iraq, it’s real easy. It’s all out in the open. They’ll know.”

Outside of a few “misfits” like Serwer, who knew the world and were willing to speak out, virtually no one in the audience said anything. In every session that I attended, there was a simple acceptance of the most bizarre rewritings of history and the most incredible misunderstandings of human nature that I have ever seen. I had been writing against the war since July 2002 because I knew what a quicksand Iraq could be for even the most avid occupier, and soon I was also wondering, “Where are the American people ?”

In the next four years there would be less serious discussion of the profound issues facing America, the Iraq War being only one, than I have seen here before. “During the Father Bush period, there was a presumption of civility,” Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute told me. “We lost it under Clinton, then the present President Bush deliberately chose a strategy of being a divider, rather than a uniter.”

Since the country had so broken down into the self-righteous, politically correct drawing-room Left of the Clinton administration and the radical, militarized, self-righteous Right of the Bush administration, hostesses suddenly were not inviting people who wouldn’t agree with one another. Congress barely debated the war. It was in part a silent patriotism bred of 9/11, but it was also a kind of new, free-floating fear, perhaps of a perceived Leviathan state where power would flow toward an increasingly powerful executive.

And the White House did not make it easy to disagree. The mood there was of such secrecy, buoyed by the president’s lack of curiosity, that, the day before the State of the Union address in 2004, neoconservative journalists—and only neoconservative journalists—were called to the White House and briefed in an almost surreptitious manner by the president. They were told that they were to identify the president of the greatest power on earth as a “senior administration official.” It was a uniquely bizarre act in journalistic practice, as if they were even trying to hide the president himself.

In fact, there were coming to light a series of disconnects in American society that had not been obvious before the war. If it were only a Right-Left division, as bad as that can be, it would be easy. But it was beginning to be clear to many of us that the country was not working anymore, that there was no cultural oneness and no longer any set of principles, like those that had inspired the Eastern Protestant establishment, that Americans more or less agreed were the principles of the state. (Could it be that President Bush, father, with his innate courtesy and his nuanced and “prudent” knowledge of the world, could indeed be the last of that purely American political center?)

To give just one example, in the 1960s, I had been a board member of the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, and many of the other board members were the heads of the biggest and most powerful corporations. These men and women took a very active role in influencing Washington on foreign policy and they were deeply and actively concerned. Had they still been around that summer of 2002, they would have been haunting the Oval Office. But there is nothing like that today, as corporation presidents are kept busy answering indictments and dwelling on themselves.

Another disconnect, perhaps the most profound one, is the division that few dare speak of: between the American people and their volunteer army. While the war is unpopular, you rarely hear a single complaint about the soldiers, even with all the allegations of torture and mistreatment. I do not believe that this is because of unthinking patriotism, I think it’s because Americans see their professional paid warriors doing the job, and if they complain, they’re afraid that somebody will tell them to send their own children to the remains of Mesopotamia, Ur, and Kandahar.
Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David M. Kennedy, professor at Stanford, addressed this syndrome last summer in the New York Times under the headline, “The Best Army We Can Buy,” saying, “The fact remains that the United States today has a military force that is extraordinarily lean and lethal, even while it is increasingly separated from the civil society on whose behalf it fights. … Some will find it offensive to call today’s armed forces a ‘mercenary army,’ but our troops are emphatically not the kind of citizen-soldiers that we fielded two generations ago…”

On top of that, you have the now infamous private contractors in Iraq, who seem to be under no one’s supervision and thus further confuse the question of who is loyal to what. Not incidentally, most contractors in Iraq charge $200 an hour per person and are therefore encouraged to keep the interrogations—and, too often, the torture—going. Four hours and it’s up to $800—for only one man. It adds up.

Then there are the other disconnects. Former ambassador to Saudi Arabia during the first Gulf War and superior thinker Chas W. Freeman Jr. notes, “It is not realistic to expect the administration to do anything other than more of the same unless there is a real debate. We went through a second election—and there was not a word, only stifling conformity. There are multiple factors for the silence. A lot of it has to do with 9/11 and the natural tendency to trust our leaders to do the best for the country. All of us rallied behind him—and he let us down terribly.

