The Deniers’ Club

Illustration by Darrow

One big reason so much of the debate over the war has been reduced to semantics—civil war versus sectarian violence, benchmarks versus timelines versus milestones, withdrawal versus redeployment versus “speeding transfer” to the Iraqis—is that it’s easier to bicker about the meaning of words than it is to argue with conviction for a particular course of action in Iraq. General Abizaid, the U.S. commander for the Middle East, says we can neither decrease nor significantly increase troop levels. The incoming secretary of Defense conceded last week that we aren’t winning—his most positive spin was that we’re “not losing,” either.

There are no attractive policy options, a fact that Americans understand: Only small minorities think we ought to pull out right away (16 percent) or send more troops (17 percent). We know we owe it to the Iraqis to keep trying to mitigate the unholy hell we’ve unleashed in their country—but with the lives of how many more U.S. troops is that debt to be paid? Because there’s no point in prettifying it: We are asking hundreds of Americans, fifteen or twenty a week now, to be (as a Navy lieutenant famously said about Vietnam 35 years ago) the last men and women to die for a mistake.

So the release last week of the report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group was welcomed by almost everyone, desperate for any glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. Have the findings of a blue-ribbon commission (one that includes Ed Meese) ever been the object of such needy, fervent hope? Has the phrase “grave and deteriorating” ever seemed so … refreshing?

There are scores of specific recommendations: Enlist the help of Iran and Syria. Encourage a blanket amnesty for the insurgents, even though it will upset the Bill O’Reillys. Increase economic assistance. Have more than six (!) fluent Arabic speakers among the 1,000 people working at the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. And do not “make open-ended commitments to keep large numbers of troops deployed in Iraq.” Instead, transform our force ASAP from killers of Iraqi insurgents and militia to trainers and logistical supporters of Iraqi soldiers.

Until now, the central question—when can we get out?—has been cast as a choice between right now and eventually. Maybe the best thing in the Iraq Study Group’s report—apart from its bracing, pessimistic tone and bipartisanship, and its rough target of 2008 for ending full-scale U.S. combat operations—is a sensible mechanism for regulating the speed of withdrawal: Instead of a Bush doctrine that makes troop drawdowns contingent on violence diminishing—which thus enables our enemies and incentivizes our clients to keep us in the quagmire—the new approach would do the opposite, slowing the U.S. pullout if the Iraqi government manages to get its act together but speeding it up if the anarchy continues or worsens. It sounds like a plan.

But a plan that the Bush administration will take seriously? The signals aren’t encouraging. They expunged “stay the course” from their talking points two months ago, threw Donald Rumsfeld overboard a month ago, and now use the phrase “new way forward” as frequently as possible. But the new way looks a lot like the old way. Again and again our angry president has been declaring that his new approach in Iraq is to … stay the fucking course. “We’ll succeed,” he snarled during his recent trip to Vietnam, “unless we quit.” And then, in Latvia: “There’s one thing I’m not going to do. I’m not going to pull our troops off the battlefield before the mission is complete.” A few days later, preemptively dissing the Iraq Study Group: “This business about graceful exit just simply has no realism to it at all.” He seems to regard the report as more of an annoyance than an opportunity. No, his original overpromise on Iraq is still operative, despite the profound underdelivery. “If the Iraqis succeed in establishing a free nation in the heart of the Middle East,” he said the other day, “the forces of freedom and moderation across the region will be emboldened, and the cause of peace will have new energy and new allies.”

All of which makes one think he really believes that the chance of forging an effectual pro-American government and a unified, peaceable society in Iraq is closer to 50-50 than, say, 1 in 50. And it will take more than a bipartisan panel of ten éminences grises to convince him otherwise.

The psychological defense mechanism of denial—unconsciously downplaying or ignoring unpleasant facts—is an impulse most people outgrow after childhood. But at Yale, remember, Bush was a cheerleader. As well as a substance abuser who apparently couldn’t admit the problem until he was middle-aged—when he made his swing from boozehound to teetotaler with a plunge into Christian faith but apparently without the 12-step steps that require rigorously abandoning the habit of denial. Consider the great failures of his administration: Katrina, Iraq, the unwillingness to address global warming, and, arguably, before 9/11, Islamic terrorism. Denial runs through them all. If you don’t want to hear bad news, you tend to wait until it’s too late to deal well with its consequences. Even this fall’s elections blindsided him: He believed “in [his] heart of hearts” that the GOP was “not going to lose.”

Concerning the war, the president and a significant portion of the country seem to be in denial together, co-dependent, committed to the power of positive thinking, each encouraging the other to believe that, by God, we will prevail. Between 30 and 34 percent of Americans think that Iraq is “going well,” that we’re “making progress” or “winning”—and even more, maybe half, think that we’ll probably or definitely succeed in the end. Yet as the famous left-wing terrorist-appeaser Newt Gingrich said recently, “Unless the Bush administration admits that the war in Iraq is a failure, it will never develop a strategy to leave the country successfully.”

When Über-Republicans like Gingrich, Meese, and James Baker are calling a spade a spade, that’s hopeful. Denial and wishful thinking are on the run. But that doesn’t mean last week’s show of earnest, bipartisan good faith will last.

