The Magazine

The Phony Debate

From the March 31, 2003 issue: The pundits are arguing about everything except what's interesting.

Mar 31, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 28 • By DAVID BROOKS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

A S I WRITE, a couple of days into the war, the hawks are optimistic and the liberals are bracing to get beaten about with sticks. The hawks are optimistic because the Iraqi regime seems to be crumbling. None of the terrible things the doves predicted has yet come to pass: no mass riots on the Arab street, no coup in Pakistan or Jordan, no Scuds landing on Tel Aviv, no surge in oil prices, no fierce resistance from the Iraqis, either from the soldiers or the men in the streets. "Surging hope" is how Andrew Sullivan describes his mood.

Meanwhile on the left, it's like settling in for a long, cold winter. "Brace yourself for a round of I-told-you-sos from Iraq hawks," Robert Wright writes in Slate. "In the foreseeable future," Al Hunt concedes in the Wall Street Journal, "the Bush critics will be very much on the defensive."

War opponents emphasize that while things might go well in the short term, in the long term, Iraq is likely to be a mess.

Honorable liberals also find themselves twisted into an emotional pretzel, hoping that their forebodings about the war are proven wrong, but not quite looking forward to a moment when Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz might be proven right. A New York Times editorial aptly summarizes their conflicted mood: "If things go as well as we hope, even those who sharply disagree with the logic behind this war are likely to end up feeling reassured, almost against their will, by the successful projection of American power."

The striking thing about the early commentary on the war is that very little of it is actually on the war. Some people, mostly on the left, are still rehashing yesterday's debate on whether to go to war in the first place. Leon Fuerth, Al Gore's foreign policy guru, published an antiwar op-ed in the Washington Post the day after hostilities started. A group of liberal Jews took out a full-page ad urging Bush not to go to war as U.S. troops were surging into Iraq. Four days after the U.N. process ended, Michael Kinsley wrote a column rehashing the arguments for working within the U.N. Toward the end of it, Kinsley declared that "George W. Bush is now the closest thing in a long time to dictator of the world," elevating him to Napoleon and Caesar rank.

Meanwhile, others, mostly on the hawkish side, are deep in the middle of the argument about the post-Saddam world. Kanan Makiya, in his superb online diary for the New Republic, has issued daily updates on the Iraqi opposition movement. Charles Krauthammer has written a characteristically bold column arguing against going back to the U.N. once the conflict is over. Dennis Ross has published a fascinating piece in the Wall Street Journal describing how leaders across the Arab world, sensing the prevailing winds, have begun repositioning themselves as democratic reformers.

It is as if you had one prewar political debate about whether to go to war, and another debate on how to rebuild Iraq postwar, but the war itself is a political vacuum that only military analysts and retired generals are qualified to talk about.

That's too bad, because the conduct of this war is so strikingly political. Has there ever been a conflict in the history of man in which the one army strove so mightily to not kill the soldiers of the other army? Has there ever been a war that began, even before the enemy was engaged, with the secretary of defense issuing instructions on how the other side should surrender? One gets the impression that U.S. military dominance is now so overwhelming that the rules of conflict are being rewritten. And yet there was little discussion, at least at the outset, over exactly what this means.

One also gets the sense that the standards of victory have shifted. Now, everybody seems to assume, it isn't enough just to beat the enemy; you have to beat them without becoming unpopular amongst them. You have to beat them without making yourself more unpopular with the world. This is some vague but mighty shift in expectations. And about this too there has been relatively little discussion.

I suspect the reason there is so little political analysis of the war itself is that we are all conditioned by memories of Desert Storm. The hawks are quick to feel vindicated because they were vindicated by the incredible success of that earlier fight, and the doves are prepared for another round of patriotic chest-thumping. Both sides assume that the war is a momentary pause between political debates.