The ancients, to divine the course of events to come, sacrificed chickens and sheep. Slicing open the creatures’ viscera, seers sought to read the future in entrails still trembling with recent life.*

Twenty-first century America, by contrast, has sought to make its own future to order by tearing open a faraway country and laying bare that hapless land’s innermost workings. But what Americans now see as they stare horrified into the jagged wound is not the trace of future events. Instead, in the flattened cityscapes, the dispossession of civilian populations, the ever-mounting deaths, the steady diet of lies and deceptions from its leaders, the degradation of its public discourse, and the reality of systematic torture as national policy, a sobered America now confronts its own reflection.

The enemy was less than two decades ago America’s ally, built up by Washington mandarins to counter earlier (and quite possibly, future) antagonists. Though badly weakened in the first Gulf War, Iraq had made itself intolerable to the neoconservatives who rose to power in Washington in the wake of the attacks of September 11, 2001. The problem wasn’t that Saddam’s regime was morally and politically revolting—those qualities haven’t stopped America from propping up similar regimes all around the world. It was that Iraq stuck its thumb in America’s eye, providing an example for other regimes inclined to resist American hegemony in that region and all over the world.

For anyone cherishing notions of foreign policy based on reasoned public debate on momentous issues, the origins of this war make gooseflesh rise. It was created out of whole cloth by a right-wing clique that would make C. Wright Mills’s power elite look like a New England town meeting. In the anxiety-ridden period following 9/11, word went out from Washington: “We’re going to ‘do’ Iraq.” Public opinion was ordered to fit the needs of the occasion. We now know that the public rationale for this adventure, the infamous weapons of mass destruction, was ultimately designated as casus belli only after the fact. Information casting doubt on that rationale had always been readily available, had anyone in power cared to look. The all-too-loyal opposition in Congress abdicated without a fight. True to instincts that had long been apparent, the Bush administration trashed alliances and nascent patterns of global cooperation and loosed the dogs of war—flourishing martial virtues under its declaration of war on terror to inoculate itself against public criticism.

The worst of all this, for Dissent and its readers, is that this debacle has received support in these pages. We have witnessed a collapse of the very political immune systems that should be basic to the democratic left—in favor of imperial designs hatched by elite strategists with whom we should have nothing in common. How have things come to this?

Why does the left traditionally stand against aggressive wars? This question should hardly need to be asked in a forum like this one. We don’t back such wars because the enormous costs that they entail—at home and abroad—are typically devoted to elite interests that we don’t share. These costs in life and treasure most predictably go to purchase control of foreign markets, or to enhance military hegemony for its own sake, or to install or maintain foreign regimes whose only virtue is their friendliness to the invader. Worse, such costs are disproportionately borne by those whose interests most need our concern—the Americans who start with the least going for them. Most often, they do the fighting and dying. And the vast resources devoted to war require the sacrifice of policies that might otherwise furnish a break for the most vulnerable. What’s worse, in public opinion, martial values rise like a miasma from the moral swamp of war-making, choking off the very critical public debate that people like us seek to foster. Public discourse is inevitably reduced to stultifying inquisitions as to who is doing the most to “support our men and women in the field.”

And then there are the evils of aggressive war for the global community. Going to war, with its ever-unknowable but predictably destructive consequences, should always be a grave step. Aggressive war against a country posing no immediate threat is especially dubious. In this case, the precedent established by the Bush administration for states all around the world is horrific: whenever a neighboring (or indeed, distant) state shows the potential of posing a threat, whenever such a regime flagrantly mistreats its own people, unilateral aggression is the answer. No one really wants to live in a world governed by such deadly logic—as we on the left should be first to point out.

Of course, some situations warrant support for military action from almost any perspective. Sometimes authentic national defense against aggression is indispensable. Sometimes—rarely—dangers of imminent attack must be countered. And there are situations where limited, precise applications of military might can save lives and build democratic institutions, with minimal risk of making things worse. In these latter two cases, very high degrees of certainty are essential, before the fateful steps are taken. There is a terrible moral obligation to be sure that military action will not, at the end of the day, create more troubles than it can solve.