The evolution of hopelessness is following the Kübler-Ross model: We’re bargaining for time, being depressed, moving toward acceptance, while Bush is still in the denial stage.

Early in the New Year, the 2008 election cycle will crank up, the new Congress will convene, and the 3,000th American will die in Iraq. The particulars of our Iraq policy are now mainly a matter of harm reduction and triage, but the big accountability question—Who Lost Iraq?—will loom ever larger as we wind down our involvement, and the consensus answer will shape our politics for decades. Whichever party the public blames will be hobbled.

The greatest long-term gift the new Democratic Congress could give the GOP would be to cut off funding for the war. The Democrats have been screwed for a third of a century not for having gotten us into Vietnam but for deciding that it was a huge mistake and doing a 180 while the war raged. But because today’s out-of-Iraq-now wing of the party is small, and the 2008 presidential front-runner has been more pro-war than anti-, the Democrats are in an excellent position to avoid blame and national-security disrepute. And while the mess in Iraq will surely still be a mess in early 2009, a new Democratic president should be able to preside over our part in the finale, as Nixon did with the Vietnam endgame, without getting branded as surrenderer-in-chief.

Still, Bush will sincerely blame his domestic opponents for the failure, insisting that the debacle is not his fault. You and I can’t imagine that he’s not doing it cynically, but then you or I wouldn’t have said to foreign leaders in 2003 that “God would tell me, ‘George, go and end the tyranny in Iraq,’ and I did.” How can he now imagine that he misunderstood God, or that God was mistaken? “I’m satisfied of how he’s done all his jobs,” Bush said of Rumsfeld just before he fired him—and the scary prospect is that he may have been telling the truth, that in Bush’s mind it was just those damn Democrats who forced him to commit that craven political act. People in denial may be a little crazy, but they’re not necessarily lying.

London’s Guardian recently quoted a former senior administration official, who conceded that Bush “is in a state of denial about Iraq,” but that “nobody else is any more.” Indeed, underlings and ex-underlings are madly, cynically trying to shift blame. The leaked Rumsfeld memo (“It is time for a major adjustment”), written just before he left, was meant to show he hadn’t really drunk the Kool-Aid. Tony Snow last week blamed the media for demoralizing our troops by means of “press reports that have a constant failure narrative.” The national-security adviser said that Bush won’t use “the Baker-Hamilton commission [as] cover for an American withdrawal … As the president has said, cut and run is not his cup of tea.” And the New York Post is calling Jim Baker a “surrender monkey.”

On the eve of the invasion, finally persuaded by writers such as George Packer, David Remnick, Ken Pollack, and Bob Kerrey, I found myself more in favor of the war than opposed. That it would be prosecuted with such relentless incompetence was unimaginable. I still taunt myself with counterfactual speculation about how it might have all gone better. If they’d planned for an occupation and followed Army chief of staff General Eric Shinseki’s recommendation to send “several hundred thousand troops” instead of just 150,000, or if Paul Bremer, our “viceroy” in Baghdad, hadn’t disbanded the Iraqi army two months after the invasion. A couple of weeks ago, Kerrey happened to tell me that the viceroyship had been broached to him by “someone connected to the White House” and that he’d said “maybe,” but no job was offered in the end.

I guess those fantasies amount to my own idle, occasional form of denial. For most Americans, I think, the evolution of hopelessness concerning Iraq is following the Kübler-Ross model: We’re now bargaining for time, being depressed, moving toward acceptance, while Bush, it seems, is still in the denial and anger stages.

Pathological denial and pathological arrogance combined to produce the tragedy of Iraq. The “Iraqi Perspectives Project”—a freshly declassified study by the U.S. Joint Forces Command of the peculiar geopolitical, intelligence, and military command-and-control doctrines that prevailed before and during the invasion in 2002 and 2003—is an astonishing document. The Pentagon report describes a president who relied to an extreme degree on his gut, with a “supreme, even mystical, confidence in his own abilities and wisdom [that] allowed him to ignore or discount the practical considerations” and “hard evidence.” He finally acceded to a new round of WMD inspections only as a tactic, to please his quasi allies in the U.N., who he knew would try to stop the invasion. Underlings “at all levels understood that … the bearer of bad news was in almost every case punished.” During the war, “when gloomy reports finally did get” to the president, he “either discarded them or considered the tidings to be exaggerated,” owing to “the distortions of his ideological perceptions.” The president saw the war as a “spiritual battle,” and told intimates that God would help. He was absolutely cocksure of victory.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The Pentagon report is not, of course, about the dysfunctional presidency of George Bush, but rather of Saddam Hussein. It also suggests that the Iraqi Information minister, the ludicrous guy on TV during the invasion whom we knew as Baghdad Bob, may have thought he was telling the truth when he insisted that the Iraqi army was vanquishing the Americans: “[F]rom the point of view of Iraq’s leaders, Baghdad Bob was largely reporting what they were hearing from the front.”

For old times’ sake, I dug up the transcripts of Baghdad Bob, whose real name is Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. As with the Pentagon report, I was astonished. Time changes everything. Some of his propaganda no longer seems so funny, or wrong. “Those America losers, I think their repeated frequent lies are bringing them down very rapidly,” he said. And then: “This invasion will end in failure.” And on his last day in office: “They will surrender, it is they who will surrender.”


The Deniers’ Club