When Good News Feels Bad

After the blizzard and before the fashion shows, you may have heard, the elections in Iraq went off extremely well. Remember? Or, like most New Yorkers, perhaps you let that fact slide from your consciousness as quickly as possible … Hey, speaking of Fashion Week, what is it with this renaissance in corseting?

Seriously: The success of the elections poses a major intellectual-moral-political problem for people in this city. The cognitive dissonance is palpable.

New Yorkers think we are smarter than other Americans, that the richness and difficulty of life here give our intelligence a kind of hard-won depth and nuance and sensitivity to contradictions and ambiguity. We feel we are practically French.Most New Yorkers are also liberals. And most liberals, wherever they live, believe that they are smarter than most conservatives (particularly George W. Bush).

And finally, most liberals and New Yorkers suspect that we may be too smart for our own good. It is a form of self-flattery as self-criticism. During these past few years, I have heard it said again and again that liberals’ ineffectiveness derives from their inability to see the world in the simple blacks and whites of the Limbaughs and Hannitys and Bushes. (Why else, the argument goes, did John Kerry lose?)

Maybe. But now our heroic and tragic liberal-intellectual capaciousness is facing its sharpest test since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Back then, most of us were forced, against our wills, to give Ronald Reagan a large share of credit for winning the Cold War.Now the people of this Bush-hating city are being forced to grant the merest possibility that Bush, despite his annoying manner and his administration’s awful hubris and dissembling and incompetence concerning Iraq, just might—might, possibly—have been correct to invade, to occupy, and to try to enable a democratically elected government in Iraq.

At a media-oligarchy dinner party on Fifth Avenue 72 hours after the elections, the emotions were highly mixed. The wife of a Democratic Party figure was (like me) unabashedly hopeful about what had happened in Iraq. Across the table, though, the wife of a well-known liberal actor was having none of it; instead, she complained about Fahrenheit 9/11’s being denied an Oscar nomination. And a newspaper éminence grise seemed more inclined to discuss Condoleezza Rice’s unfortunate hairstyle than the vicissitudes of Wolfowitzism. It was the night of the State of the Union speech, but as far as I know, no one (including me) ducked out of the dining room to find a TV. Who really wanted to watch Bush take his victory lap?

Like most New Yorkers, I disagree with the Bush administration politically, temperamentally, and ontologically most of the time. Two years ago, however, unlike most New Yorkers (but probably like most Americans), concerning Iraq I went from 50-50 fence-sitting to fretful 53 percent support of an invasion. So the ups and downs of the war and occupation since have conformed, more or less, to my own deep ambivalence.

But for our local antiwar supermajority, the Iraq elections were simply the most vertiginous moment of a two-year-long roller-coaster ride. By last November, they’d hoped the U.S. would see things their way—and it was some solace that by January, a solid majority of the country apparently agreed with New York that Iraq was a mess and a misadventure.

Until the Iraqi vote: surprisingly smooth and inarguably inspiring and, in some local camps, unexpectedly unsettling. Of course, for all but a nutty fringe, it is not a matter of actually wishing for an insurgent victory, but rather of hating the idea of a victory presided over by the Bush team. (I may prefer the Yankees to beat the Red Sox, but I cannot bear the spectacle of Steinbrenner’s gloating.) Three months after failing to defeat Bush in our election, plenty of New Yorkers privately, half-consciously hoped for his comeuppance in Iraq’s. You know who you are. Last week, you found yourselves secretly … heartened—and appalled—by the stories of the Marine general who said it was “a hell of a hoot [and] fun to shoot some people” in Afghanistan, and about the possible Islamist drift of the Shiites who will now govern Iraq. When military officers show themselves to be callous warmongers, and neocon military adventurism looks untenable, certain comfortable assumptions are reaffirmed.

Like “radical chic,” a related New York specialty, “liberal guilt” once meant feeling discomfort over one’s good fortune in an unjust world. As this last U.S. election cycle began, however, a new subspecies of liberal guilt arose—over the pleasure liberals took in bad news from Iraq, which seemed sure to hurt the administration. But with Bush reelected, any shred of tacit moral rationale is gone. In other words, feel the guilt, and let it be a pang that leads to moral clarity.

Each of us has a Hobbesian choice concerning Iraq; either we hope for the vindication of Bush’s risky, very possibly reckless policy, or we are in a de facto alliance with the killers of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. We can be angry with Bush for bringing us to this nasty ethical crossroads, but here we are nonetheless.

