War, Simplified

Photo: AP Photo

You win a public argument by keeping it simple. You seldom, if ever, successfully counter a simple argument by making it more complex.

The president has built his mandate around a stubborn clarity. He’s dead certain and often nearly monosyllabic. He naturally, or cunningly, stays far away from any sort of chewy foreign-policy discussion. He’s never talking over anybody’s head.

More ambivalent people have found themselves trying to imagine what the president is thinking, or how he’s thinking it – there’s a natural inclination to try to parse his worldview. But the surface is too smooth and implacable – and righteous. You look for calibrations, but it really appears to be a whole (unusual in American politics). It seems really from the gut – rather than polled and calculated (although, undoubtedly, someone is polling and calculating). He isn’t afraid to be belligerent and unreasonable (nor does he appear to be using unreasonableness in a Reagan-esque strategic sense).

Fear is one of the things that makes situations more complex. You conceive of a scenario and then imagine all the bad things that can happen. That’s been the dominant way of looking at the world for three generations (and the way normal, cautious people look at their own lives). Indeed, that fear of rushing in was evidently the way the Bush administration was regarding the North Korean nuclear threat revealed last week. It’s the artful balance (American diplomats – from Kissinger to Carter to Holbrooke to Powell – rushing from one side to the other) or the chess-playing advantage (careful, incremental play leads to triangulation and success). The world is a very precarious place; it requires precision surgery. Foreign-policy experts are all doctors: First, do no harm. (Even when we have been doing harm, a constant theme has been to minimize a larger harm.)

The Bush doctrine, however, has no acknowledged fear, or has overcome its fear, at least in regards to Iraq. This doctrine grows out of the belief that the United States military can accomplish the tasks that are set before it – that now, in the digital age, “lethality,” to use Rumsfeld’s word, is a cakewalk. And it may be. More questionably, the doctrine also holds that it’s these precise tasks that the military can accomplish that are in and of themselves the paramount tasks to accomplish. Let’s just take them out. Everything else is cleanup. (Like MacArthur in Tokyo: No problem.) By being simple, straightforward, unambivalent, single-minded, can-do, we will achieve some moral and practical control of the world. The corollary to this doctrine is that it is exactly those who are trying to maintain the balance, and trying to do no harm – those worrywarts – who endanger us.

Now, this has always been a pronounced strain in the American worldview – Barry Goldwater, Curtis LeMay, Ollie North, “bomb them back to the Stone Age” stuff – but it has not usually been held by the professionals. Or the professionals have been the good cops to the media-loving (and media-loved) bad cops. (The good cops don’t get media play because they’re avoiding or minimizing conflict.)

The bad cops are now in charge.

September 11 = Just Do It.

What’s more, He tried to kill my daddy …

It is a war – or will be a war – more of sensibility than of necessity or ideology (sensibility, or because you feel like it, is hardly an unknown reason for going to war – but it’s one that has been out of historical favor for quite some time).

This is what has the Europeans so apoplectic (all Europeans, that is, except for Tony Blair, whose calculations seem similar to the calculations of American politicians – it’s going to happen, so gain whatever advantage you can).

The other night, the Council on Foreign Relations hosted a panel in New York called “Americans Are From Mars, Europeans are From Venus.” These are polar mind-sets, in other words. Different perceptual orientations.

Just Do It versus Why would you do it?

If the Bush-American approach has been to radically reduce the debate (if they have weapons of mass destruction, and they will one day, then we have to take them out), the European view has been to expand the discussion, to see the oncoming war as a step into a complex historical imbroglio in which good intentions always go awry, and in which good intentions too often get shown to be bad intentions.

The Europeans, in some sense, define the nature of the losing argument: Their view is world-weary, relativist, nuanced, and fearful.

Why would we do it? Because we can.

Here’s something else that’s freaking out the Euros: U.S. foreign-policy sensibility has – save for periods during the Reagan administration – been internationalist in character (and even the Reagan people loved international intrigue). After all, you become a foreign-policy professional because you find the world a compellingly complex place (you like spending time in foreign capitals, having meetings with foreign statesmen and bureaucrats, doing the Council on Foreign Relations thing – Bush the father is steeped in this sensibility). But this internationalist sensibility is, more and more, out of sync with the political and media sensibility, which is ever more remote from international ideas and romance (in this, the son is more with-it than the father).

Bush II is bringing foreign policy back into national alignment. He’s bringing it home.

Foreign policy is being made by people who take their confidence from an enclosed nation (part of 9/11 is the fury that comes from the enclosure being violated). We are the world. In a way, it’s anti–foreign policy. Bush doesn’t want to have to be thinking about the Middle East; doesn’t have the interest, inclination, or background to be thinking about the Middle East. His goal is not to think about it. His policy is about intellectual, if not military, disengagement.

Oh, and he tried to kill my daddy …

Every European I know has been frantically calling me up to ask: “What’s going on there?”

That’s hard to answer because in a real way nothing is going on here.

The Europeans are vastly more caught up in this than we are.

There’s hardly even the wherewithal or the language to talk about foreign policy here – it’s one of those unnatural, fidgety conversations.

Certainly, you can’t put people on U.S. television talking about foreign policy – at least not about the details. You can talk about conflict – Will we? Won’t we? When? How fast? Drones? No drones? – but you can’t talk about context (just saying the word, I start to feel rather pantywaisted myself). You’re an effetenik, a Euro-lover, if you do.

It is, after all, pretty weird that, having considered the elective surgery of invading Iraq for almost a year, we have only just now begun to think about what happens after we invade Iraq – James Fallows’s recent piece in The Atlantic Monthly, “The Fifty-first State?,” is the first extended consideration. Nor was it that reassuring when the Bush people evoked MacArthur in Tokyo – there’s the sense that they saw it in the movies. (“I am viscerally opposed to a prolonged occupation of a Muslim country at the heart of the Muslim world by Western nations who proclaim the right to re-educate that country,” noted Henry Kissinger with the force of great obviousness.)

And then there’s the patriotism card. This may be played more by the media than by the man on the street – patriotism is a prepackaged media theme. A patriotic story is more sellable (and easier and cheaper to do) than an analytic or reported story. Patriotism is soft news masquerading as hard news.

There is, too, as a further complication, the Israel card.

It motivates European frustration and fury (mixed feelings about Israel run deep there) and, in turn, puts clear constraints on the American discussion (where we are not allowed to have mixed feelings) – we’re forced to stifle ourselves.

But perhaps most of all there is the nobody-gives-a-shit factor. Who isn’t annoyed by having to think about Iraq?

Iraq and what happens there is not just remote. It’s bor-ing.

Whatever happens in Iraq or, really, anywhere in the way-distant world, is at most an atmospheric disturbance. It’s a technological abstraction. (Just fire a rocket to smash the meteor or something.)

I think many people, perhaps most, if pressed, might suspect that the president has a screw loose about Iraq (which actually gives him an odd kind of idiot-savant nobility).

That it’s all too obsessional.

That his view is too simple. (Not, however, that this in any way compromises the virtues of keeping it simple.)

It’s foot-stamping.

He tried to kill my daddy …

And I’m pretty sure most people think Rumsfeld and Cheney are vastly unsympathetic and scary guys.

I also think it’s likely that most people sense an uncommon lack of alternatives – a weird dearth. We’ve been managing Saddam-size sons-of-bitches for half a century – we must know some tricks. (We know how the Clinton people would have handled this: beefed-up sanctions, multinational task forces, calculated interventions, a few well-placed hugs and substantial payoffs to allies. Limit, contain, marginalize. What? We haven’t done this before?)

But if the president wants to go to war – especially because we’ve come to believe that only the absolutely unluckiest Americans get killed in a digital war – what can we do?

Now, politicians, especially the Democrats, have been morally and intellectually execrable in all this – and yet, in a sense, understandably so. To do it right, to oppose honorably, would require a level of didacticism that does not exist in American politics – you’d not only be defeated, you would be ignored (and eventually medicated).

If you’re a politician, you know the routine. We’ll do the war. It will be a humdinger of a media event. We’ll win, or appear to win, in some decisive, elephant-stomps-mouse fashion, which means that everybody in the nation and in the world (because everybody, no matter how anti-American, loves a winner) will be into it. And then, afterward, when it gets more difficult and complex and intractable, no one will notice – because only big payloads make headlines.

Except that the economy will have been hopelessly ruined, so Bush the son, like Bush the father, will be defeated because of that.


The New York Bookshelf
National Magazine Award winner Michael Wolff is included in the just-released anthology The Best American Magazine Writing 2002 (HarperCollins; $14.95), produced by the American Society of Magazine Editors.

War, Simplified