Ira Chernus  




Question:  What do Mark Twain and the neoconservatives have in common?  Answer:  The reports of their deaths are greatly exaggerated.  We’ve been hearing reports of the demise of neocon influence for over half a year now.  Yet every time a major decision has to be made in the White House, the neocon view seems to prevail.

They are certainly still in charge of Iraq policy.  Despite overwhelming opposition from the pundits and the people, they’ve persuaded Bush to embrace their troop “surge” plan.  It seems downright crazy -- until you see it through the squinty corkscrew eyes of the neocons.  Then it takes on a perverse logic all its own. 

It’s not the logic of blood for oil.  When the big oil companies want to make U.S. foreign policy serve their interests, the man they turn to is James Baker.  If more troops were likely to help big oil, Baker would have put the “surge” into his plan.

But Baker and the oil moguls know that as long as U.S. forces are in Iraq, the country will be in such chaos that most of the oil will never reach the corporate refineries. It’s a safe bet that Baker recommended withdrawing U.S. troops because (among other reasons) he figures it’s the quickest way to get the oil flowing, and his friends in the oil companies can still get their hefty cuts without masses of U.S. troops on the ground.  It’s a safe bet that most of the pundits agree.

The neocons who are running the show overruled Baker and the pundits because they follow a very different logic.  As Michael Lind, a former editor of a neocon journal, once explained, their policies do “not reflect business interests in any direct way. … Explanations involving big oil or American capitalism are mistaken.”  If neocon policies help the oil companies get richer, that’s a welcome bonus. But it’s not the heart of the story.

In the last few days, Bush aides have been out baring their heart to the White House press corps.  According to the Washington Post, they’re saying that Bush “has few other dramatic options available to signal U.S. determination in Iraq.”  The New York Times has them explaining that the troop surge will “illustrate Washington’s increased resolve to deter adventurism by regional adversaries.”

At a press conference a few weeks ago, Bush warned: “They can't run us out of the Middle East.  They can't intimidate America. … They think it's just a matter of time before America grows weary and leaves. … That's not going to happen.” He suggested that he’s guided by the wisdom of his “buddies” in Texas who “are saying, 'Are you doing enough?' … They want to know, this mighty country … are we doing what it takes to win?"  

That’s the heart of the neocon story:  America has to prove that we are a mighty country. We have to show enough resolve to intimidate every enemy, without ever being weak or intimidated ourselves. We have to be strong enough and determined enough to win every time. 

"I'm interested in one thing:  I'm interested in winning," Bush said in a recent interview.  "If we can't win, I'll pull us out.”  Then he explained what “winning” means to him:  “The only defeat is leaving, is letting things fall into chaos and letting al Qaeda have a safe haven.”

Of course the longer U.S. troops stay, the deeper Iraq falls into chaos and the stronger al Qaeda becomes.  So here’s what Bush really meant (translated by’s chief Bush-watcher, Dan Froomkin):  “Even if things are getting worse, rather than better -- simply staying is winning. … The only way to lose is to leave.”  “I view this as a struggle of good versus evil,” Bush added.  So staying is good; leaving is evil.  Period.

That may sound like nonsense to most of us.  But it makes good sense to the neocons, because their main goal is not victory in the conventional sense.  Their main goal is to prove that America has manly character:  we aren’t “cut and run” quitters; we don’t get weary, weak, or intimidated; we have the guts and moral fiber to stand up to every enemy, no matter how tough; we are real men who will endure any pain and make any sacrifice, as long as we are good guys fighting against evildoers. 

For a neocon, determination, resolve, and sacrifice are not just useful tactics (as they are for the James Bakers of the world).  They are moral qualities that prove we have the essential virtue: strength and fortitude. As long as we are standing tough and making sacrifices, we are proving our manly character. So we are defeating the real enemy: our own moral weakness.  But to prove that kind of strength, we have to be out there fighting. That’s why it’s the act of making war, not the outcome, that counts most.

The neocons are set on making the whole country follow their example.  According to the BBC, the “central theme” of Bush’s big speech “will be sacrifice.”  (Bush has already warned that 2007 will “require additional sacrifices.”)  “Americans need to commit to greater national sacrifice,” one White House spinmeister told the press. Another framed it as simplistically as Bush will frame it:  “A choice between withdrawal and surge. … The public is more likely to support the president’s position, which is putting a stake in the ground in Iraq and saying were going to try to win.”

The sad truth is that the public just might support the president.  Most Americans hate to be losers. But they may hate even more to be weak-willed quitters.  “The public is not for immediate withdrawal or even a quick withdrawal, but they’re not for the status quo,” one of the spinmeisters explained.  So they may very well fall for the “surge” as the best change available.

There’s the challenge for those of us who see the Iraq war as a symptom of a much deeper disease.  We want to educate people about what’s really going on, not only in Iraq but here in the good old U. S. of A.  We’d like to make the war a window into the inner workings of the American system.  We’d have an easier task if James Baker and his friends were still making policy.  Then we might impact public opinion by making a convincing case about wars fought for corporate profit.  Most Americans won’t shed blood for oil.

But too many will shed blood for an old-fashioned morality that equates virtue with deadly displays of brute macho strength.  That’s the essence of The Decider’s message as he stumps for his “surge” plan.  And he seems so sure of his righteousness, he may actually get away with it -- unless we can argue convincingly that the truly moral path leads us out of Iraq, now.  

There is more at stake here than a prolonged tragedy in Iraq.  If the neocons win this one, they’ll be emboldened to make the same case about resolve and sacrifice and virtue when it comes to their long-dreamed-of war against Iran.  And that could make Iraq look like a minor bump in the road to catastrophe. 

All the “No Blood for Oil” bumper stickers in the world won’t help as long as the neocons are still making policy.  If we want to avert disaster, we should take the neocons at their word, confront their perverse moral code head on, and argue for a very different kind of morality -- one that doesn’t require morgues full of corpses to make us feel virtuous.  The economics of war is always important.  But right now it’s the morality that we most urgently need to debate.