No Comment — March 22, 2008, 11:37 am

Edmund Burke and the War in Iraq

What is the measure of a good executive? The ability to inspire those who follow, certainly. A dedication to speaking the truth, and particularly not misleading those who entrust leadership to him. The ability to listen and to absorb information critically. Raw intelligence. Good judgment. Being a good judge of others, and being able to pick the right advisors. Being possessed of a moral anchor. All of that would figure in the common measure of leadership. But no leader will operate without making mistakes. So another critical measure of a good leader is the ability to recognize mistakes and take remedial steps to correct them; moreover, to do this in a timely way.

This week we have again seen a vivid demonstration of our leaders’ lack of basic leadership skills. George W. Bush has been one of the most flawed presidents in the country’s history. In fact, I think a good case can be put for placing him in a position of undisputed leadership, as “the worst of the worst;” certainly he makes the short list. But while he has many bad traits, one towers above the others. Bush is incapable of recognizing his mistakes, or of taking steps to correct them.

Even those who work for Bush recognize this. Late last spring, I was at a global counter-terrorism conference which brought together leading law enforcement officials from North America and Europe in Florence. I listened in amazement as one of the principal architects of the Bush Administration’s war on terror policies openly acknowledged to the crowd what everyone there already knew: the Bush Administration policies had been a catastrophic failure. Not only had they failed to meet major objectives, they had badly damaged the nation’s reputation in the world, impeded cooperation with close allies, and had failed to net the key targets. Heads nodded in assent as he spoke, including a large group from the U.S. Justice Department. And then came the cincher: there was no meaningful prospect of change before January 20, 2009, because the Bush Administration was incapable of recognizing its mistakes and acting on that recognition. It was best, the speaker suggested, to focus on what might be done by the next administration.

This analysis was brave and obviously correct.

If we had to pick the most colossal of the Bush mistakes, then first place certainly goes to the Iraq War. In my view, it was perfectly sensible to identify Saddam Hussein as an enemy and to consider options for toppling his regime. But accepting that premise—which I recognize is not entirely free from doubt—the bigger questions then revolve around when and how.

Bush’s Iraq War was driven by a fraudulent sense of urgency. In particular, it was pushed forward by talk of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), both nuclear and biological. We now know with a reasonable degree of certainty that the administration had no evidence to support the contentions it put forward, and that the straws it collected from the intelligence community resulted more from intense political pressure and meddling than from anything resembling sound analysis. Thus the when was driven by lies, manufactured “evidence” and hysteria.

And the how was no less important. It was a matter of vital importance how they went about this effort to remove Saddam. Was it done in the way calculated to produce the least loss of life and damage? Was it even managed in a fashion that was marginally competent? The answer to both of those questions is a resounding “no.”

As Burke says in one of his earliest writings about the American Revolution,

A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood, he would feel some apprehension at being called to a tremendous account for engaging in so deep a play, without any sort of knowledge of the game.

And in other writings, he develops this line of thought much further. Burke is assuredly not opposed to war in concept. But he is opposed to unnecessary carnage, and he is opposed to wading into a war which will produce loss of blood, treasure and reputation without corresponding gains. It is not enough that a war will be successfully waged, he argues. It is essential that we recognize that our ability upon entering any conflict to forecast where it will lead and what it will cost is weak, and that political leaders advancing the cause of war are likely to understate those costs. War must always be accepted when it is a war of defense of the homeland. But a war of choice fought on foreign soil must be thought about very carefully. Are we clear that the objectives achieved will be worth the cost, not just in lives of soldiers and in expense of war effort, but also in civilian lives and hardship? That is a different sort of calculus and one which must be considered soberly with all the tools available to us, including a careful consideration of human experience. And for the politician who fails to make it, particularly for the politician who acts ignorant of or oblivious to the costs to those engaged in the battle and their loved ones, Burke has harsh words:

I cannot conceive any existence under heaven (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things), that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent, helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched.

Consider how perfectly this criticism matches the conduct of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney–it described them at the launch of the Iraq War, and it describes them just as well today.

And consider the perfect arrogance of their conduct through this week, in which the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq was observed. Bush gave a series of speeches in which he unloaded clichés about the war, and evaded every serious question.

