Thursday, May 06, 2004

Bad Week

It's been a "horrific" week for anyone who had high hopes for Iraq. I find myself every day reconsidering whether to settle for the simply "nationalist" solution: get rid of the dictator, catch the relevant bad guys, launch a functioning and decent, if not particularly robust, native government, and call that a win. That was what the U.S. did in Afghanistan (except we're still chasing bad guy #1).

For Iraq, I sought a neo-imperialist solution: to actually craft a true, open, secular Middle-Eastern democracy in a place that hadn't known the rule of law, except sporadically, in thousands of years. The country was a dysfunctional mess to begin with -- a better candidate would have been Kuwait in 1991, but it's too late to undo that error.

There was a lot of sheer will power and hope in this desire. Would Bush, a leader I did not much respect, emerge as a true war president? Would the U.S. military, so fine at killing enemies and tanks in the name of the government, be able to lead a nation into freedom after defeating its military might? The historical record offered little proof of any of that.

But it was worth the effort; it was a noble enterprise. And I have to keep reminding myself that I said at the outset, it will be 20 years before we know if this was a good idea or not.

Meanwhile, the splendid Andrew Sullivan gives me something else to hope for: that the playing out of the Abu Ghraib mess will serve as an object lesson to those who are watching closely around the world:

"Americans are no better and no worse as human beings than anyone else. They can become savages as well. But our system -- the open press, the internal reviews, the democratic accountability - minimizes the damage of our flawed human nature. I hope that this incident demonstrates to the Iraqi people that it's the system that we're trying to help them build. This system is not American. It is simply the best of the worst options for human government there is. They deserve it, after the terror of so long a tyranny. We need to hang in there. Through the inevitable mess and mistakes, the goal is clear and noble and essential."

From what I read from Iraqis, that may be happening, to some extent. I'm not so sanguine about our "open press," however. Maybe less confident of it than I am of ultimate Iraqi freedom. It wasn't the media that uncovered the prison abuses. The military system did that, and the investigation and damning reports all came about internally. The lazy media pundits just sat on their butts and watched the military's work broadcast on CBS, like everyone else, and then ran out and mounted their high horses.

The election year gets uglier. The number of undecided voters is truly small, so the candidates stay in their bases for the most part, and try to tease the outsiders in with weasel words (Kerry) or shock them in with crude attacks (Bush). And really the difference between what you're going to get in the next four years, in terms of direct government, is minimal. More troops will have to go to Iraq. The U.N. won't be much help. The economy will continue to slowly improve. But deficits will have to be trimmed. And so forth.

It looks more and more to me like the 1820s, when party distinctions vanished and mere personalities drove the elections. The mis-called "Era of Good Feelings" was one of the nastiest in U.S. history.

"Doonesbury" is doing a take on that this week (the modern divisiveness, not the 1820s), but typically seeing it only from the "Bush" side, with the result that the strip is all straw man, little reality.

In this political lanscape each faction is personified by a hateful belching volcano (Moore-faced on the left, Limbaugh-headed on the right). It looks like the waste of Mordor in between. I long for some place where people can discuss and even disagree without veins popping on throats and foreheads.

IMAO offers a nice set of ground-rules for such a hypothetical discussion.

Most often people will disagree on issues of the day, but just because someone doesn't think like you doesn't mean you should call him evil and kill him. That's what Islamic extremists and the majority of posters at Democratic Underground would do. Instead, following these steps you can have a nice discussion with someone with different viewpoints and both come out of it smarter.

This stuff used to be understood, in a civil culture. We have got to re-learn it, I'm afraid.