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Reason in an Age of Folly (and Felony)

Three for Thought

by ROGER MORRIS

Are we the eagle nation
Or have we but the talons and the maw,
And for the abject likeness of our heart,
Shall some less lordly bird be set apart?
Some gorger in the sun? Some prowler with the bat?

-William Vaughn Moody, An Ode in Time of Hesitation

As Moody posed his birds, America was in the throes of imperial disillusion. President William McKinley having been reliably advised by God and Republican cronies to "take the Philippines" as booty of the 1898 Spanish-American War, the U.S. faced a fiery insurgency in the islands and at home raging debate about the loss of America’s anti-colonial innocence. In the end, the Senate annexed by only a single vote, poorly armed Philippine nationalists were put down at brutal cost, and America moved on blithely to world power-albeit with the poet’s question increasingly begged.

The issue roils a century later as a public urge to exit disaster in Iraq lifts Democrats in the 2006 elections to slim if ruling Congressional majorities. While U.S. motives and acts abroad may no longer inspire florid poetry, there is no shortage of prose on the debacle that is George W. Bush’s less-than-excellent adventure in Mesopotamia. More than a dozen books track the folly in, matched only by the now warned-of folly out. Much as in 1898, America is told it cannot stay in its conquest without chaos, cannot leave without more. It recalls Churchill’s richly Tory remark about Lenin with a Stalinist succession: Russia’s worst tragedy his birth, next worse his death.

As Moody and McKinley suggest, however, there is rather more to these entrances and exits than people, circumstances, tactics of the moment. Deeper forces are at work in the American plight-and the world’s at its mercy-that cannot be resolved by plebiscite. Far beyond Iraq, three timeless books-two classics and a third in the running-capture larger meaning.

True to its title, which more narrowly describes the Pentagon’s 2003 dash to Baghdad, Barbara Tuchman’s The March of Folly places the calamity in indispensable wider context. Across thirty centuries, from the fall of Troy to the fallacies of Vietnam, from Renaissance Popes provoking the Reformation to the British blindly alienating their American colonies, one of our preeminent historians (certainly its most readable writer in the genre) extracts the Ariadne’s thread of preconception, arrogance and deception, including self-deception, that mark governments bent on policies at odds with their own interests-all indulged in what Tuchman calls "wooden-headedness" despite known, available alternatives. Iraq has it all: rulers and ministers obsessed, bureaucrats overbearing and feeble, intelligence confused, confusing and in any case misnamed, generals as blundering as the politicians they later blame, oversight so abdicated by legislature, journalism and the public as to make them all complicit.

Contrary to the prevailing Democratic demonology, itself dangerously self-deceptive, the bleak history reminds us that Mr. Bush & Co. are hardly unique, and that profoundly institutionalized penchants for folly will not somehow magically vanish from Washington with their own departure from power. Not least, Tuchman warns us that exits are seldom what they seem. Lyndon Johnson driven from office in 1968 by antiwar protests, Richard Nixon elected on his "plan" to disengage from Vietnam, it would be four full savage years before America’s war actually ended, making that long black wall of the dead in Washington twice as lengthy as it was when an election seemed to put the exit at hand.

Of foreign policy, as the Maréchal de Saxe said of war, the starting point, essence and ending is the human heart, and Edward Said’s Orientalism takes us into its darker regions of cant and bigotry. It was a revolutionary book when it appeared in the late 1970s, and like many intellectual revolutions, gave literary form to the politically denied yet obvious. One of the leading literary critics of the twentieth century and a tireless champion of civilized discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, Said did nothing less than expose the cultural scandal in Western approaches to the Islamic world: the rotten alliance of enlightenment and colonialism in which academics and novelists, clerks and clerics, soldiers and tourists all confected our own accommodating Muslim Orient, exotic, stagnant, weak yet threatening, prone to despotism yet susceptible to liberation, and above all, relentlessly different, inferior. Deep in the canon of American prejudice, from Woodrow Wilson to Dick Chaney, no bond of ignorance, fear and habit has been more powerful in Washington, save perhaps the intimately related post-Holocaust laissez passer granted Israel, though even that is fading as the Orientalism Express barrels on.

Thus Washington’s petty scapegoating of retreat as Mr. Bush’s neo-conservative mentors now regret their underestimation of Iraqi "barbarism" and "depravity." As the world’s greatest superpower is humbled and humiliated by one of the most skillful and successful guerrilla forces in history, it’s clear they hardly deserve our deliverance. Said counsels us, of course, that exits, like entrances, must be informed by cultural and historical sensibility-though that, too, seems problematic at the moment.

Finally, what may seem an unlikely key to the Washington scriptures-Joan Dideon’s deeply affecting The Year of Magical Thinking. It is the story of the eminent journalist’s calamitous experience with the sudden death of her husband, the writer John Gregory Dunne, amid the mortal illness of their daughter and only child. But Dideon’s personal account comes with such luminous simple truth-telling, fearless honest detail and confronting of emotional meaning and human limits-all virtues of integrity utterly missing in the process of governance-that her small masterpiece seems today transcendently political. It is not only that America has yet to face the grief of losing the myth of who and what it has been in the world, not only our desperate denials and ritual resorts. Mid-term elections notwithstanding, the country is mired in magical thinking, from the evangelicals’ conviction that Mr. Bush’s myopic, self-defeating collusion with Israel is "God’s foreign policy" to the widespread liberal belief in some immunity from the ruin of civil liberties or the looming economic disaster Mr. Bush leaves in his wake. What could be more magical than the expectant waiting of both Democrats and Republicans on the vaunted Iraq Study Group, composed of aged policy derelicts with scant real knowledge of the Middle East, to lead nicely out of the Babylonian wilderness?

Dideon’s is moving testimony, again, of the heart’s role in human affairs, that authentic transformations-exits-are profoundly individual, and difficult, and that not all stories end well, even if we manage some liberating awareness toward the finish. It is something Washington should ponder.

These three, of course, should be footnoted by glancing at a last irresistible title, Jean Paul Sartre’s classic drama No Exit. As if speaking to an America inextricably tied to the Middle East and world, yet whose hubris is so matched by ignorance and denial, whose power is so vast yet so ebbing, the character Inez says unforgettably, "It’s not use trying to escape, I’ll never let you go." If only Sartre were in the White House. "L’enfer, c’est les autres," he would instruct them. "There’s no escaping each other and there’s no escaping the truth."

ROGER MORRIS, who served on the senior staff of the National Security Council under Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon until resigning over the invasion of Cambodia, is an award-winning author and historian whose new book, Shadows of the Eagle, a history of US covert interventions and foreign policy in the Middle East and South Asia, will be published by Alfred Knopf next year.