The antiwar forces, the surge opponents, the “I was against it from the beginning” people are, some of them, indulging in grim, and mindless, triumphalism. They show a smirk of pleasure at bad news that has been brought by the other team. Some have a terrible quaking fear that something good might happen in Iraq, that the situation might be redeemed. Their great interest is that Bushism be laid low and the president humiliated. They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society. Might these attitudes be called thuggish also? ~Peggy Noonan
Give Ms. Noonan credit at least for acknowledging a certain thuggishness on the other side as well. Most of this column is reasonably fair, and it actually gives opponents of the war a good deal more credit than one might have dared to hope for in The Wall Street Journal‘s op-ed pages, which is to say that it treats opponents as rational people who might even have the odd legitimate point to make here and there. I would really like to take Ms. Noonan’s column in the spirit in which it was written–a call to work for the common good, set aside the rancour and bitterness of the last several years and rise to the occasion of a national challenge. With as little “grim triumphalism” as possible, let me suggest a few reasons why this appeal will be met in antiwar circles with indifference, if not derision.
First there is this business of accusing us of engaging in grim and “mindless” triumphalism. It is true that many of us who have opposed the war from the beginning, including myself, have occasionally made a point of reminding others that those on our side were making the more prescient, accurate and serious arguments prior to the invasion. It seems to me that war opponents have done this not, for the most part, to gloat and feel satisfied with themselves (though it is unavoidable in any major controversy such as this that there would be some of this–I genuinely believe that this sort of preening has been less obnoxious and less common than that done on a regular basis by the other side). We have done this to establish our own credibility and, by extension, to question the credibility of those who urge us to continue the war.
What triumphalism does Ms. Noonan mean? Who engages in it, and how representative are they? What, after all, do war opponents really have to gloat about? Where is the triumph that war opponents are grimly and mindlessly celebrating? What have we accomplished? That we saw the disaster coming and failed to stop it? That we knew the stated goals of the administration were nonsense, but nonetheless were entirely unsuccessful in persuading the country when it mattered? Prescience, principle and foresight are all very well, but in the most fundamental way the antiwar movement in this country has gone from failure to failure, constantly waiting on events to do for them what war opponents have been unable to do for themselves: force an end to the war.
Even now antiwar elements in Congress cower in fear at the approach of Petraeus, fully expecting a political setback when the general reports (as virtually all of us expect) that things are getting better and we need to give it more time. Antiwar activists attempt to interpret the political maneuvers of mildly critical Republican Senators with the superstitious awe of someone reading his fortune in coffee grounds. Nothing much has changed from four years ago. American war opponents waited in anticipation at the possibility that British protesters or Dominique de Villepin or the Turkish government or (God help us) Hans Blix would somehow stop the war and save the day. No wonder the jingoes won the day. (Then again, jingoes usually do win the first round to get us into the war, and then leave it up to the rest of us to fix their mess.)
There is this claim that we “smirk” with pleasure at bad news. If there is any smirking going on, it is distinctly of the gallows humour variety, since war opponents have always been appalled at the moral blight and humanitarian disaster that this war has been. There may be exceptions out there somewhere, but in general war opponents are horrified at the nightmare that our government has let loose in Iraq, but most of us are not so foolish as to think that the same government that destroyed Iraq can effectively put it back together again. Speaking for myself, I grimace at reports of new bombings and continued chaos in that miserable country. It grieves me that ancient Christian communities are being uprooted, that centuries-old mosques, treasures of the medieval Islamic world, have been destroyed by fanatics and that millions of people are displaced or have fled their homes. The few gratifying moments come in revealing the more pompous jingo pundits to be ignorant and foolish, which is not a terribly difficult task, but mostly this just reminds me of the frustration that such people are still taken seriously as equal, if not dominant, participants in the foreign policy debate in this country. It would be excellent if there were actually good, widespread news in Iraq of permanent progress in security and services, rather than the exaggerated Potemkinesque rattling off of statistics about reopened schools and rebuilt soccer pitches. If the disaster in Iraq could realistically be redeemed, you would find a great many war opponents very happy to be wrong. Of course, it can’t be, which is what the entire debate has been about, but I fail to see how it helps to restore lines of communication by repeating the most dreadful calumnies against war opponents.
Ms. Noonan says, “They make lists of those who supported Iraq and who must be read out of polite society.” Well, yes, war opponents do argue that people so fantastically, massively wrong about the major foreign policy debacle of our time should not be taken seriously in future. Their record of repeated, consistent misjudgements and errors in understanding Iraq and indeed foreign policy generally should indict them without our having to say anything. That just seems like good sense. It is telling that reasoned criticism of massive policy blunders can be equated with shrill chauvinistic demonisation as if they were equivalent. More to the point, in spite of the Iraq debacle, every single war supporting pundit, policy intellectual and academic remains very much a part of “polite society” and seems to be in no danger of being cast out from it. Though there were quite deliberate efforts to read war opponents out of “polite society” (or perhaps it was more of a permanent barrier to their ever being allowed into said society in the first place), war opponents have never been in any position to drive the jingoes into the proverbial wilderness, as much as we might privately wish to drive some of the more obnoxious ones out of public discourse. Rather than being expelled into outer darkness, they remain at the center of the debate. Shockingly, they are still taken to be “responsible” and “serious” participants in the conversation, when those are precisely the things they are not. The political environment is such that, in spite of continual failures of judgement and analysis, they flourish while most war opponents toil in relative obscurity. This environment is why most of our presidential candidates, including some allegedly antiwar politicians, try to outbid one another into their belligerence towards Iran and other foreign countries and why our foreign policy establishment remains as fundamentally misguided in its assumptions about American power as it has ever been. There has been no antiwar triumph, and so we have had very little about which to feel trumphalistic.
Ms. Noonan calls for “a vow to look to–to care about–America’s interests in the long term, a commitment to look at the facts as they are and try to come to conclusions.” Naturally, both sides of the debate believe they are doing just that. However, part of looking at the facts “as they are” involves making this judgement: which side has been consistently unable to face facts, especially those that contradict its prior assumptions, and which one has been right more often than not in its analysis of the available facts? I think most war supporters do have America’s long-term interests at heart, but the trouble is that they completely misunderstand the relationship between this war and those interests. They believe our interests are best served by remaining in Iraq until we “win,” whereas this sounds like crazy talk to us. In the end, Ms. Noonan’s call for comity and compromise results in defaulting to support for continuing the war and resisting calls for withdrawal. War opponents are supposed to set aside not just their grievances and resentments of the past several years–we are supposed to accept the fundamental untruth at the heart of this war that Iraq is vital to our national security and that we cannot, must not, leave Iraq no matter what. In short, Ms. Noonan is calling on all of us to come together to support the conclusions that war supporters have arrived at months and years ago. It will come as no shock to anyone that war opponents will resist this kind of moral blackmail tooth and nail.