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Sins of omission can be every bit as serious as sins of commission. The country’s failure to have a reckoning with the tragedy of Iraq is the outstanding case in point. President Barack Obama bears the main responsibility for that; many others have made their contribution.
Upon entering the White House, Obama immediately made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with Iraq as a matter of national concern, national memory, national failure, national shame. He declared it to be passé – literally and figuratively. He decided that the whole Iraq affair was just another episode in the fractious and sterile partisan disputes occurring in that dark era B.O. (Before Obama). Any attempt at assigning blame, at holding accountable those who ordered or committed atrocities, at drawing lessons to inform future foreign policy judgments was rejected as counterproductive.
So Iraq was cast into the historical dust bin along with other divisive issues from the troubled past – the culture wars of the sixties, the debates over affirmative action, contending strategies to deal with the old USSR, and Monica Lewinsky. This was a President who wanted the country to start with a clean slate – ideological, emotional, political- going forward.
History ignored, however, does not mean history obliterated. What happened is embedded in our minds and hearts, and in the minds and hearts of other people. There it hibernates only to reawaken in unexpected ways at unpredictable moments. The consequences are all the more pernicious because we have not come to terms with what we did and why.
One consequence is the likelihood of repeating the same errors elsewhere. Obama himself quickly made that apparent in his plan to escalate in Afghanistan. He ignored the futility of trying to crush indigenous forces with local roots and access to external resources, the delusions of “national building” in its COIN or related varieties, huge commitments made without a clear definition of what the goal is or a clear measure of “success,” a disregard for adverse side effects (risking civil war in nuclear Pakistan), and the undercutting of American standing and respect across the Islamic world.
More than three years and several hundreds of billions of dollars later, all Mr. Obama could say in his nominating speech was that it was worthwhile because “we halted the momentum of the Taliban.” We haven’t crushed them as earlier proclaimed; fighting them is not tantamount to fighting an al-Qaeda that has been decimated, decapitated and dispersed among numerous franchises from Hamburg to Timbuktou; the Taliban themselves have not killed a single American outside of Afghanistan (the same as was true for Saddam); and we now are simply cutting our losses and hoping to exit with the remnants of our dignity intact.
Obama’s self-evidently absurd comment went unremarked other than a few mentions that he had not “dwelled” on Afghanistan. This at time when we still have 70,000 troops in combat and our Afghan client government remains on life support. At a time when we have suspended joint operations with the ballyhooed Afghan army and police, whom we have counted on to take charge of security, out of fear for mounting green-on-blue killings. At a time when tens of thousands of veterans from our war adventures haunt the clinics, counseling centers, unemployment lines and flop houses of the country. At a time when the very tissue of American society is being crudely cut for reasons of fiscal stringency.
The eerie silence is witness to how unaccountability at the highest levels of government has been ensconced as the accepted norm. It also reveals an impoverished public discourse where profound matters are relegated to the margins of what passes for news and analysis, eclipsed by a kaleidoscope of sound bites, celebrity doings, opinionated pundits who are as loud as they are ignorant, and the latest tactical moves of candidates.
The enduring damage done to public integrity and honesty is the greatest price we are paying for the shameless Iraq affair and our unwillingness to face squarely what it has meant. As leader of this nation, Barack Obama had a responsibility to address that. He found it inconvenient not to – as with many other things.
A further consequence is that the authors, executants and cheerleaders of Iraq are flourishing. They hold endowed chairs at distinguished universities or senior professorships from Harvard to Yale to Georgetown. They are avidly sought out for their views on current developments in the Middle East. Their dogmas are treated with respect, even deference. Indeed, they dominate Mitt Romney’s team of foreign policy advisors, from whence they would dominate a Romney administration. John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Don Senor – among sundry others of the crowd that gave us a disaster of historic dimensions are rising from the ashes.
A diffident America – above all its self absorbed and feckless political class – will have itself to blame for the further damage from this unbecoming and irresponsible escapism.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.