“But a second problem is the dysfunctionality of the Democratic Party. It doesn’t fulfill the objective of an opposition party, which is to raise issues and object—because members don’t have the confidence of their convictions. Many of them also felt they had been wrong in voting against the first Gulf War. Then, on the Republican side, there is a long American tradition starting with isolationism. This is a morally superior stance. But it very easily turns into unilateralism and militarism. We’re better than they are—we’re morally superior—it is right to impose upon them—armed evangelism.”

He summed up with, “So our democracy is not functioning. It is more than a political crisis, it is a constitutional crisis. Our adversary system depends upon open debate, and we don’t have it.”

Herman Pirchner Jr., president of an innovative think tank close to the Republican Party, the American Foreign Policy Council, believes those divisions within Congress come out because representatives spend almost no time together—thus when they do come together, only on the floor of Congress, they are most often antagonists. “They go home most long weekends,” he mused with me. “To really discuss issues, they would have to have time to discuss and sit into the night. People used to live together in town, they socialized. Even during Watergate, President Nixon kept up his weekly poker game with Tip O’Neill. This administration needs relations with people who disagree with it and correct them when they’re wrong. Everybody needs an intellectual friend to keep him out of trouble when he’s wrong.”

In the winter of 2003, I was on a panel at a congressional retreat at the Greenbrier Hotel, the idea being that congressmen knew one another so little these days that they were trying to bring their families together to introduce them. I wouldn’t say such an artificial occasion did much for congressional congeniality—they all left the same strangers they came—but it surely surprised me to learn that most congressmen went home Thursday and many didn’t return till Tuesday. Indeed, how could there be an effective Congress? How could there be the kind of debate that could enliven the country?

That same absence of contact can be seen in relations—or non-relations—between the press and politicians. Members of the press don’t know the politicians generally anymore, so they can far more easily fall into a “take no prisoners” stance because they never have to face the person in City Hall. As Jim Lehrer said at the Cosmos Club last fall, “We don’t have a civilized discourse right now because the people who are involved in this don’t want us to have it.” Or just don’t care enough to have it.
Indeed, the Left/Right breakdown in the media has both led to divisions in the country and solidified them. Even a fine newspaper like the Los Angeles Times for a period had its op-ed page marked “Left” and “Right,” as if there were nothing in between. Americans who watch PBS wouldn’t think of looking at Fox.

Ornstein is also disturbed by the lack of civilized discourse in Washington, and he says that the extremist positions mean that people don’t even listen anymore, they just look to ascertain that the messenger is politically correct. “We’ve gotten so caught up in the tribal wars we don’t even assume the same assumptions anymore,” he told me. “For instance, people make assumptions that, because I’m at AEI, they assume I’m one of the AEI neocons. So I can say things at conservative meetings that would be perfectly acceptable at Brookings, like criticizing giving medals to the people who got us into this mess—but no one says anything because they think I’m one of them. It’s gone so far that, if you’re not one of us, you’re one of them. It’s gotten to a point where you don’t think through what the politics are or what they’re not. And it’s all exacerbated by the TV discussions…”

Many blame the bad blood today on those neocons who introduced the war to us three years ago with such meager opposition. “There is no doubt that the neocons with their Manichean black and white view of the world politely polarized society,” Zbigniew Brzezinski told me. “Everything is black and white now. It is a vicious fight, and no longer between alternative but reasoned positions.”

“America has lost its capacity for being indignant,” Cherif Bassiouni of Chicago’s DePaul University and one of the world’s great jurists commented. “Where has our capacity for indignation gone? The problem of a nation that loses its respect for its Constitution and treaties—what is next? Hasn’t every totalitarian or undemocratic regime started like that?”

But the prominent historian Arthur Herman perhaps came closest to the core of the problem. “What we’re talking about,” he told me, “is the absence of certain fundamental principles that Western society has always represented. What is driving the evangelical movement, for instance, is not a ‘revolt of the masses’ but the fact that they see the roots of the society being eaten away.”
Can we come back together again? Can we mix and meld again and become one people? Can we talk among ourselves as we used to, argue into the night and kiss in the morning while we consider one another’s positions? The answer is out; but if we don’t, if we can’t, if we won’t, we will never again be the country history fated us to be.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist and the author of Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.

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