The thing about Katrina was that you could see the results right away, so that even famously ignorant and deluded Americans finally began the process of understanding their president.
The thing about Iraq is that it’s taken a bit longer.
True, some of it began to be painfully obvious, even relatively early on. For example, when an absurdly arrogant president, whose preening was matched only by his gross incompetence, stood on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to declare victory in a war which essentially hadn’t even begun yet. It wasn’t long before people began to notice that the mission wasn’t exactly, er, accomplished.
But even today, five years later, we are only beginning to take stock of the consequences of neocon hubris. For anyone paying sufficient attention to make the connections, we got a whopping dose of that reality this week as Maximum Leader Putin did his Vlad the Impaler trick on the tiny neighboring republic of Georgia.
Surely this will be seen by almost everyone as a wholly separate affair from the Iraq invasion. And, indeed, idiotic neocon commentators – the same people, mind you, who brought us the Iraq debacle – are already haplessly foaming at the mouth about Russian aggression in the Caucuses, demonstrating as always, but now more emphatically than ever, how irony and hypocrisy coexist so comfortably in the (puffed out) regressive chest.
In fact, Iraq and the Georgia war are joined at the hip in too many ways to recount, and must be understood as just such. Altogether, we are now beginning to see the consequences of the Bush Doctrine of foreign policy in all its full glory. And if you liked Katrina, you’re really gonna dig this.
It was, to start with, remarkably jaw-dropping to see the buffoon-in-chief fulminating this week about Russia’s transgressions in violating the prime directive of modern international law and politics: Thou shalt not invade another sovereign state’s territory. Um, excuse me? Are you freaking joking? Do you mean like, Iraq, for instance? Only George W. Bush could be so practiced in the art of deception so as to say this with a straight face. It’s not clear that he any longer even knows when he’s lying these days, so routine has it become.
In fact, the two incidents are nearly identical in concept, with the minor exception that Putin’s war was slightly more justified by the semi-reckless quasi-provocations of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was likely egged on by the Bush loonies and other neocons, including one of John McCain’s top advisors. Iraq, alas, was even more of a false pretext. The country had no weapons of mass destruction (and so what if they did, anyhow? – dozens of countries possess these), Bush knew they didn’t, knew that the case for war was “thin”, knew that Saddam had not attacked nor threatened us, and therefore just plain lied the US into the war.
Your average American is going to have a hard time seeing the Iraq war as morally equivalent to the one in Georgia (let alone even less justified), but that is simply because he or she is American. The rest of the world has no such problem, and never has. An invasion of a sovereign state is an invasion of a sovereign state, pure and simple. It was just that when Hitler invaded Poland and France, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, when Saddam invaded Iran (with US encouragement and assistance) and Kuwait, when Bush invaded Iraq, and when Putin invaded Georgia. Of course aggressors are going to make up some bullshit about terrorism or WMD or democracy! My god, what would we expect them to say? Everyone understands that you can’t say you’re going in for oil or money or real estate anymore. Especially when you are in fact going in for oil or money or real estate.
What the Georgia invasion has demonstrated is how much moral authority has been sacrificed on the altar of neocon lies and state-sponsored violence in Iraq. Today, when such soft power might have the capacity to make a difference in leading a global response to Russian aggression, Bush would be lucky to have zero credits in his account. In fact, there’s about as much in there as there is in the national treasury, now rapidly approaching $10 trillion in the red (a doubling, by the way, during the Bush years, of all the debt accrued by all 42 of his predecessors – combined – over more than two centuries). All that is over and kaput, at least until America gets a new president and, hopefully, as well, the kind graces of an international society that has every right to be outraged at our violent petulance.
Even if we get that lucky, what has been lost in the normative sense is far larger than just American respect and soft power influence. For the decade or two following the end of the Cold War, people might have been excused for believing that a new phase in the evolution of the international political system had been realized, one in which, while plenty of injustices would remain, at least the worst excesses of great power aggression seemed a vestige of twentieth century practice and eighteenth century mentality. That fantasy has now been put violently to rest, as the two greatest powers on the planet have returned to playing the great game with a vengeance, preying on lesser powers in pursuit of resources, strategic positioning or just plain national pride.
