The Arc of the Moral Universe... Is Twisted

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The Arc of the Moral Universe... Is Twisted

President George W. Bush looks over a brief with Vice President Dick Cheney and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice in the Outer Oval Office of the White House on September 12, 2001. (Photo: U.S. National Archives)

Barack Obama is in the habit of borrowing from Martin Luther King to remind us that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Funny, I was just wondering about that last week myself.

Not because Obama has restated the premise, of course.  From Arctic drilling, to persecuting – and prosecuting – whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, to viciously slandering rightful critics of his trade deal abominations, Obama has shown that he may be well acquainted with many things, but moral justice is not much one of them.

No, what got me thinking about this was the resurfacing these last weeks of the national discussion about the justification for America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

"Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long. It’s also painfully twisted, often turning back upon itself.  And even when it arrives, it nearly always falls far short of its optimal destination."

An argument can be made that not much has changed over the intervening decade.  Regressives still cling violently (in both senses of the word) to a dogmatic lie about the rationale for the invasion that is every bit as pathetic as it is obviously dishonest.  George W. Bush still draws a taxpayer-funded pension, and paints his bizarre paintings (calling Herr Freud, calling Herr Freud).  Dick Cheney can be found on your television screen, having wandered down from his blood-drenched mountaintop and delivered to us the pearls of his foreign policy wisdom (and how wise he’s been!), rather than sitting in the box with his name on it in The Hague.

And yet, other changes have been profound.  Cheney prattles on, but no one without an emotional need to believe actually believes.  Most Americans understand that we were lied to, and most Americans are that much more wary of further foreign adventures, especially when cheerleadered by cowards who never bothered to serve when it was their turn.  These citizens have not yet (and likely never will) come to grips with their own culpability for the crime of Iraq, of course, and their reticence to repeat the tragedy is hardly etched in stone, perhaps only enduring until the next 9/11 or hostage crisis literally scares them out of their minds.  But let’s not kid ourselves, either.  Lessons have been learned, however tenuously, and political brands have been damaged.  I think that political fallout has been on display these last weeks as Jeb Bush and others struggle with simple questions about the war while trying to remain electable.

The story that the Right tells itself – in order to save itself from itself – is that it was all one big innocent cock-up, for which they had no responsibility.  They’re sound like some teen-age stoner who is desperately seeking to avoid culpability for the hash he’s made of the family car.  “Hey man, sorry about your whole war thing.  But chill, dude.  It’s not my fault.  I was just doing my best with some bad intelligence that the spooks gave me.”  David Brooks, for example, recently articulated this absurd dodge, describing as a leftist “fable” the idea that the Bush administration cooked the books in order to sell a war that people didn’t want.

I’ve had a dozen years now to grapple with a war that never personally touched me in any serious way, and I still wanted to vomit when I read that.  It’s horrendous enough that these bastards on the right – who are constantly lecturing the rest of us on moral responsibility – knowingly lied in order to plunge the world into a maelstrom of mass violence which is still ensuing more than a decade later.  But to lie again, and to disparage those who tell the simple truth, in order protect themselves from – yes, moral responsibility – is truly sickening.

To bolster his argument, Brooks reminds us that the war had public support at the time of the invasion, but then he trashes that same public opinion today, which holds that the Bush team, and regressives like Brooks, just plain lied.  And he doesn’t mention that public opinion opposed the war prior to being subjected to the full-court press sales job leading up to it.  So which is it?  Is public opinion wise or worthless?  Does it somehow underscore the truth or not?

Brooks also points to a congressional report which he tells us proves his case by having failed to find any evidence that policymakers tampered with the intelligence on Iraq.  That might be a compelling argument but for the fact that the report itself says that the commission was not charged with examining how policymakers used intelligence data, and explicitly did not do so.  If you can imagine driving all across Kansas and not seeing a single whale anywhere swimming over the dry prairie, and thus concluding that big ocean creatures are a fiction, you get the idea here.

But wait, there’s more.  Somehow, Mr. Brooks omits reference to a second congressional report, which did in fact examine the issue he pretends to be writing about and concluded that “the Administration repeatedly presented intelligence as fact when in reality it was unsubstantiated, contradicted, or even non-existent.”  Oops.  How could regressives like Brooks omit that from their ‘fable’ fable?  Gosh, it almost seems like you’d have to be actively avoiding mention of something you well knew about to exclude that one from the discussion when your topic is “Did they lie about Iraq?”.

But, of course, that would only be the beginning of such omissions for someone trying to tell this tallest of tall tales.

You’d have to forget that Bush and his cronies confided to family friend and author Mickey Herskowitz in 1999 that they were already planning on invading Iraq, in part because of the political capital they believed a quick and decisive victory would generate for use in ramming through their domestic agenda.  Apparently they had been mightily impressed by the political benefits accrued to Margaret Thatcher after winning the Falklands War and sought the same for themselves.  Herskowitz had tapes of Bush saying these things, since the author was ghost-writing Bush’s pre-campaign obligatory autobiography.  Until he wasn’t.  When smarter heads caught wind of what W. had confessed, a campaign operative showed up at Herskowitz’s house one morning at 7:00 AM to confiscate the tapes and files.

You’d also have to forget that Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill confirmed that invading Iraq was being discussed at cabinet meetings from the very beginning of the Bush administration, well before 9/11, and that in these deliberations it was not a matter of if, but when, the administration would launch a war.

