Ed Driscoll

Rearranging the Past


“You cannot change the facts of the past. But you can change the significance of those facts,” Jonah Goldberg writes in his latest G-File:

There’s a staple of physics — and life — that the present can’t change the past. What’s done is done. Don’t cry over spilt milk. The horse has left the barn. We already emailed the pictures of you with the hooker. Etc. Given the riot of unknowns that is physics today, I’m not sure that will always be true. And, in a very real sense, I’m not sure it’s true about life either.

No, you cannot change the facts of the past. But you can change the significance of those facts. I’m not talking about Orwellian lying or Soviet airbrushing or the shoving of innocents down the memory hole. When new events take us by surprise the events that led up to it suddenly take on greater meaning.

From an old-school G-File:

In 2002, Adam Garfinkle, then of The National Interest, wrote a wonderful essay about Saudi Arabia. He quoted R. G. Collingwood’s observation that “every new generation must rewrite history in its own way,” and proceeded to argue that at least part of what Collingwood meant by this “is that what interests us about the past is at least partly a function of what bothers us or makes us curious in the present.”

For example, for the French and British, when war broke out in 1939, the years 1918-19 became less significant and the years 1870-1871 loomed large. Or, when the Berlin Wall fell, 1917 — the year of the Russian Revolution — suddenly became much less interesting, but 1914 — the dawn of imperial implosion and nationalist explosion — became much more important. This is all a lesson in the obvious for my beloved bride, who studied U.S.-Soviet relations in graduate school. By the time the ink was dry on her diploma, there was no Soviet Union.

The point of all this for Garfinkle was that, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a whole new narrative of the 20th century was written. While on September 10, the years 1914, 1945, and 1989 seemed of paramount importance to historians, on September 12, the year 1924 suddenly leapt onto the stage — that was the year the House of Saud emerged as the dominant power on the Arabian continent. Before that, 1924 was the answer to a few trivia questions and little more (e.g., In what year was the People’s Republic of Mongolia established? When was Frank Lautenberg born?).

Right now, the most important thing about 2011, according to conventional wisdom, is that Barack Obama authorized the killing of Osama bin Laden. It was certainly a good day, and a glorious one for the White House communications team which immediately turned it into a Caesarian argument for his domestic political authority. But what if ISIS succeeds in holding onto Mosul and Nineveh? Or even goes on to grab Baghdad? What if Iran is fully drawn into the conflict, rendering vast swaths of the Middle East a literal battleground — and not just a figurative one — for a bloody Sunni–Shia civil war? Suddenly, the most momentous thing about 2011 wouldn’t be the killing of one aging terrorist hermited away with his “Girls Gone Wild” DVDs. It would be the White House’s passive-aggressive acquiescence to the abandonment of Iraq. Again, as it stands, the Iraq war was a mistake. What we’re seeing now are the fruits of a policy aimed at making sure it stays that way

Which brings us to Richard Fernandez at the Belmont Club, “On the Subject of Last Helicopters.” Richard looks at  our lavish embassy in Baghdad, a 104 acre compound into which over $800 million of taxpayer funds have been invested. As Richard writes:

If the embassy is evacuated as al-Qaeda reaches Baghdad the optics will be atrocious. The very magnificence of the buildings will underscore the magnitude of the defeat. The sheer size of the palaces will make destruction no easy task. For these grand edifices, constructed at so much taxpayer cost must be reduced to total ash by America’s own hand.  The taxpayer pays for the matches.

As Richard concludes:

Baghdad has not yet fallen. It may never fall. But prospect should make people sit up and wonder whether they understand the meaning of the word “defeat”. It’s not just a word or military phrase, but a condition of unutterable loss and subjection. It is humiliation distilled. It is total abjection.

President Obama grew up in a generation which cheered “defeats” as comically grainy events on black and white film which took place in far away places.  Perhaps it had for them a quality of unreality. Some prank on The Man, a something happening to someone else. Let’s see how they like it in HD.

Military age males being herded by ISIS to an unknown fate. Defeat is a b**ch.

Yet the loss in Iraq will be cheap at the price. It illustrates the ease with which the Obama administration can be surprised and reveals the utter hollowness of the men in the expensive suits. One day, perhaps soon, America may be challenged by an enemy which can truly hurt it — the Big One — and on that day Barack Hussein Obama is unlikely to fare any better than he has so far.

It’s not this present catastrophe that should worry everyone, though it is serious enough. It’s the what happens when Big One comes with the same in crew in charge that should give one pause.

And in these days of asymmetric warfare, as we saw on 9/11, the Big One — the moment that rearranges the past and the future — doesn’t need battleships and bombers, or aircraft carriers and fighter planes, as the Japanese brought to bear on Pearl Harbor, but 19 men with box cutters. To paraphrase Richard’s memorable line, the taxpayers and shareholders will be paying for the matches here as well.

Update: Neo-Neocon also flashes back to our withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 before concluding:

Whether you believe Obama is actually pro-jihadi, or whether you just believe he doesn’t mind Iraq turning into a cesspool because Obama can then blame the whole thing on Bush is almost irrelevant at this point. The effect is the same.

The Iraq War had to be discredited because the left’s entire philosophy would be threatened by a Bush success. Obama has always known this, and as president he was in a position to bring it about.

And while Iraq may be in turmoil, rest assured that Washington has top men on the case. Top. Men: