Acts of Contrition

I hate it when I’m right, mostly because my predictions are invariably dark. We’re lost, doomed, the end is near. It’s always something. And while it may be in bad taste to say “I told you so,” I did indeed tell you so back in March of 2003, when the invasion of Iraq was nigh:

“The war on Iraq is going to be short, but the occupation will be a task without end, a heavy burden that will be more than just punishment for our vainglorious ‘victory.’ As the self-elected arbiter of every ethnic dispute that arises among the quarrelsome peoples of the Middle East, we are walking into a snake-pit, I fear, without thought of the consequences. A future of endless conflicts, perpetual war for perpetual peace, and color-coded terror unto infinity – that is what we have to look forward to.”

That’s pretty much how it went down, wouldn’t you say?

You didn’t have to be Nostradamus to see it coming down the pike: the impending disaster of “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” There’s a lot going on in Iraq these days, but freedom has nothing to do with it, unless you’re talking about the “freedom” not to have electricity, or the “freedom” to live in fear.

I was hardly alone in my skepticism, although our little band of naysayers was, at first, frighteningly small: but these skeptics were not given a platform. The airwaves and the op ed pages of America’s newspapers were, for the most part, monopolized by the War Party’s myrmidons, although USA Today did give some space for this then-unfashionable opinion:

“President Bush has said that American troops will stay in Iraq ‘as long as necessary and not a day longer’ — a statement that obfuscates but doesn’t elucidate. The American public thinks we are going to go in, get Saddam and come marching triumphantly home. The truth is that, as Army chief of staff Gen. Eric Shinseki has testified, we are entering into an open-ended commitment that will involve stationing ‘several hundred thousand’ troops in Iraq indefinitely.”

Now, Johnnie will come marching home – or will he? We’re told all “combat troops” are being pulled out, but this is just a matter of redefining a redundancy: after all, what, exactly, are “non-combat troops”? Soldiers engage in combat, and our soldiers are still there, although a great many are now “private” contractors: the actual numbers haven’t gone down appreciably.

It’s just a matter of word play: of finding the right phrases, the most convincing weasel words to make it all seem right. So they had to rename “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” an unimaginative moniker if ever there was one, and came up with the equally uninventive “Operation New Dawn.” Yawn.

Yes, it’s a new dawn, a new day, a fresh start – unless you’re one of the 5,000 American dead, or the 40,000 or so wounded – to say nothing of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead and wounded.

That’s your “new dawn.” One wonders why they bother. Does anybody in America even care? It’s almost Labor Day weekend, and we’re getting out our grills and going down to the supermarket to stock up on dead animal carcasses and potato salad fixings. Yum. Only the pundits care, and they’re busy covering their own asses for having fallen for Bush’s sales pitch. Take Anne Applebaum, formerly one of the war’s most ardent advocates, whose act of contrition is as cold and calculating as her initial support for the invasion was smugly self-satisfied. Back in 2003, she was touting the triumph of the neoconservatives who claimed they could and would “liberate” not only Iraq but the entire region:

“’The Regime has gone,’ the White House told Americans at the end of last week. Iraqis too heard President George Bush’s voice on the radio and television last week, promising not to stop fighting until the whole ‘corrupt gang’ is gone, promising to keep order, promising freedom.

“At a meeting in St Petersburg, the axis of obstructionism – France, Russia and Germany – were sounding defensive. Meanwhile, both the American Treasury Secretary and the Deputy Defense Secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, called on those same three countries to forget about the debt, perhaps as much as $20 billion, that Iraq owes to them. Peace rallies planned for Washington this weekend were suddenly thrown into disarray. Some protesters canceled buses; others wanted to shift the focus back to ‘globalization,’ which has always interested them more any way.

“On the face of it, the events of last week do look, in other words, like total vindication for the President. And not just the President: the small band of presidential advisers and supporters who have worked hard, for much of the past decade, to get us to this moment have also finally been proven right. Some, like Wolfowitz and the Vice-President, Dick Cheney, are in the Administration. Others, like Richard Perle, are advisers. Still others have worked out of Washington think-tanks, editors’ offices and corporate boardrooms, tirelessly arguing for ‘regime change’ in Iraq, slowly moving the issue from the fringes to the center of debate.

“It all seems inevitable in retrospect …”

It always seems inevitable, the progress of power: whoever is winning now will carry their victory through to the end, or so the conventional wisdom invariably avers. George Orwell made this point about intellectuals enamored of power in his essay critiquing James Burnham, one of the first neocons, who predicted a Hitlerite victory when German armies were sweeping through Europe, and wrote an admiring profile of Stalin when the monster loomed large. Applebaum, a fervent and early supporter of the war, is a textbook case of the Burnham Syndrome, which Orwell described thus:

“Power worship blurs political judgment because it leads, almost unavoidably, to the belief that present trends will continue. Whoever is winning at the moment will always seem to be invincible. If the Japanese have conquered south Asia, then they will keep south Asia for ever, if the Germans have captured Tobruk, they will infallibly capture Cairo; if the Russians are in Berlin, it will not be long before they are in London: and so on. This habit of mind leads also to the belief that things will happen more quickly, completely, and catastrophically than they ever do in practice.”

