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Hullabaloo


Thursday, March 21, 2013

 
Deficits are the new Iraq

by David Atkins

I mentioned a few days ago that the failure to prosecute the crime of the century in defrauding the world to invade Iraq is a moral stain that will never fully wash out of the fabric of society until justice is done. It impacts the trust of the military in civilian leadership; it harms the trust of voters in the statements of their government; it destroys the credibility of the nation in eyes of the global community; and it creates an entire generation of new terrorists determined to attack the industrialized world.

But if--and it's a big if--we are to "look forward" rather than back, settling for a series of half-hearted meae culpae by the war's proponents in exchange for any real accountability for its architects and cheerleaders, then at the very least it must be a forward gaze that engages the failings of the past to apply their lessons to the present.

For most pundits that reckoning involves more skepticism toward government statements, as well as a more cautious attitude toward reckless interventionism. But that is too easy and vague a lesson. It calls for no real change, and neither afflicts the comfortable nor comforts the afflicted.

Of all the failures of the press and the Washington elite in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the biggest was not foreign policy views or blind trust in the Executive Branch. Those things were certainly problems, but they alone didn't create the conditions necessary for the invasion. The indispensable linchpin enabling both the deceit and the political bulldozer toward war was the marginalization of contrarian voices who could have slowed down and ultimately stopped them.

This marginalization wasn't just a matter of the political destruction of the likes of Joe Wilson and Valerie Plame--though that was part of it. The most important marginalization was of a softer kind. Every Serious Person knew that Colin Powell would never deceive the American People. Every Serious Person knew that George W. Bush was, even if intellectually incurious, at least a straight shooter and resolute leader who would never lead anyone astray, abuse the troops, or put the country in harm's way. Every Serious Person knew that U.N. weapons inspectors were a weak joke, that Saddam Hussein was a maniac who would stop at nothing to destroy America, and that no American President would ever take their eye off of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan to turn the nation's attention to Iraq were it not essential to the world's security.

To believe otherwise was unthinkable. It was the sign of a deeply unserious mind, unfit for the politics of adults. Unless you were an objector who lived through it, it's hard to state how suffocating was the experience of the time. Even vaguely liberal friends would listen to your opinions with a barely contained smirk and roll of the eyes; you would hide your opinions from apolitical types for fear of being branded as a weird radical; and to state your displeasure in front of conservatives would be sure to earn an accusation of being in bed with Osama Bin Laden himself. The practice of blogging pseudonyms among liberals took hold at the time for a very good reason: there was a legitimate fear among many progressives that to be associated with opposition to the Bush Administration's drumbeat to war would result in damage to one's ability to find employment, clients, apartments, etc.

To truly take to heart the lessons of 2003 is not to relitigate the Bush Administration. That should be a matter for justice, not instruction.

To truly learn the lesson of Iraq is to ask oneself what critical policy issue of the day carries the same force of conventional wisdom and marginalization of contrarian voices. What issue of the day is incredibly divisive among normal American people, but has nearly unanimous consensus in the Beltway? What contrarian belief on a matter of major policy earns the same quiet, amused contempt from centrists and conservative Democrats? What policy disagreement earns the outraged ire of conservatives normally designated for enemies of the state? On what subject is it allowed for straight journalists to unequivocally state support for a policy position without the need for a credible opinion from the opposing side? On what topic would a Nobel-prize-winning expert on the subject in question be mocked in person on television by a panel of low-rent pseudo-journalists and failed former Congressmembers as if he had called the moon landing a hoax? On what public policy does the widely accepted conventional wisdom in Washington also very neatly align with the interests of influential corporations and the world's wealthiest individuals?

I speak, of course, of the bipartisan march toward deficit reduction and the bizarre exclusion of Keynesian or countercyclical solutions from acceptable discourse on the economy. It's not the only issue of its kind, but it's the most important.

Make no mistake: find the major issue that creates this uncomfortable dynamic, and you will find the new Iraq. In 2003 it was foreign intervention. In 2013, the issue on which conventional wisdom is so neatly aligned against all reason is deficit reduction. In 2023 it will likely be something else.

But the real lesson of 2003 has far less to do with the rush to war in the Middle East, and far more to do with the rush to exclusionary conventional wisdom among the Very Serious People in Washington.


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