When Power Triumphed Over Ideals03-25-2023
On the 20th anniversary of America’s war in Iraq, there is a whole lot of taking stock. James Bennet argues that the War in Iraq helped undermine the American consensus at home and around the world. It is the cynicism that the Iraq war unleashed that opened the door for the rise of Donald Trump at home and other demagogues abroad. Bennet writes:
Not all America’s woes can be traced to that fateful invasion, when America’s arrogance rather than its generosity—the flip sides of its idealism—became its global calling-card. The global financial meltdown later that decade rounded out the failure of the establishment. But the Iraq war propelled America down the road to Donald Trump.
Barack Obama represented hope of sharp change from Mr Bush, yet those two leaders were much more like each other than like the president who came next. They obeyed the conventions of American politics, probably unaware of how brittle those had become: that expertise mattered; that the press, though flawed, was after the truth; that the meritocracy was real; that not everyone was out just for money and power. They both promoted two central ideals of American public life: that in the world America had causes beyond the pursuit of raw national interest, and that at home the national interest superseded the political one.
Mr Trump told Americans what they had come to suspect, that all this was crap. America should have taken Iraq’s oil. Generals could be fools, and even so-called war heroes could be losers. America should use more severe forms of torture than waterboarding. China was raping America while its leaders did nothing. The press lied. The experts lied. Politicians, of course, lied all the time. The establishment was out for itself. You were a sucker if you did not assume corruption and self-seeking were the essentials of human behaviour. “You think our country’s so innocent?” Mr Trump said, when asked how he could defend Vladimir Putin.
Mr Biden, a throwback in so many ways, is trying as president to restore the idea of American idealism. America is meant again to be the guardian of a rules-based international order. Much has been made of the administration’s decision, on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, to share intelligence about what was to come. Yet that is what Mr Powell did, in greater detail, at the United Nations. The difference was that this time the intelligence was correct. This time America has matched its words and deeds. It has sought and sustained support within the un. It has led competently, in Ukraine if not Afghanistan, and meant what it said about rights and democracy. So far….
At home, idealism may seem to be staging a comeback, but that is only on the surface. On the right, the American Greatness school has yet to clothe Trumpism in an ideology amounting to more than grandiose self-interest. On the left, identity politics has licensed the meritocratic elite—including the new socialists—to ignore class, to celebrate their own enlightenment and to feel contempt for poor white Americans. Americans’ embrace of consoling ideologies is making them even more righteous and credulous than they were on the eve of the Iraq war, provided the propaganda comes from their own side.