Talk about bad timing. It is unfortunate that the much-anticipated September accounting of "progress" in Iraq, centered on this week's congressional testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, overlaps with the sixth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. American ears still ring from the blow we took on that crisp morning, and whenever the images of smoldering New York reappear on screens, the worst aspects of the trauma reassert themselves. The enormous injustice of that day comes back, and with it an unsatisfied longing for recompense.
It is clear that the Bush administration took a compliant America to war in Iraq for no rational purpose, but out of a welter of emotions, not least of which was an unfocused impulse toward revenge. Having now learned from the disasters that followed in Bush's war, we citizens might be able to face directly the truth of what we have been doing, but when we sink again into the torpor of 9/11 woundedness, such reckoning comes hard.
Meanwhile, the war-prolongers say that how we got into the present mess weighs less on a moral scale than how we get out. A "realistic" assessment, yet that nicely deflects any hard examination of US policy - from invasion to "surge" - that might lower our high opinion of ourselves.
"Why do they hate us?" we asked six years ago, thinking of the terrorists and all who cheered them. The question assumed our innocence and good will. Didn't our enemies know what we stand for? The United States is the last best hope of Earth, the city on a hill, a freedom-loving people. Our virtue is as self-evident as the truths we hold. When we finally caught our breath in 2001, it was to ask how anyone could have so wished to hurt us?
If we went mistakenly to war, it was with good intentions - and elevated purpose continues to define the character of our ongoing occupation of Iraq. What is most striking about current measures of "progress" in the war is that, across the ideological and political divides, they assume that the moral deficit belongs exclusively to Iraqis. The US fighting force may have made an honest mistake with its invasion, but events that followed rendered America's blunder morally irrelevant, as truly wicked forces were unleashed not only in Iraqi cities and villages, but in Iraqi breasts. Whatever kept them quiet before, that nation's devils have been loosed, as various factions, tribes, and clans have set to blowing each other up. The sum of all evil now is "sectarianism." Never mind that, from the Iraqi point of view, sectarianism is what you do to protect your loved ones when a foreign power has destroyed the multiethnic civic culture that once kept your family safe.
In the "benchmark" assessments on debate this week, Washington's question is whether the "feckless" and "corrupt" Iraqis are any longer worthy of the virtuous presence of American forces. The war-prolongers say yes, the out-now people say no - but most accept the moral divide between good Americans and bad Iraqis.
This calibration is partly a result of the universal impulse to regard individual US soldiers as innocents. It is hard to conclude that United States policies are bad if the people carrying them out are only good. Indeed, as Thomas Friedman said last week of American troops he observed in a field hospital, "We don't deserve such good people." But then, repeating what has become a Friedman trope, he added pointedly, "Neither do Iraqis if they continue to hate each other more than they love their own kids." Notice Friedman's move: children are a lesser value to Iraqis, unlike Americans, even as we ship our children off to that blood-drenched hospital.
The real purpose of such punditry, like this week's focus on imagined terms of a US exit someday over actual effects of the US occupation this day, is American self-exoneration.
Why do they hate us? Perhaps an answer is embedded in this visceral insistence on innocence as the defining note of the American character.
If the United States finds a way, eventually, to withdraw from Iraq without ever having reckoned the war as an expressly American evil, then the world will be at risk for its savage replay. That is why this week's debate matters. It must be informed, above all, by clarity as to who the victims are, and who the perpetrators are. Six years ago, having suffered, we cloaked ourselves in victimhood, which made us dangerous.