Such calculations must weigh all the likely consequences—not just of the war that one would like, but of the war that is likely to ensue. That means we must never forget what figures and institutions will actually be doing the war-making, and how imperfect initial knowledge is bound to be of how it will unfold. We must, in short, embrace Max Weber’s ethic of responsibility: “Whoever wants to engage in politics at all . . . must know that he is responsible for what may become of himself under the impact of these paradoxes . . . . [H]e lets himself in for the diabolic forces lurking in all violence.”

Such humility has eluded those who have hyped this horrific war in these pages. They have treated the decision to go to war as a binary thumbs-up versus thumbs-down on the character of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In Iraq, the goods touted to result from American unilateralism were always hypothetical and contingent—things that might, conceivably, occur under complex, best-case scenarios—whereas the destruction that war would bring was apparent and inevitable. And none of those consequences is more destructive than the casualties to the moral image of America—in the world’s eyes and its own. Fifty years later, the French are still struggling to learn this lesson from their role in Algeria; one wonders how long America will require.

By now, it must be heartbreakingly clear that “taking out” a tyrannical regime (to quote the jingoist catchphrase) can never be an isolated act, like pulling a hopelessly infected tooth. This war’s “collateral damage” includes first of all undermining the limited but not trivial consensus among the world community in favor of joint, rather than unilateral action. The arrogance of American unilateralism—in Iraq, as in matters from greenhouse gas emissions to the World Court of Justice—will inevitably make it more difficult to constrain unilateral excesses of other countries. Then there are the immediate human consequences within Iraq. It will no doubt be years before anyone can put a reliable number on the overall losses of life inflicted on Iraqis by the war, beyond those killed by hostile action. Some estimates have placed them very high.

Then there is the political disaster. According to the advance hype from the Bush regime, the only thing standing in the way of a peaceful and democratic Iraq was the evil of Saddam Hussein. The victorious American and allied forces would be welcomed with relief and gratitude by the Iraqis, who would then begin to develop democratic institutions. The actual results of decapitating Saddam’s regime have demonstrated what many thoughtful observers had long noted—that Iraq’s agonies stemmed not solely from any one personality, nor indeed from any single political party. Instead they reflect rivalries and tensions at least as likely to be inflamed as appeased by outside efforts to reshuffle the political deck.

So, having crushed the regular army and extirpated their now-vilified former client, Americans are astounded to find a vast population of dissatisfied customers for their civilizing mission. But, the authorities assure us, now is no time for faintheartedness. America must stand firm, stay the course, walk tall. What that means is that many, many more must die, in order to create a political regime in Baghdad acceptable to Washington. Surely most of those who will be sacrificed to these plans would never have wished for a part in this irresponsible experiment.

We know to what extremes the experiment has led. It has meant invading civilian homes and ransacking their possessions. It has meant calling in air strikes on civilian populations allegedly “liberated” long ago. It has meant flattening entire urban neighborhoods in conquered cities suspected of providing cover for resistance to America. And it has meant made-in-America torture—cunningly planned, paid for, and carried out in a desperate gambit to break the will of those suspected of resisting the American occupation.

Those at the top are sticking to their cover story that the torture was the work of rogue elements at the lowest levels of command. But almost nobody on the outside believes this, nor should they. Even if those responsible succeeded in keeping their names off documents authorizing torture, the message sent by the hierarchy was clear: do whatever is necessary to get the information you need. If there will be public criticism, get your lawyers to define torture out of existence! If that doesn’t suffice, ship prisoners to allies who recognize no restraint in the matter! Anyone who believes that the horrific calibration of degradation and humiliation was an accident, not orchestrated by the American command, is a political infant.