I don’t mean to suggest, in the right-wing, proto-fascist rhetorical fashion, that every good American is obliged to support all American wars. But at this moment in this war, that binary choice of who you want to win is inescapable and needs to be faced squarely—just as being pro-war obliges one to admit that thousands of innocent Iraqis have been killed or maimed or orphaned.

At a certain point during the Vietnam War, a majority of Americans—those of us who were in favor of unilateral U.S. withdrawal—were in a de facto alliance with the North Vietnamese, the Vietcong, and the Soviets. Unpleasant but true. People say that Bush was hell-bent on invading Iraq because his father muffed it during the Gulf War in ’91. But I think a bigger motive for Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Desert Storm was a longing, unconscious or not, to refight Vietnam victoriously.

With liberals, Vietnam redux is all too conscious: It is irresistible to them (and to almost anyone over 40) to fit the war in Iraq into the template of Indochina, even if the parallels are only superficial. This Groundhog Day, as we all looked forward to watching a Beatle perform on TV (and on a Sunday evening in early February, just like in 1964), a fiftyish antiwar friend of mine in Park Slope dismissed the election in Iraq as “just like the election in Vietnam in 1967.”

I didn’t know what she meant, because I had not yet read the posting by Kos, the lefty star Markos Moulitsas’s nom de blog, of a certain Times clip from 1967—about how “United States officials were surprised and heartened … at the size of turnout in South Vietnam’s presidential election despite a Vietcong terrorist campaign to disrupt the voting.” Kos commented, “January was the third bloodiest month for U.S. and allied troops. Will that cease now that Iraqis have voted? Nope … The war will continue unabated.” One senses a wish for further war. One of Kos’s regulars then wrote, “I hope I’m wrong on this,” and my disingenuousness alarm went off. When people are deeply invested in any set of analyses and predictions, do they ever sincerely hope they’re wrong?

There may be only one important sense, finally, in which the American experience of Vietnam applies to this war: What is the number and rate of U.S. casualties we can bear, and will the new Iraqi government be able to take care of itself before we reach that unbearable number? In Iraq, 1,446 U.S. troops have died, and 10,871 have been wounded. During the worst months, the average daily casualties have been four killed and more than 40 wounded, out of a total U.S. force of around 150,000. Those are roughly the same numbers as at the end of 1965—when the war in Vietnam still had Americans’ overwhelming support. But during 1966, U.S. casualties tripled, then almost doubled in 1967, and went up by half again during 1968.

In Iraq, American patience and stubbornness will not extend nearly that far. The prospects of a freer, better Iraq and the longer shot of a freer, better Middle East are worth some considerable American sacrifice. But we will not pay any price or bear any burden, as JFK rashly promised.

And now the terrible business of judging the correct price requires as much empirical rigor and moral clarity as we can muster, the sort of careful, “reality-based” judgments that liberals pride themselves on being able to make better than loony Evangelicals and cunning neocon dreamers. It won’t do simply to default to our easy predispositions—against Bush, even against war. If partisanship makes us abandon intellectual honesty, if we oppose what our opponents say or do simply because they are the ones saying or doing it, we become mere political short-sellers, hoping for bad news because it’s good for our ideological investment.

One day during the U.S. election campaign, President Bush accidentally uttered a plain truth about the war on terror. “I don’t think you can ‘win’ it,” he said, which immediately provoked attacks from the Democrats. A month later, John Kerry inadvertently told the same truth—“We have to get back to the place … where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they’re a nuisance”—whereupon Bush pounced, saying he “couldn’t disagree more.” Later the same month, the president slipped and retold the same truth—“Whether or not we can be ever fully safe … is up in the air”—and Kerry, inevitably, replied: “You make me president [and] it’s not going to be up in the air.”

It was that kind of dishonest, automatic attack and counterattack that made me relieved, on November 3, when I was once again free to read and watch the news from Iraq without considering whether it was good or bad for Kerry’s chances.

And it was the same sort of brain-dead back-and-forth that led Jon Stewart to tell Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, live on CNN’s Crossfire last fall, that their entirely predictable pseudo-debates amounted to nothing but useless “partisan hackery.” In that instance, the new president of CNN promptly said he agreed and canceled the show. Is it too much to hope that the end of Crossfire could mark the beginning of the end of the age of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore? Probably.

When Good News Feels Bad