You’d have to omit Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s dictated instructions to an aide on 9/11 to “go massive - sweep it all up, things related and not” in which he sought to justify the administration’s full empire-building agenda using the events of that day as cover.

You’d need to forget how yet another insider – terrorism czar Richard Clarke – confirmed that Bush pulled him aside just days after 9/11, poked him in the chest, and ordered him to find a link between the al Qaeda attack and Saddam Hussein.

And one would also need forget, as well, the admission by Paul Wolfowitz – often labeled the architect of the Iraq war, and thus the ultimate insider – that the whole WMD campaign was purely for “bureaucratic” purposes.  That is, that within the administration they all had their own reasons for wanting a war against a country not only not harming the US but not even threatening it, but in order to have any hope of selling such an obvious stinker they all had to get on the same page, and that page was WMD.  Never mind that it was a Whole Mass of Deceit and they not only knew it, they built it.

You’d need to forget how much the administration leaned, cleaned and gleaned:  leaned on the intelligence agencies, cleaned up their findings, and gleaned the parts they needed – all to present the most slanted case possible.  This happened to such a degree that the inspector general of the CIA said that he had never seen such pressure on intelligence analysts in all his 30 years inside the Company.

And, of course, you’d have to also omit the utterly damning Downing Street Memos, which prove that the Bush administration was already committed to war in the Summer of 2002, even while they were saying the opposite, and pretending to be seeking congressional and UN mandates.  And, further, that they were simply going to “fix” the “intelligence and facts” around the existing invasion policy.  These documents provide astonishing insider evidence of what actually happened, to a degree we’ve not seen since the Pentagon Papers.  One would have to light a gun on fire to get it to smoke more than that.

And if all that evidence isn’t enough, consider just a few questions of logic as well, starting with this one:  So what if Saddam did in fact have weapons of mass destruction?  Since when was that alone ever reason to invade another country?  The Soviet Union had a lot of them.  Would the invasion of Mother Russia have been a good idea during the Cold War?  One thing’s for sure, there wouldn’t be any humans around to debate that question if it had happened.

Meanwhile, Pakistan’s got ‘em today.  So does Russia, China, Israel and North Korea.  And maybe thirty or so other countries.  How come we don’t have an urgent need to invade them?  (The absurdly candid Wolfowitz once gave an answer distinguishing Iraq from North Korea when it comes to American invasions by noting that one of them – guess which! – swims on a sea of oil.)

And how come, if the Bush administration knew exactly where the WMD were they didn’t just tell the weapons inspectors to go to those places?  Not only does that question give the lie to the pretext for war, it also gives the lie to the excuse offered these days for this epic failure.  That is, if the policymakers were simply the victims of bad intelligence, shouldn’t they have noticed this before launching a war supposedly based on that intelligence, as each proclaimed site of WMD turned out to be another toothpaste factory or weedkiller plant?  If weapons inspectors are turning up jack shit every time they follow your intelligence leads but you decide to launch a war based on the same intelligence anyhow, who exactly is culpable for that?

And why, finally, did weapons inspectors ultimately need to be urgently blocked from doing their job, just as they were in fact finding nothing in Iraq?

One could go on and on here, but think about what this mountain of evidence and logical conundrums portray for anyone willing to approach this question honestly?

Regressives love their law and order – at least when applied to some folks.  So imagine if we could employ their own standards here and put the Bush administration on trial for crimes of aggression.  Does the foregoing litany amount to a false “fable”, or a compelling case?

Consider the question in the abstract.  If one was trying to prosecute such a case, what would you want to have in order do so successfully, and what do we have here?

Motive?  Check.

Intent?  Check.

Insider testimony?  Check.

Documentary evidence?  Check.

Massive logical problems with the alibi?  Check, check, check.

How many poor black kids have been enthusiastically fried by regressive law-and-order advocates on infinitely less?  Like maybe an ‘overheard confession’ of a cellmate who just happened to get his sentence reduced at the same time?  What about those fables?

Look, I’ve been rightly slapped down too many times in embarrassment for the crime of Pollyannish wishful thinking to believe that even the most partial justice will ever be served for Bush and his cronies.  But I will confess to my astonished delight that this issue has miraculously resurfaced again, and that it has the potential to damage the Republican Party (and some well-deserving Democrats), including a member of the Bush clan, and even the perps themselves.

And I therefore take a slight bit of solace in the apparent partial discrediting of Bush, his party, and his politics.  For the fact is that Americans (I am excluding here the frightened – and frightening – base of the Republican Party, who are so existentially threatened that they embrace regressive dogma like a drowning man does a rope) do not believe the administration was honest about the war.  And, several times burned now, there is a reticence in the land concerning both the efficacy and the morality of deploying military power hither and yon.

This is not much, to be sure.  It won’t reattach arms and legs blown off for a lie. It can’t resuscitate the hundreds of thousands of dead. It won’t bring closure to an endless civil war, nor to the shattered souls of grieving families of the victims of regressive arrogance, duplicity and cowardice.  It doesn’t even guarantee that we won’t be in Syria or Iran or Cuba tomorrow – or back in Iraq – under the leadership of yet another Bush in the White House.

But it does provide a better place for America to be than where it was in 2003.  It is something, and it makes me think that Dr. King was at least partially right.

Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long. It’s also painfully twisted, often turning back upon itself.  And even when it arrives, it nearly always falls far short of its optimal destination.

But maybe it does bend toward justice after all.

‘Happy’ Memorial Day, America.

David Michael Green

David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.

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