To these dawning morning-after realizations, the allegedly liberal supporters of this adventure offer a variety of responses—all of which boil down to one: This Is Not What We Had in Mind. They are shocked (shocked!) that a campaign of such noble intent could have descended into such seemingly endless brutality, that it could have been met with such violent ingratitude by its supposed beneficiaries. As Andrew Sullivan wrote in the New York Times (January 21, 2005), reviewing books documenting America’s systematic and carefully orchestrated torture and degradation of its Arab captives,

Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against “evil” might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear that the answer to each of these questions is yes.

But Sullivan clearly still doesn’t get it. The messianic zeal of intellectuals like him would never “filter down” to the American thugs who carried out the torture. Those diabolical moves were already programmed in the military’s bag of tricks long before figures like Sullivan set down to their work of seeking public legitimation for the campaign. The only choice available to intellectuals and anyone else capable of publicly weighing the enormity of what was at stake in the run-up to the war was whether or not to sign on.

The least inspiring figures of all are those who have tried to have it both ways—supporting the invasion of Iraq in advance, while dissociating themselves (also in advance) from the atrocities. In the run-up to the onslaught, Thomas L. Friedman praised Bush’s “audacious” war plan as “a job worth doing,” but only “if we can do it right.” Only Friedman could believe that the war then being readied would be carried out to his specifications. In fact, as for other commentators, his only real choice was to endorse what was clearly in store or to count himself out. Once that or any other war began, no one could claim to know its ultimate directions. But its immediate conduct would clearly be in the hands of a political and military establishment that had already amply displayed its colors. Those who supported the invasion signed over their political power of attorney to these figures.

Perhaps—I am not sure—some of the intellectual apologists for the Iraq invasion really did understand that it would be as horrific as it has proved to be. Perhaps they were thoughtful enough to realize that the nature of the oppositions involved, the complexity of the objectives, the ruthlessness of the figures on both sides would guarantee the massive death and repression of civilians, the destruction of vast cityscapes, and the institutionalization of torture. Perhaps this was what Paul Berman had in mind when he characterized the Baath Party as “nearly a classic fascist movement” and (for good measure) “so is the radical Islamist movement, in a somewhat different fashion—two strands of a single impulse, which happens to be Europe’s fascist and totalitarian legacy to the modern Muslim world.” (“A Friendly Drink in a Time of War,” Dissent, Winter 2004, p. 57). Any response short of military assault on these influences, Berman seems to feel, involves “clinging to attitudes that can only be regarded as racist against Arabs.” When the stakes are so high—liberation of the Muslim world from both godly and godless fascism—even the greatest costs en route are acceptable. This is a page from the apocalyptic scriptures of the neoconservatives.

We of the democratic left should be first to decry this reasoning. It is much akin to what horrified Karl Popper half a century ago, when he inveighed against what he called historicism. This is the certain conviction that wished-for historical outcomes warrant any and all measures to hasten their arrival. We must always fear those convinced of the certainty and moral superiority of the world they think they are making, Popper held, since they are willing to countenance any degree of human suffering, if only it appears to lead to that invaluable prize. His key target, of course, was Marxist visions that condoned everything from political assassination to mass murder, if such actions could be portrayed as speeding the day when the evils of capitalism were definitively swept away—and with them, presumably, the roots of all human suffering.

Popper’s doctrine can be abused, developed into a doctrinaire ideology in its own right. But properly qualified, it provides what ought to be a key tenet of the democratic left. Hypothetical goals of sweeping and definitive cures for political ills can rarely be regarded as certain outcomes of any political action. Political programs favoring massive human costs in the short run in the interest of revolutionary progress later on warrant searing skepticism. Given a measure of humility about our ability to predict the consequences of massive interventions, we do better to favor moderate steps toward incremental improvement than sweeping and costly measures whose consequences, we must admit, we cannot be sure of.

Popper of course could not have foreseen the twenty-first century historicism that would supplant Marxist ideas as a source of terrifying certainty. By this I mean the neoconservative triumphalism positing “democracy on the march” (rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat) as the wave of the future—and touting violent historical midwifery to help that future happen sooner, rather than later. But in the determination to make and break regimes around the world, in the interests of bringing “freedom” to populations at no matter what expense to them, neoconservative thinking embodies exactly the moral myopia that Popper deplored.

