As we go to press, the ascent of Donald Trump toward the presidency is sucking all the air out of the domestic political space. Well-deserved condemnations flood the media from both right and left. The base is also speaking; metaphorical crockery is being smashed. Others can debate the flaws of the Republican establishment and the Tea Party, enablers in the rise of this authoritarian caricature. Germane to this journal is Trump's lack of "political correctness" on foreign affairs, specifically 9/11 and the Iraq War. He has made some face-palm-inducing statements regarding U.S. involvement in Mideast conflicts and fairness in the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. The Washington Post, on its war-friendly editorial page, is demanding Trump's defeat in no uncertain terms; anybody else will do. It can't be Jeb Bush anymore. Trump's scathing criticism of George W. played a role in his brother's exit from the race, ending a dynastic inevitability. Of course, there were money problems, but a candidate has to be matched to the moment, and this is not Jeb Bush's.
The major media almost never revisit a topic unless a political figure is willing to carry the ball. Everything has to be news driven, presumably to avoid charges of editorial bias. Now Trump has condemned the 2003 invasion of Iraq in no uncertain terms, but he constantly harps on the need for "real" presidential leadership, the subject of an op-ed by Joe Lieberman (former U.S. senator, I-CT) in The Washington Post on February 25. They mean different things, clearly. Trump is a quasi-isolationist; Lieberman points to the Russian danger. Vladimir Putin's involvement in the Syrian war seems to have turned the tide in favor of the Assad government and its allies and reestablished Moscow in the region. Contrast this with John Kerry's response when asked why he would cooperate with our former enemy: "What do you want me to do — go to war against Russia?"
Neoconservatives, anti-Trump to the core, are now positioning themselves to become advisers to Hillary Clinton. Are they democracy ideologues, conditioned by the Cold War to look to Russia for an evil totalitarian Other? This is unlikely; democracy was used during the Iraq War build-up as window dressing, a value we supposedly share with "deserving" people the world over. Bush himself might have been a victim of the neocon dream machine, fired up but with no place to go when the USSR dissolved. The destruction of Iraq has the forty-third president's name on it, though he, like the rest of us, may have been sold a bill of goods at a time of panic.
Five years before 9/11, Richard Perle and his fellow travelers had designed "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm" for new Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, urging him to become more independent of Washington — and simultaneously to deprive the Palestinians of allies by taking down Saddam Hussein. No mention of democracy, please note. Bibi passed on the idea; renouncing both the Oslo accords and the American billions was a bridge too far.
The attacks of 9/11 jacked up the American national-security stakes. Iraq, hollowed out by a decade of sanctions, was unable to protect itself, and the Clinton administration had already made regime change U.S. policy. A case still had to be made at the United Nations for the "legitimacy" of our war, however, and Secretary of State Colin Powell found a way to do it. The neocons, led by Dick Cheney, still plead not guilty: they were just "misled … by faulty intelligence, by the hope to promote democracy among the benighted Muslims on a noble quest to remove a frightful dictator, and of course, the famous missing weapons of mass destruction" (Eric Margolis, antiwar.com, February 20). A newly declassified document from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) implicates Cheney and JCS Chairman Richard Myers in exaggerating the known "facts": They knew virtually nothing but convinced everyone else that Saddam had nuclear weapons.
Hillary Clinton voted for the Iraq War and in 2005 was still defending it and blaming the victims: "We have given the Iraqis the precious gift of freedom … [but] the Iraqis have not stepped up and taken responsibility, as we had hoped." She called for sending more U.S. troops, though Bush had by then already initiated the "surge." His Global War on Terror was also misnamed, as it was a plan to control the Muslim Middle East and destroy the enemies of Israel. The most lethal of them still stalk the earth: al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and the most violent of all, ISIS, spawned by al-Qaeda rogues in the U.S. prison camps of Iraq.
Donald Trump called Bush out on the Big Lie: that the taking down of Saddam was a crusade for justice. However, the public has not yet understood the enormity of the crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. No one in the current government wants to talk about the facts: 1 million civilians killed, cities flattened, death squads spawned, drone wars waged, innocents kidnapped and tortured, and human accomplishment obliterated. The Bush administration claimed 9/11 justified all of it. Henry Kissinger himself said at the time that an Arab government had to be humiliated. Beating up on al-Qaeda's Taliban hosts was not enough.
How to make amends? At a time when Britain is criminalizing efforts to end the Israeli occupation through BDS, a new Tony Blair-Leon Panetta effort to counter the radicalization of Muslim youth is being underwritten by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. It is commendable to try to avoid alienating the Muslim world ("our allies and the main victims"), but can it be done without open discussion of specifics? Is the root cause poverty and the lack of economic hope? How do you rid people's minds of thoughts of revenge for having their land and dignity stolen? A symptom of the problem: The New York Times regularly fails to use the word occupation in articles on violence in Israel.
Young men in the Middle East are indeed the kindling for future wars, and Syria has demonstrated how hard it is to bring armed conflict to an end. Winning on the battlefield precedes negotiations over peace arrangements (Clausewitz and everybody else), no matter how noble one's motives and how sincere one's commitment to protecting the vulnerable. The battle for Aleppo has been joined, with the Russian-backed Syrian army making some gains. Meanwhile, ISIS, though weakened, is shooting its way out the door: suicide bombs claimed over 100 victims in Damascus this week. Three days into the cease-fire, most of the guns have fallen silent, but it's too soon for rejoicing.