By Frank Rich – New York Times.
AMONG the few scraps of news to emerge from Barack Obama’s vacation was the anecdote of a Martha’s Vineyard bookseller handing him an advance copy of Jonathan Franzen’s new novel, “Freedom.” The book has since rocketed up the Amazon best-seller list, powered by reviews even more ecstatic than those for Franzen’s last novel, “The Corrections.” But I doubt that the president, a fine writer who draws sustenance from great American writers, has read “Freedom” yet. If he had, he never would have delivered that bloodless speech on Tuesday night.
What was so grievously missing from Obama’s address was any feeling for what has happened to our country during the seven-and-a-half-year war whose “end” he was marking. That legacy of anger and grief is what “Freedom” mainlines to its readers. In chronicling one Midwestern family as it migrates from St. Paul to Washington during the 9/11 decade, Franzen does for our traumatic time what Tom Wolfe’s “The Bonfire of the Vanities” did for the cartoonish go-go 1980s. Or perhaps, more pertinently, what “The Great Gatsby” did for the ominous boom of the 1920s. The heady intoxication of freedom is everywhere in “Freedom,” from extramarital sexual couplings to the consumer nirvana of the iPod to Operation Iraqi Freedom itself. Yet most everyone, regardless of age or calling or politics, is at war — not with terrorists, but with depression, with their consciences and with one another.
This mood has not lifted and may be thickening as we trudge toward Year 10 in Afghanistan. But Obama only paid it lip service. It’s a mystery why a candidate so attuned to the nation’s pulse, most especially on the matter of war, has grown tone deaf in office. On Tuesday, Obama asked the country to turn the page on Iraq as if that were as easy as, say, voting for him in 2008. His brief rhetorical pivot from the war to the economy only raised the question of why the crisis of joblessness has not merited a prime-time Oval Office speech of its own.
That Obama did consider Iraq worthy of that distinction — one heretofore shared only by the BP oil spill — was hardly justified by his tepid pronouncements of progress (“credible elections that drew a strong turnout”) or his tidy homilies about the war’s impact. “Our unity at home was tested,” he said, as if all those bygones were now bygones and all the toxins unleashed by this fiasco had miraculously evaporated once we drew down to 50,000 theoretically non-combat troops.
Americans are less forgiving. In recent polls, 60 percent of those surveyed thought the war in Iraq was a mistake, 70 percent thought it wasn’t worth American lives, and only a quarter believed it made us safer from terrorism. This sour judgment is entirely reality-based. The war failed in all its stated missions except the toppling of Saddam Hussein.
While we were distracted searching for Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, Iran began revving up its actual nuclear program and Osama bin Laden and his fanatics ran free to regroup in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We handed Al Qaeda a propaganda coup by sacrificing America’s signature values on the waterboard. We disseminated untold billions of taxpayers’ dollars from Baghdad’s Green Zone, much of it cycled corruptly through well-connected American companies on no-bid contracts, yet Iraq still doesn’t have reliable electricity or trustworthy security. Iraq’s “example of freedom,” as President Bush referred to his project in nation building and democracy promotion, did not inspire other states in the Middle East to emulate it. It only perpetuated the Israeli-Palestinian logjam it was supposed to help relieve.
For this sad record, more than 4,400 Americans and some 100,000 Iraqis (a conservative estimate) paid with their lives. Some 32,000 Americans were wounded, and at least two million Iraqis, representing much of the nation’s most valuable human capital, went into exile. The war’s official cost to U.S. taxpayers is now at $750 billion.
Of all the commentators on the debacle, few speak with more eloquence or credibility than Andrew Bacevich, a professor of history and international relations at Boston University who as a West Point-trained officer served in Vietnam and the first gulf war and whose son, also an Army officer, was killed in Iraq in 2007. Writing in The New Republic after Obama’s speech, he decimated many of the war’s lingering myths, starting with the fallacy, reignited by the hawks taking a preposterous victory lap last week, that “the surge” did anything other than stanch the bleeding from the catastrophic American blundering that preceded it. As Bacevich concluded: “The surge, now remembered as an epic feat of arms, functions chiefly as a smokescreen, obscuring a vast panorama of recklessness, miscalculation and waste that politicians, generals, and sundry warmongers are keen to forget.”
