The U.S. establishment’s fever to smash Iraq must not be forgotten

Originally published: Mondoweiss on March 22, 2023 (more by Mondoweiss)  |

One of my saddest memories of the Iraq war was when I said to my friend the late John Homans, a very shrewd political editor, that I could not vote for Hillary Clinton because she had voted to authorize force, and he said, “You don’t understand, she had to vote for the war.” John was stating the political forces at work in the American establishment in 2002-2003. He was saying it was like being against Mom and apple pie, you just couldn’t be. NY congressman Jerry Nadler said the same thing when he related in 2015 how much “poison” and “demagoguery” had come down on him for voting against the war: “Suffice it to say I took a lot of criticism for my vote, and both my American patriotism and my commitment to Israel were questioned.”

This should never be forgotten. When the nation’s leaders are beating drums for a stupid war that will only maim and orphan children and cause trauma for millions, it is very hard to dissent. Just ask the protesters in Moscow.

The entire establishment lined up behind our war, and it was one of the greatest disasters of history. That is what I saw. Leaders who as young people had protested the Vietnam War (and built careers on it, like Chuck Schumer and Joe Lieberman) were throwing out that awareness to support a war that was going to destroy an Arab capital or two or three, and create immeasurable misery and kill hundreds of thousands of brown people not to mention loot a beautiful civilization in waves of Islamophobia.

The New York Times was beating the drum, and Kenneth Pollack, Tom Friedman, and Jeffrey Goldberg championed the cause with rumors (and damaged their reputations, happily). Many accomplished and even excellent journalists tarnished their careers by signing on to this terrible blunder (I don’t mention their names here because I supported the Libyan intervention in 2011—and when will I live down that error?). Tony Judt called a lot of them out as useful idiots for George W. Bush. Some of them did seek to amend/expiate–for instance, Peter Beinart.

The easiest thing to say about this mistake was that it was a moral hazard: the elite warmongerers had nothing personally at risk. Drones were not bombing their homes, their children were not in harm’s way, no, they were going on to Ivy League schools. And the journalists thought that the war would advance their reputations—and if things didn’t work out they wouldn’t need to account. And look, they haven’t had to account; they’ve never been called to do so, or they haven’t gotten around to writing that article.

The fever for war surely grips many societies and ruling classes (it’s a very human thing). The pity of it is that we are the freest society in history in which to speak your mind, in my humble opinion, and yet so many felt their tongues turn to stone when they knew better. Again, the great Jerry Nadler voted against the war in the face of demagoguery and flag waving, and venom, and let’s remember the millions in the U.S. who demonstrated against the war—and George Packer caricatured us as gray haired hippies.

The much harder thing to say is that Israel played an important part in the war calculus, as Nadler indicated. The executive director of the 9/11 commission said in the run-up to the war that the “real threat” Iraq posed was not to the U.S. but to Israel. “The American government doesn’t want to lean too hard on it rhetorically, because it is not a popular sell.” Or as my brother told me in 2002—“I was in the streets against the Vietnam war but my Jewish newspaper says this war could be good for Israel”—and thereby gave me my mission for the blog that became this website.

Benjamin Netanyahu advised Congress that regime change would remake the Middle East in a glorious way, AIPAC cheerleaded the war, the neoconservatives actually believed that destroying Arab leadership by force would reshape Israel’s neighborhood—a “benign domino theory” for the Middle East out of divided loyalties for Israel (as Joe Klein put it)—and Tom Friedman actually said that Palestinian suicide bombings at pizza parlors in Tel Aviv were ample reason for the U.S. to go into the Arab world and “smash something” so as to show them that we were willing to put lives on the line for our values. Tom “Israel had me at hello” Friedman…

Tom Friedman, in one of the most eloquent insights of the war, told Ari Shavit of Haaretz that if you had taken 25 neoconservative intellectuals whose offices were within a mile of his and put them on a desert island in 2001 the war would not have happened… Something the New York Times did not report, even as it was reporting false information on weapons of mass destruction. (No, let’s talk about the conspiracies propagated by social media.)

The neocons weren’t on a desert island, they were in policy positions in the Pentagon and the State Department, and the White House. They were stovepiping intelligence, and being the dumbest fucking guy on the planet, and licking their comb to go on camera to justify the slaughter. They were there because–my belief–it was understood in Washington that Israel supporters are the most important element of the U.S. power class, and if you want to succeed in politics you must have them on your side. (There was no “U.S. interest” in the war—if that is how you think; we didn’t get oil out of it, or geopolitics. We just got death and suffering, and Bush was reelected by soccer moms, among others, because he “made us safer.”) George W. Bush will carry his bad judgment to the inner circles of hell if not the Hague–he should have been a painter—but it must be said that he hired the worst advisers in the recent history of our country because he didn’t want to end up like his father, a one-termer who had crossed the Israel lobby ten years earlier.

The neocons were the best and brightest of this war. But unlike the best and brightest of Vietnam, they were not strung up by a latter-day David Halberstam. They were never held to account in our media. Friedman saved his desert-island analysis for Israel’s leading newspaper and an entre-nous discussion. “The Clean Break” paper in which the neocons laid out to Netanyahu their vision of rearranging the Middle East was never held up on MSNBC as the smoking gun that it is.

I want to believe that all this happened a long time ago, and our establishment has moved past it, to a more diverse and sophisticated understanding of the world and civilization. And I’m a dreamer.

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