Paul Krugman’s September 11th Bitter Recriminations

Today this blog is 1 year old.  Logically-enough, I thought I would reflect on September 11th again.  A friend recently messaged me in anger about Paul Krugman’s blog entry on the New York Times website over our collective errors in judgment following September 11, 2001.  Calling Paul Krugman “an ugly individual,” he reasoned that the gravity of this moment essentially didn’t allow for the condemnation of our national character implicit in his judgment of the strong public support for the Iraq War, which has proved both superfluous and disastrous to United States foreign policy interests and even its considerable moral aims.

On the substance, I mostly disagree with Krugman by reference to what he doesn’t mention: Justified skepticism towards the massive and not really terrorism-focused USA PATRIOT and healthy disgust with the scope of (and the public argument in favor of) torture of suspected terrorists aside, the extent of our discipline as a society, the President’s prudent, moral and important insistence that terrorists–not the World’s Muslims–were our enemy, and the continued peaceful existence and demonstrable loyalty of the vast majority of American Muslims all attest to the integrity of our society.  As the Liberal Ironist occasionally argues, we tend to be oblivious to the good some public figures (or even we ourselves) have done simply through the circumstantially-plausible evils we have averted.  They are a part of the story, too, invisible to us and so rarely attributed to our character because they are recognizable only through abstraction and do not constitute an “episode.”  Where some would say “but for the grace of God go we” when looking across time and space at societies convulsed with hate, we can rightly say “In this way we can see how our ideas are better.”

The Liberal Ironist has said much in our defense; but all is not well and on the narrower terms that he made his point I must agree that Krugman–sadistic though his choosing of our solemn day is–is right.  I do think the only reason the Iraq War happened was because President W. Bush’s Neoconservative advisers imagined–and the President was persuaded of–an “imperial moment” in which they could reshape a culture by force and seize control of history.  (Political leaders that look for them may find numerous opportunities to influence history, but directing history is impossible: Others are not obligated to want what you want.  As Michel Foucault marvelously put it, “The work is the death of the intention;” so it is with political action in the context of history.)

The Iraq War was simultaneously more-costly, a greater aggregate of cruelty and less “inevitable” than any other form of overreach, negligence or abuse that occurred during the W. Bush Administration.  Over 110,000 Iraqi civilians and over 4,500 US soldiers and Marines and over 1,300…well, mercenaries killed (and thousands more soldiers returned to us with broken bodies or minds), the partial destruction and subsequent disbanding of an army that, in spite of past atrocities was keeping Iran in check and repressing internal divisions which still express themselves violently today, the near-exhaustion of military ground forces which are now unavailable for pressuring or contingency planning against the Islamic Republic of Iran or the Kim Family Regime in North Korea, years of military competence wasted that could have been focused on destroying al-Qaeda’s vulnerable network of mass murderers (a task at which, in one of the great under-reported stories of the past 2 years, the Obama Administration has self-evidently proved more-capable) and on suppressing the Taliban in Afghanistan and denying the Pakistani Army full use of its pool of terrorist cells.

The Iraq War almost threw far less-elaborate, more urgently-humanitarian and more-prudent military interventions such as the recent operation in Libya into jeopardy.  It also badly damaged relations with Continental European powers that had been deeply-sympathetic at both a popular and elite level after September 11th.  I’m not saying our government doesn’t reserve the right and possible cause to defy “World opinion,” but blowing it on an abstractly-justified enterprise that backfires and for which the costs of fighting are virtually ours alone is an outrageous waste of political capital.  The Congressional Budget Office estimated that the Iraq War will cost us $1.9 trillion through 2017.  Much of that expense was the result of inflated no-bid contracts going to favored companies for reconstruction projects Iraqi firms weren’t allowed to build, or to the mercenaries we hired to secure specific sites to take the pressure off our undersized military presence.  All this life, political capital and money just burned away at George W. Bush’s discretion, and I can honestly say I didn’t believe that Saddam Hussein had active WMD programs or ties to al-Qaeda for a moment.  I don’t think any US President has weakened our country so much with the wind so strongly at his back.  His other errors and abuses of his office combined pale in comparison with this one by any measure–material, political, ideological, or moral.