But Vice President Cheney’s conduct took the prize. In an interview with Martha Raddatz on ABC News’s Good Morning America, Cheney was reminded that by a margin of two-to-one the American public opposes the war in Iraq. “So?” he responded, expressing arrogant indifference. He went on to say that U.S. policy should not be tailored to fluctuations in public opinion polls. Many would agree. But Cheney is aware that there have been no fluctuations—a large majority have opposed the war for over two years, and voters expressed their views at the polls in 2006 in a similar manner, placing Democrats in control of Congress.

Cheney’s “so” reflects the principle of governance that the Bush-Cheney administration had adopted almost from the outset of its rule: it rejects the fundamental notion of democratic accountability. It rejects the notion of popular sovereignty. It rejects the premise that the powers of the executive are checked by those of the two other coequal branches of government. Cheney’s “so” is a usurpation of power. And it is not the expression of conservative principles, but rather of radical folly, of a feeble mind intoxicated with power.

A thoughtful conservative would have long recognized what was wrong, and would have acted to set it right. A number of bright people followed the Bush-Cheney bandwagon into the Iraq War. Five years on, the serious thinkers in that group recognize what went wrong. One of that number is my friend Andrew Sullivan. Writing at Slate he offers a very convincing self-critique:

Historical Narcissism. I was distracted by the internal American debate to the occlusion of the reality of Iraq. For most of my adult lifetime, I had heard those on the left decry American military power, constantly warn of quagmires, excuse what I regarded as inexcusable tyrannies, and fail to grasp that the nature of certain regimes makes their removal a moral objective. As a child of the Cold War and a proud Reaganite and Thatcherite, I regarded 1989 as almost eternal proof of the notion that the walls of tyranny could fall if we had the will to bring them down and the gumption to use military power when we could.

A real conservative starts with an appreciation of what military force can and cannot accomplish. A real conservative would have recognized that though a military victory over a third-rate military power like Iraq could easily be accomplished, the longer-term challenge would come in building a self-sustaining state on Iraqi territory, and would have taken a realistic measure of the time and cost involved in doing that.

Narrow Moralism. I recall very clearly one night before the war began. I made myself write down the reasons for and against the war and realized that if there were question marks on both sides (the one point in favor I did not put a question mark over was the existence of stockpiles of WMD!), the deciding factor for me in the end was that I could never be ashamed of removing someone as evil as Saddam from power. . . I failed to grasp. . . that war is also a monster, and unless one weighs all the possibly evil consequences of an abstractly moral act, one hasn’t really engaged in a truly serious moral argument. I saw war’s unknowable consequences far too glibly.

Unconservatism. . . I pathetically failed to appreciate how those divides [between Shi’a and Sunni] never truly go away and certainly cannot be abolished by a Western magic wand. In that sense, I was not conservative enough. I let my hope—the hope that had been vindicated by the fall of the Soviet Union—get the better of my skepticism. There are times when that is a good thing. The Iraq war wasn’t one of them.

Misreading Bush. Yes, the incompetence and arrogance were beyond anything I imagined. In 2000, my support for Bush was not deep. I thought he was an OK, unifying, moderate Republican who would be fine for a time of peace and prosperity. I was concerned—ha!—that Gore would spend too much. I was reassured by the experience and intelligence and pedigree of Cheney and Rumsfeld and Powell. Two of them had already fought and won a war in the Gulf. . . But my biggest misreading was not about competence. Wars are often marked by incompetence. It was a fatal misjudgment of Bush’s sense of morality. I had no idea he was so complacent—even glib—about the evil that good intentions can enable. I truly did not believe that Bush would use 9/11 to tear up the Geneva Conventions. When I first heard of abuses at Gitmo, I dismissed them as enemy propaganda. I certainly never believed that a conservative would embrace torture as the central thrust of an anti-terror strategy and lie about it, and scapegoat underlings for it, and give us the indelible stain of Bagram and Camp Cropper and Abu Ghraib and all the other secret torture and interrogation sites that Bush and Cheney created and oversaw. I certainly never believed that a war I supported for the sake of freedom would actually use as its central weapon the deepest antithesis of freedom—the destruction of human autonomy and dignity and will that is torture. To distort this by shredding the English language, by engaging in newspeak that I had long associated with totalitarian regimes, was a further insult. And for me, it was yet another epiphany about what American conservatism had come to mean.

I share this analysis completely. The failings of the Bush-Cheney Administration can be found on almost every point in its departure from the well-established principles of conservative governance which have formed the common bond of American administrations over two centuries. The Burkean principles were and remain correct. We need to be paying more attention to them.

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