Now America learns that there is a cost to playing the game of international politics unilaterally, and with contempt for other countries. That cost is that they will return the favor. When you want help as your military bogs down in some insane quagmire, you find that they tend to remember when you yourself simply blew off the Security Council because you couldn’t get the votes. When you’re seeking to uphold a general principle such as nonaggression, you shouldn’t be surprised that they remember you calling them all “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” when they were busy trying to block your aggression.
But it’s not just soft power that has been squandered either. Theoretically, the US and its allies could be checking Russian aggression and its breach of the peace and of international law right now by deploying forces to defend one of America’s (or at least Bush’s) most devoted allies, and a rare outpost of something approximating democracy in that part of the world. Theoretically, American forces could be defending George W. Bush Boulevard in downtown Tblisi from the invading northern armies right now. Theoretically. In the cold, hard reality of the real world, no such forces exist. Now we find out that those who argued that putting 160,000 American soldiers in a completely unnecessary war in Iraq, while already fighting a tenacious enemy in Afghanistan would, among other grave concerns, potentially diminish American and world security should a real emergency come along, weren’t just making it up. In fact, it’s very likely that this disastrous scenario goes considerably deeper than that. Bush didn’t just create a power vacuum that would be there in the event some sort of spontaneous emergency might simultaneously occur. Very likely, the American military impotence which emerged from his grand blunder in Mesopotamia may well have actually invited just such an episode.
It’s hard to imagine that it didn’t occur to Putin, presiding over a renascent Russia, that he could run wild wherever he wanted while the world’s only superpower was tied down in a useless war, and its public exhausted with the prospect of taking on any other such projects. It’s equally hard to imagine that Putin was quaking in his boots when the pathetic excuse for an American Secretary of State tried to lecture him by announcing that “This is not 1968 and the invasion of Czechoslovakia where Russia can threaten a neighbor, occupy a capital, overthrow a government and get away with it. Things have changed.” My guess is that he thought to himself, “Da. Things have indeed changed, Condoleeza Phukupalot. You Yankees have foolishly squandered your military power in Iraq and now I can do whatever I want with total impunity.” Yo, Condi – have you heard? The road to Tbilisi runs right through Baghdad.
Certainly the Georgians appreciate this. They had more troops in Iraq supporting Bush’s Folly than any country besides the US and the UK. The administration at least had the good graces to airlift these forces back to somewhere where there was a real war going on, over real security issues, where their presence would really matter. But pity the poor Georgians, nevertheless, who bet on the wrong horse. They could have learned a lot by talking to the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq, who rose up on the instructions of the last Bush in the White House, only to be slaughtered by Saddam while American forces literally stood by watching, under command from the White House not to save those chess pieces, er, I mean, lives.
And, quite possibly, Georgia is just the beginning. Russia is now feeling its oats, just as the toxic combination of nationalist pride and rage at perceived prior humiliation goes coursing through its veins. What do you suppose they’re thinking in Ukraine or Kazakhstan or the Baltic states right now? I don’t know, but I’d bet it’s not dissimilar to what the Poles were thinking when Hitler swallowed up Czechoslovakia. There is no disincentive now on the table to prevent the Russians from reannexing their ‘near abroad’, and there will be no American rescue if they do, just as there wasn’t for Poland.
In this respect, it was only slightly less laughable and slightly less ironic to hear neocon par excellence and Iraq war architect Robert Kagan on the radio this week arguing for punishing the Russians by tossing them out of the meaningless G-8 talk shop and the similarly nearly worthless cooperative institutions set-up for Russian relations with NATO and the EU. Wow, Bobby, that will really peel them back, won’t it? That’s right, Bro – ya gotta sting ‘em hard, man! How about a ban on caviar next, eh? Let’s hit ‘em where it really hurts!
If you ever needed a sign of how far the US has fallen under neocon stewardship, this is it. Kagan was one of the principals in the now (very) defunct Project for a New American Century, an organization whose name tells you just about everything you ever needed to know about these clowns. Why they didn’t just go with Project for Imperial Sickness and Subjugation, I’ll never know, but maybe the resulting acronym would have been too obnoxious even for these walking personifications of Yankee arrogance. Anyhow, PNAC was an attempt to demonstrate just how bullying America could be, by advocating for the invasion of Iraq, going all the way back to the Clinton era. Once they finally found a president who would actually do the deed, it then became a successful attempt at demonstrating how stupid the country could be, as well.
