What are the long term political/cultural implications of the war in Iraq? Well, here’s one way to think about it, though I admit it’s just a guess. Wherever they fell on the political spectrum, most people recently had the unnerving experience of finding someone to their left whose judgment about the war – at least with respect to the prudential questions – has turned out to be more sound than their own: more sound about the evidence, about the motives of the players, about the delusional quality of much of the pro-war camp’s grand plans, and so on. (Of course, the extremely low quality of much of the anti-war commentary counts against this to a certain extent. But even people who looked like wingnuts got some stuff right, and anyway the point I’m making is mainly a sociological one. And the sociological point really turns more on general impressions than strict standards of evidence and rationality.)
I don’t mean that it’s all over. If things drammatically improve in Iraq over the next few years, then this will certainly change. But right now (and probably permanently), that’s the way things look.
It’s not often that you get that kind of clarity on a single issue which is at the absolute centre of political debate for an extended period of time. Probably the last time this happened was Vietnam, an issue which helped to gell together a whole set of instinctive reactions about the appropriate uses of US foreign policy for years, at least in the minds of a great many people.
So my guess is that the long term result of the war will be a shift – in ways both obvious and subtle – to the left in thinking about US foreign policy. That doesn’t mean that everyone in the State Department will be wearing Chomsky t-shirts, or that the grand neo-con dreams will just vanish from the scene without a trace. But it may mean that leftwing critiques which weren’t previously acceptable in the mainstream will get a more receptive hearing. Certainly it will be harder for years to come for hardliners to push the condescending line that their political opponents, they are sad to say, simply don’t understand power or the way the world works, and so on. And this will be morale sapping for defenders of “muscular” approaches to American power. This sort of thing really does seem to have the power to induce broad shifts across the political spectrum.
Just a guess.
If I’m right, then one worry might be (as Kenneth Roth recently pointed out) the long-term discrediting of humanitarian intervention. And although I think humanitarian interventions ought to be very carefully scrutinized, there are circumstances in which they are not simply acceptable, but, I think, obligatory. Rwanda falls into this category I think.
(It is true that parts of the right opposed the war, especially the libertarian right – the Cato Institute, for example, struck hard at the plans for war early and often. Still, the left dominated the dissenting party, which then gradually filled with centrists as time went on, and is now swelling to include more and more right wingers. And, again, I’m making a sociological point here, which is that a lot of people had to have noticed this. I certainly did.)