Where I disagree with Krugman is on the rest of it.  As frightened or angry or off our depth as we were after September 11, 2001, we have muddled through.  There have been mistakes, some crimes, and even atrocities–I use the passive voice intentionally because I can’t seriously hold everyone responsible for many bureaucratic and clandestine actions of which most people were never informed–but in either historical or comparative terms I think our response has been disciplined compared to what we could expect from most governments, or the sentiments we could expect to see openly expressed in the political mainstream in most societies.  To his credit, George W. Bush never campaigned against Muslims, and though many Americans succumbed to varying degrees of bigotry towards Muslims at different times, the actions of American Muslims and non-Muslims generally suggest humaneness, trust, and a sense of justice.  We continue to see Conservative activists try to manipulate building codes to violate the rights of Muslims and other non-Christians in an effort to prevent them from exercising their 1st Amendment and 14th Amendment rights in building religious institutions, but our institutions (and at least some of our public figures, such as Mayor Bloomberg) are strong-enough to resist these efforts upon appeal.  When France and Belgium ban the Islamic hijab or abaya, we rightly hold them up to ridicule for it.

In the case of the Iraq War, however, I find us to be at fault as much as our generalized live-and-let-live sentiment in other regards has been admirable.  As George W. Bush prepared to play Napoleon in Iraq, we enabled him, letting him admit assertions in the place of evidence and uncritically buying–in an age rich with critical cinema about the Vietnam War–his claims that the Iraq War could be won in days and pay for itself out of Iraqi oil money!  We bought it all, because we wanted a demonstration of force, to prove to ourselves that we were in control.  We proved the opposite, to ourselves and to competitors or enemies that either admired or feared us.  This point seems not to have gotten through to us; I can’t think of a surer sign of our complacency.

Between last December and now, Arab 20-somethings employing Facebook and Twitter and challenging their despotic regimes in the street demonstrated that the Iraq War was completely-unnecessary from a social engineering standpoint.  Our entirely self-inflicted humiliation is now complete.

On the question of Paul Krugman’s timing, I agree that the lack of fellow-feeling expressed in this post suggests that he is an alienated individual.  I won’t go so far as to second my friend’s verdict that he is an “ugly human being,” because I can imagine ways that this angry mood–estranged though it is–could be the result of a sense of this self-injury.  Once the thought that our imprudence in 2003 harmed us more than the evil of the terrorists in 2001 sank in, how was he supposed to calm down?  It comes down to whether Krugman has the instincts of a healer and a constructor in him–and based on this terse and angry statement on what is deservedly a solemn day, I’d conclude he does not.

For what a statement of intentions is worth, the Liberal Ironist earnestly desires to be a healer.  I make no partisan points about some “Republican” culpability for Iraq; it was George W. Bush’s decision that engaged us in that theater and Republicans of no lesser stature than William F. Buckley Jr. and his own father expressed compelling doubts about his plans for war.  Krugman’s partisan criticism of President Bush for the Iraq War is accurate but irrelevant to current politics; today the Republicans want to drastically reduce the size of the Federal Government–a bad idea, sure, but there’s nothing Napoleonic about it.  While our future is dependent upon our misadventure in Iraq, our politics has moved on from it.  Should a President Perry or a President Romney should be inaugurated in January 2012 I don’t expect them to make any foreign policy blunder like the Iraq War: I’d expect them to make their own, better foreign policy blunders; for his part, President Obama deserves credit for doing much to heal our damaged diplomatic relationships and drawing-down our forces in Iraq on an appropriate timetable.  Though violence in Iraq endures, the security and economic situation there is continually improving (though the rate of progress has slowed).  Now that the Iraq War has been fought, stabilizing the country and consolidating its economic development is in everyone’s interest save for a few radical Islamists.  We have to remain engaged there.  The challenges of winding down our 2 major wars, fighting al-Qaeda, and moral and occasionally material support to the cause of Arab democracy aren’t as competitive as they once appeared.

Though there has always been some private grumbling, ours remains a society where many communities are present and able to live in accordance with their conscience.  We made a big mistake in 2003, but most of what we have done before and since that time is not a shame at all.  Since the time of Woodrow Wilson US actions have steadily expanded the democratic franchise both at home and abroad, and the Aughts have not been shameful in that regard.  They have been a marvel.


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