Bacevich also wrote that “common decency demands that we reflect on all that has occurred in bringing us to this moment.” Americans’ common future demands it too. The war’s corrosive effect on the home front is no less egregious than its undermining of our image and national security interests abroad. As the Pentagon rebrands Operation Iraqi Freedom as Operation New Dawn — a “name suggesting a skin cream or dishwashing liquid,” Bacevich aptly writes — the whitewashing of our recent history is well under way. The price will be to keep repeating it.
We can’t afford to forget now that the single biggest legacy of the Iraq war at home was to codify the illusion that Americans can have it all at no cost. We willed ourselves to believe Paul Wolfowitz when he made the absurd prediction that Iraq’s oil wealth would foot America’s post-invasion bills. We were delighted to accept tax cuts, borrow other countries’ money, and run up the federal deficit long after the lure of a self-financing war was unmasked as a hoax. The cultural synergy between the heedless irresponsibility we practiced in Iraq and our economic collapse at home could not be more naked. The housing bubble, inflated by no-money-down mortgage holders on Main Street and high-risk gamblers on Wall Street, was fueled by the same greedy disregard for the laws of fiscal gravity that governed the fight-now-pay-later war.
Our attitude toward the war’s human cost was no less cavalier. We were all too content to let a volunteer army fight our battles out of sight and out of mind, on a fictional pretext yoked to a military strategy premised on a cakewalk. For too long we looked the other way as the coffins arrived in Dover off camera in the shroud of night, as the maimed endured inhumane treatment in military hospitals at home, and as the Iraqi refugees who aided Operation Iraqi Freedom at their own peril were denied the freedom to seek a safe haven in our country.
Both President Obama and Glenn Beck, in his “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington last weekend, were fulsome in their praise of the troops, as well they should have been. But the disconnect between the civilian public, including the war’s die-hard advocates on the right, and those doing the fighting remains as large today as ever. As one Iraq war vet e-mailed to me after hearing Beck’s patriotic sermons: “What does gathering in D.C. do for the troops?” He was appalled at the self-regard of those who thought their jingoistic rally would help returning troops abandoned by the military’s “criminally poor mental health care” or save any soldier who was “two seconds away from getting his leg blown off by an I.E.D.”
The other American casualties of Iraq include the credibility of both political parties, neither of which strenuously questioned the rush to war and both of which are still haunted by that failure, and of the news media, which barely challenged the White House’s propaganda about Saddam’s imminent mushroom clouds. Many pundits, quite a few of them liberals, stoked the war fever as well. Some eventually acknowledged getting it wrong, though in most cases they stopped short of apologizing for their failures of judgment and their abdication of journalistic skepticism about the government’s case for war.
Even now those think-tank types who kept seeing light at the end of the Iraqi tunnel are ubiquitous on television and op-ed pages making similar stay-the-course prognostications about Afghanistan. Their embarrassing track records may have temporarily vanished into the great American memory hole, but actions do have consequences, and there must be an accounting. America does have a soul, and, as Franzen so powerfully dramatizes in “Freedom,” when that soul is violated, we are paralyzed until we set it right.
And yet here we are, slouching toward yet another 9/11 anniversary, still waiting for a correction, with even our president, an eloquent Iraq war opponent, slipping into denial. Of all the pro forma passages in Obama’s speech, perhaps the most jarring was his entreaty that Iraq’s leaders “move forward with a sense of urgency to form an inclusive government that is just, representative and accountable.” He might as well have been talking about the poisonous political deadlock in Washington. At that moment, there was no escaping the tragic fact that instead of bringing American-style democracy and freedom to Iraq, the costly war we fought there has, if anything, brought the bitter taste of Iraq’s dysfunction to America.