Not long ago, it was taken for granted that the Iraq war would be the central issue in the presidential campaign, as it was in the mid-term election of 2006. But it has virtually disappeared, eliciting some puzzlement. There should be none.
Iraq remains a significant concern for the population, but that is a matter of little moment in a modern democracy. The important work of the world is the domain of the “responsible men,” who must “live free of the trampling and the roar of a bewildered herd,” the general public, “ignorant and meddlesome outsiders” whose “function” is to be “spectators,” not “participants.” And spectators are not supposed to bother their heads with issues. The Wall Street Journal came close to the point in a major front-page article on super-Tuesday, under the heading “Issues Recede in ’08 Contest As Voters Focus on Character.” To put it more accurately, issues recede as candidates, party managers, and their PR agencies focus on character (qualities, etc.). As usual. And for sound reasons. Apart from the irrelevance of the population, they can be dangerous. The participants in action are surely aware that on a host of major issues, both political parties are well to the right of the general population, and that their positions that are quite consistent over time, a matter reviewed in a useful study by Benjamin Page and Marshall Bouton, The Foreign Policy Divide; the same is true on domestic policy (see my Failed States, on both domains). It is important, then, for the attention of the herd to be diverted elsewhere.
The quoted admonitions, taken from highly regarded essays by the leading public intellectual of the 20th century (Walter Lippmann), capture well the perceptions of progressive intellectual opinion, largely shared across the narrow elite spectrum. The common understanding is revealed more in practice than in words, though some, like Lippmann, do articulate it: President Wilson, for example, who held that an elite of gentlemen with “elevated ideals” must be empowered to preserve “stability and righteousness,” essentially the perspective of the Founding Fathers. In more recent years the gentlemen are transmuted into the “technocratic elite” and “action intellectuals” of Camelot, “Straussian” neocons, or other configurations. But throughout, one or another variant of Leninist doctrine prevails.
For the vanguard who uphold the elevated ideals and are charged with managing the society and the world, the reasons for Iraq’s drift off the radar screen should not be obscure. They were cogently explained by the distinguished historian Arthur Schlesinger, articulating the position of the doves 40 years ago when the US invasion of South Vietnam was in its fourth year and Washington was preparing to add another 100,000 troops to the 175,000 already tearing South Vietnam to shreds. By then the invasion launched by Kennedy was facing difficulties and imposing difficult costs on the United States, so Schlesinger and other Kennedy liberals were reluctantly beginning to shift from hawks to doves. That even included Robert Kennedy, who a year earlier, after the vast intensification of the bombing and combat operations in the South and the first regular bombing of the North, had condemned withdrawal as “a repudiation of commitments undertaken and confirmed by three administrations” which would “gravely — perhaps irreparably — weaken the democratic position in Asia.” But by the time that Schlesinger was writing in 1966, RFK and other Camelot hawks began to call for a negotiated settlement — though not withdrawal, never an option, just as withdrawal without victory was never an option for JFK, contrary to many illusions.
Schlesinger wrote that of course “we all pray” that the hawks are right in thinking that the surge of the day will be able to “suppress the resistance,” and if it does, “we may all be saluting the wisdom and statesmanship of the American government” in winning victory while leaving “the tragic country gutted and devastated by bombs, burned by napalm, turned into a wasteland by chemical defoliation, a land of ruin and wreck,” with its “political and institutional fabric” pulverized. But escalation probably won’t succeed, and will prove to be too costly for ourselves, so perhaps strategy should be rethought.
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