This kind of thinking has to be anathema to the democratic left. Our role ought to be precisely to reject schemes involving vast short-term suffering on behalf of speculative goals of sweeping historical transformation. We should instead be favoring programs whose benefits are more certain and whose potential for going disastrously wrong is limited.

If our aspiration for American global policy is indeed to preserve life and foster more effective global mechanisms for countering evils of all sorts, we have many less reckless options. A recent UN report estimates the total yearly cost needed to underwrite “minimum development goals”—for health, education, and economic aid—throughout the world at some $73.5 billion U.S. dollars. By contrast, Americans are now spending roughly $50 billion per year to wage war on Iraq. Thus the annual wages of the Iraq War could cover roughly two-thirds of the most pressing needs of the world’s poorest countries. Such an alternative application of American economic might would have virtually no likelihood of adding to the world’s suffering. In all likelihood, the results would be liberating for much of humankind. And such an about-face from America would have the incalculable virtue of raising American standing in the world community, rather than subjecting it to the fate it has now suffered.

Of course, the losers in this substitution would be the proponents of American hegemony who now hold sway in Washington. What they would lose—if only incrementally—would be their ability to threaten regimes all around the world with destruction, should they fail to toe the American line.

But who on the democratic left could argue that this elite lust for American dominance serves the interests of ordinary Americans? Hasn’t anyone noticed that this country, evidently the most militarily powerful on earth, is also the most embroiled in murderous and destructive conflicts abroad? How will the families and others who experience the definitive loss of their daughters, sons, friends, spouses, and lovers benefit from the policies of American dominance? Why is it that the more powerful this country becomes, the more people it has to kill, and the more of its own people have to be sacrificed? If what Washington is seeking is really to extend democracy and pluralism, why is democratic and pluralist opinion around the world so deeply aghast at the Iraq adventure?

Much to the discredit of Dissent, its pages have echoed the Washington line on this theme. Mitchell Cohen’s “A Thought Experiment for the Left” spins a convoluted rationale for America as global arbiter of regime acceptability. America had no choice but to build up Saddam Hussein in the 1980s, he holds. “[I]f we . . . don’t ‘tilt’ to Saddam,” his imaginary liberal president of the United States (with Cohen as ventriloquist) reflects in the year 1981, “the regional and then the global consequences are likely to be catastrophic.” (Dissent, Summer 2004, p. 60). “If we botch this . . . we show the American people that the left cannot conduct foreign policy,” the fanciful strategist muses.

And so, indeed, Iraq came to be enlisted as America’s ally—to countervail against the supposedly still more dangerous influence of Iran. And, the deadly logic of this scenario would suggest, once a conquered Iraq is safely returned to the status of American vassal in the twenty-first century, Washington will need its help anew against the next Muslim/fascist archenemy of the season. Which could quite possibly be . . . Iran, again! But really, we never know who is going to win that role. Pakistan could also be next—for the moment a democratic ally in the worldwide war against terror, but just one coup away from slipping into the Axis of Evil category—springing out of the closet as some turbaned jack-in-the-box of Muslim radicalism, supplying nuclear materials to Islamic terrorists and joining the ever-changing cast of Muslim fascists. And where, by the way, do all these nasty Islamic radicals come from? Did American foreign policy do anything to bring them out of their clerical woodwork? Well, only if you count the very effective efforts of America to build them up in the Afghan War against godless communism. Thank God that today our enemies at least are not atheists!