Of course, people like this absolutely never admit to being wrong, even (especially?) when they are at their most egregiously erroneous, and it probably doesn’t help that the American media continues to feature them on broadcasts as experts of some sort, as if they have any clue whatsoever of what they’re talking about. But the truth is that the Georgia episode demonstrates nothing more clearly than just how seriously these hypernationalists have actually damaged American military power and world security. These are the same sort of people, mind you, who derided the conservative ‘realists’ of the previous century for their timidity in merely containing the Russian bear, rather than launching World War III in order to roll back Soviet territorial gains in Eastern Europe and beyond. The kind of folks who thought they were hot shit because they got Reagan to ‘liberate’ Grenada, that vast and strategically crucial chunk of the Soviet empire. The kind of people who don’t have to bother doing their homework because they just govern from the gut, allowing them to look into someone’s eyes and see right down to his soul.
Now look what they’ve wrought. Iraq is an open wound that shows little sign of healing anytime soon. It was supposed to be a kick-ass little blowout that would easily secure a slew of bases in the region, buckets of oil, Bush’s domestic agenda (along the lines of selling off Social Security, etc.), and put the fear of a real god into the hearts of heathen Iranians, Syrians and Palestinians, as well as perhaps your odd Cuban or Venezuelan to boot. Instead, Colin Powell has described the US Army as “broken”, and that was years ago. It’s certainly that, plus stuck, plus completely maxed-out, short of a draft, which neither Bush nor McCain would dare attempt. American soft power – the ability to lead, to persuade, to appeal to higher moral convictions of others – is now similarly in the toilet. And thus it is that the neocons of the world have traded a disaster in Iraq for the inability to even do that which they once derided as inappropriately minimalist in the past – protect allies from Russian imperialism.
Of course, that’s only the beginning of the stupidity. How is it, by the by, that Russia went from being a former superpower on the way toward becoming a third world country – so severely flattened that the very life span of its citizens had decreased by some ten years or so – to now racing back toward becoming a global great power again, and a very pissed off one at that? Well, one good explanation would certainly have to do with how the US reacted as the country was imploding in the 1990s. Rather than reaching out with Marshall Plan type assistance, we sent an army of right-wing economists instead, who advised privatizing everything in sight. Which they largely did, and largely to disastrous consequences. One of Putin’s achievements has been to regain the primacy of the state, and bring the hammer down on the latter-day robber barons who were formerly carting it off, piece by petro piece. In doing so, he has restored a measure of Russian dignity following the humiliation of the triumphalist US fire-sale treatment, and along with that comes no small degree of national pride at humbling exploitive and supremely arrogant Americans.
These sentiments were only further exacerbated by the expansion of NATO deep into the traditional Russian sphere of influence, and the unilateral American scrapping of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to pursue the military-industrial complex’s greatest boondoggle ever, a missile ‘defense’ system, now being deployed in Eastern Europe. Lastly, as if antagonizing a potential enemy wasn’t stupid enough, the bright candles in charge of American foreign policy have done so while completely failing to significantly wean the country off of our petroleum addiction, all while driving up prices dramatically. Hey, guess who’s got a whole ocean of oil at their disposal? Guess which country is growing rich and powerful because of that? Guess who is able to throw its political weight around based on this economic power?
If you were wondering a week ago how the buffoons in charge of American foreign policy could possibly screw it up any worse than they already had, now you know. If you were pondering whether the results of America’s invasion of Iraq could conceivably get more disastrous than they have been for the last five and a half years, look no further.
For the neocon fantasy has now not only wrecked Iraq and wrecked America and wrecked US relations with longtime allies and destroyed the reputation of America abroad. It has also torn a gaping hole in the power and significance of international law and the hopeful notion that wars of territorial acquisition were a thing of the past. And it opened the door for the Russians to do precisely the same thing, further exacerbating those tendencies. The post-Cold War moment of hopefulness regarding a more peaceful world has now been crushed, and it wasn’t the supposed black hats who originally kicked down that door. It was us nice, peace-loving, god-fearing, law-abiding folks here in good old ‘Murica who did it.
With apologies to Churchill (who owes an apology or two of his own), it may be said of our time, and of the those in charge of running the world’s only superpower, that never have so many been so damaged by the insanely stupid actions of so few.
DAVID MICHAEL GREEN is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York. He is delighted to receive readers’ reactions to his articles (firstname.lastname@example.org), but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond.