In 1946, four years before his death, George Orwell wrote one of his most incisive essays. The subject was the conservative thinker — and ex-Trotskyist — James Burnham, who had just come out with The Managerial Revolution, a widely scrutinized book that predicted an age of political economy that would be neither capitalist nor socialist but ruled by bureaucrats, technicians and soldiers, all of whom controlled the means of production and lorded over their respective societies as a kind of Politburo of elites. One of Orwell’s criticisms of the book, and of Burnham’s analysis in general, was that the author tended to make forecasts that were no more sophisticated than a prolongation of current events. If an outcome looked likely at the moment, then that outcome would decide the future until a different outcome announced itself. This wasn’t just Burnham’s vice; it was a vice of the intelligentsia at large, which, at the close of World War II, was found to have got things more wrong than the hoi polloi, which at least made up in consistency of opinion for what they might have lacked in “nuance.” As Orwell put it,
The English intelligentsia, on the whole, were more defeatist than the mass of the people — and some of them went on being defeatist at a time when the war was quite plainly won — partly because they were better able to visualise the dreary years of warfare that lay ahead. Their morale was worse because their imaginations were stronger. The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it, and if one finds the prospect of a long war intolerable, it is natural to disbelieve in the possibility of victory.” [Italics added.]
This strikes the reader today with especial force and urgency.
The argument is not that, five years on, the Iraq war has been won and we are assessing its historical merits with the benefit of safe hindsight; there are still 160,000 U.S. troops in the country, and the war may still be lost in the long term. The argument is that the intelligentsia — writers and commentators both for against regime change in 2003, who underwent every permutation of revision and recantation of their view since then — has suffered from a similar folly arrogant projection.
Keeping with Orwell’s defeatist paradigm for a moment, many vocal antiwar intellectuals anticipated an outcome that was more dire than the reality proved: Those who said toppling Saddam would loose a catastrophe in the Middle East succumbed to the worst of their apocalyptic imaginations (remember the waves of mass slaughter to be brought on by bio-chemical weapons?) and could not allow for positive consequences. What were some of them? A series of successful elections in Iraq (purple fingers galore); the restoration of the Iraqi marsh ecology; the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon; the handover of a much-advanced and well-concealed WMD program by Libya; the advent of women’s suffrage in Kuwait; and, in general, the prospect of liberal democracy to at least serve as a subject for debate and assessment in the Arab world, if not quite take hold with Jeffersonian aplomb.
However, here’s where Orwell needs updating: unself-critical intellectual champions of the war were not dire enough in their outlook. They did not foresee the high costs of an ill-planned occupation; unnecessary military and civilian casualties that were the result of gross administrative incompetence; a provisional authority that made a series of major mistakes (sweeping de-Baathification, the disbanding of the Iraqi army) from its inception to its end; fierce tribal-sectarian combat; the rise of thuggish clerical ruling class; the blackening of America’s standing by the atrocities committed at Abu Ghraib. They tended to view the impressive gains listed above as a sufficient moral vindication of their case. Indeed, for those blinded by a resolve to see swift return on a risky geopolitical wager, it might be said that the quickest way of winning a war was to simply declare that it had been won.
Bungled prophecies continued well into recent memory. Eighteen months ago it was thought the height of neoconservative delusion to suggest that the addition of troops, wedded to a bold counterinsurgency strategy, might reduce violence in Iraq to a manageable level and catalyze the slow process of political reconciliation. Now, with the rare exceptions of Michael Kinsley in Slate and Nir Rosen in Rolling Stone, most professional observers are allied with mass opinion in thinking that the surge has worked and also exceeded expectation: it has not only routed Al Qaeda militarily in Iraq, it has discredited Al Qaeda ideologically.
And with the dated, shopworn slogans being marched in protest today on the streets of San Francisco comes further proof of Orwell’s insight that disbelief in even in the possibility of victory (much less a desire for it) is still the entire matter for some.
The president delivered a pro forma speech marking the anniversary, and the blogosphere is awash with retrospection.
Donklephant writes: “Some accuse the president of duplicitous or downright sinister motives. Others just assume incompetence. I tend to believe the fault lay not in cold deceit but in burning hubris. September 11th remade the president and the president decided to remake the world.”
Steve Soto, The Left Coaster fears: “Now five years, 4,000 American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and at least a trillion dollars of American taxpayer monies later, we find ourselves faced with another GOP presidential campaign that wants to highlight this war as a righteous cause requiring more patience and American sacrifice, based on an appeal to ignore the first four years of this war and give a blank check to the next four years.”
And Brownie, at the British social democratic blog Harry’s Place, remembers what it was like for America’s longest and strongest ally to join the coalition five years ago: “In the weeks preceding the commons debate, there was considerable doubt that Blair’s government would carry the day and, if anything, a small majority of commentators were predicting Blair would be out of work when he woke up on the morning of the 19th. They were wrong and the fact this was so is in no small way attributable to the speech given by the Prime Minister to open the commons debate. Reading through the text 5 years later, I’m reminded why I supported the decision to go to war and, mistakes and incompetencies notwithstanding, why I continue to support that decision today.”
Michael Weiss is the New York Editor of Pajamas Media. His blog is Snarksmith.