Cohen’s premise, once understood, dictates a sweeping program of permanent employment for America’s coercive establishment. Whenever one nasty, despotic regime raises its head above the rest and thumbs its nose at Washington, America must beat it down—mobilizing whatever collection of unseemly vassals is available. And when one of these former allies ungratefully challenges its American benefactors, it must receive the same treatment. This process shows every likelihood of continuing forever. Evil regimes are thick on the ground. If Pakistan and Uzbekistan are currently allies, hence unavailable for American invasion, what about Belorussia or the Sudan? Or better still, mainland China? That regime has surely generated more loss of life among its own people than Saddam Hussein could ever have aspired to. It has never repented from those policies, and even today maintains cruel and deadly repression of minorities and dissenters of all sorts. If sheer evil and potential threat were the criteria for targeting American military action, China should be at the top of the list.

This never-ending agenda for American dominance has nothing to do with the politics of the democratic left. Indeed, it undermines our key values—values of insisting on a more just distribution of scarce resources at home, for example, or of favoring collective rather than unilateral solutions to global dangers. The ability to recognize evil abroad is not tantamount to the ability to sweep it away, without incurring still further problems and new and intractable costs. Instead, decisions about applications of American power abroad have to be taken with enormous discrimination as to all their repercussions—for the world community, for the countries immediately involved, and for America’s own domestic life.

Of course, there is always a ready defense against reservations like these—a defense that comes in the form of attack. The attacker need simply assert that those who recoil at American unilateralism are somehow soft on the evils it targets. If Saddam Hussein is as bad as Hitler, after all, then those skeptical of invading Iraq are guilty of—well, you get the idea! Thus Michael Walzer writes in these pages, regarding my own opposition to the Iraq invasion, that I can “barely bring [myself] to acknowledge” the “awfulness” of the Hussein regime (“Arguments: Imperialism and the United States,” Winter 2004, p. 103).

Remarks like these constitute the background hum of condescension from those defining the superiority of their views by the evils of their international nemeses. But I don’t have to “bring myself” to welcome the end of an outstandingly nasty regime. I have never had a good word to say about any of the many such regimes in the world today. There’s no sign that I’m about to start. Dissent, above all, ought to foster a higher quality of debate than this. The Bush regime has effectively exploited the implication that those reluctant to back American unilateralism in Iraq are soft on the old regime there. We ought to do better.

At this writing (in early May), deep uncertainties surround the future of Iraq. Possibly the current political turmoil and low-level guerrilla warfare will yet resolve into some form of relatively bloodless standoff. That could just provide space for a historic compromise granting the Iraqis a measure of peace, without any of the embattled ethnic or communal groups insisting on the suppression of any other. It would be madness to count on such a result, but wrong to rule it out.

But other, far more ominous possibilities also attend. The world has learned what many observers pointed out before the American onslaught—that the destruction of the old regime was bound to release forces whose deadly repercussions, among Iraq and its immediate neighbors, no one could foresee. Civil war, or indeed major regional conflict, could well be in store. There are simply too many ruthless power-holders who see their vital interests engaged in the way Iraq’s political puzzle is put back together. The United States knew all along that it had the might to smash the old regime. No one in charge seems to have thought of what would be required to ensure that the wounds inflicted by the invasion would not bleed indefinitely.

So, more than two years after the invasion, no one knows what even the immediate future will bring in terms of political evolution and human suffering. That is exactly my point. A situation marked by such deep uncertainties of good outcomes should never be the laboratory for fantastical military and political experiments of the sort America has launched. The audacity of this experiment, so much admired by Thomas L. Friedman, is a synonym for irresponsible game-playing with human lives. I hope that I and my children and theirs are never the subject of such audacious exercises from afar. And I hope that our country learns its lesson about such unilateral experimentation from this terrible adventure in Iraq.

Popper was right. Unless one’s back is truly against the wall, it is wrong to run vast risks with human lives on the hypothetical hope of audacious gains. Such sweeping steps require the greatest confidence of good results. Short of that, we on the left are must respect the circumspect medical precept, “Above all, do no harm.”
James B. Rule is at work on a book on privacy protection in America and abroad.

*With thanks for the germ of this metaphor to Carl Oglesby, writing about the Vietnam War in Containment and Change (Macmillan, 1967).