Applebaum, and her fellow neocons, are nothing if not worshipers of power, with American military power being their panacea [.pdf] for many of the world’s problems. As US news networks struggled to find those Iraqis who were supposed to be dancing in the streets, and filmed the toppling of Saddam’s statue as if it were a real event, Applebaum was swept along in the general euphoria, allowing herself to believe what she so desperately wanted to believe: that the invasion and conquest of Iraq was a nearly effortless victory for Freedom and Democracy that only those European “obstructionists” and a few peaceniks in the States failed to appreciate.

That was then, this is now:

“Even if violence abates, even if U.S. troops go home, we have still paid a very high price for our victory—much higher than we usually admit.”

Applebaum’s complaints are all about America: there is only a passing, and indirect mention of the unimaginable price paid by Iraqis – over 100,000 dead, at a minimum, and their society shattered seemingly beyond repair. While Iraq war supporters of Applebaum’s ilk often rhapsodized about the many alleged benefits for Iraqis that would flow from an American “liberation,” in the end it’s all about us.

Applebaum is worried that “America’s reputation for effectiveness” is in the trashcan, because, while we toppled Saddam pronto, “the occupation was chaotic.” The reason? “The Pentagon was squabbling with the State Department,” she cavils, “the soldiers had no instructions and didn’t speak the language. The overall impression, in Iraq and everywhere else, was of American incompetence.” Oh, and “the insurgency appeared to take Washington by surprise.”

Yet surely Applebaum was herself more than a bit taken aback by the persistence of Iraqi resistance: from the tone of her earlier screed, wherein she hailed “the total vindication of the president,” one would think that the Iraqis would present no further problem.

In any case, does Applebaum really imagine that even if every US soldier in Iraq spoke fluent Arabic, and the Pentagon and State had been in a state of Vulcan mind-meld for the war’s duration, things would have turned out any better? Was the Iraq disaster made possible by a mere failure to communicate? This is such a facile notion that it barely merits repetition, let alone refutation. The soldiers didn’t receive the right “instructions,” she claims: but what would these have consisted of – don’t torture prisoners? Don’t shoot people down at random in the streets? Be nice?

The insurgency persisted and eventually came to challenge our glorious “victory” for the simple reason that people hate foreign occupiers. Is that really so hard to understand?

Applebaum moans that “America’s ability to organize a coalition” has suffered:

“Participation in the Iraq war cost Tony Blair his reputation and the Spanish government an election. After an initial surge of support, the Iraqi occupation proved unpopular even in countries where America is popular, such as Italy and Poland. Almost no country that participated in the conflict derived any economic or diplomatic benefits from doing so. None received special U.S. favors—not even Georgia, which sent 2,000 soldiers and received precisely zero U.S. support during its military conflict with Russia.”

This is, in reality, one of the unintended benefits of the Iraq war: there will be far fewer suckers willing to follow us off a cliff in the future. As for Tony Blair and the Spaniards: good riddance, I say. And leave it to Applebaum, America’s leading Russophobe, to get in that dig about Georgia, the would-be conqueror of Abkhazia and Ossetia. The further we stay from the Caucasus, the better.

She also mourns the loss of “America’s ability to influence the Middle East” and our habit of “thinking like a global power.” The Iranians have been empowered – an outcome opponents of the war predicted, and proponents like Applebaum ignored – and the effect on the Israeli-Palestinian faceoff has not been “positive.” Yet what did she think would happen in the rest of the region as US troops trampled on the ruins of what had once been one of the most modern in the Middle East? Did she and her neocon friends really imagine they’d be met with showers of rose petals instead of bullets?

As for “thinking like a global power,” Applebaum’s complaint is that we neglected other rising threats: “China’s rise to real world-power status, Latin America’s drift to the far left, and Russia’s successful use of pipeline politics to divide Europe.” So many crises, so little time! It’s hard being the world’s policeman, one barely has enough time to conquer one upstart country than another wiseacre arises on the other side of the earth, just begging to be slapped down. Imperialism means multi-tasking: that‘s the lesson Applebaum would have us take away from the Iraqi quagmire.

Her last complaint is almost too much for any decent person to bear: “Finally, there are [a]few domestic items that are often overlooked. One worries me in particular: America’s ability to care for its wounded veterans.”

This is obscene. For Applebaum, who tirelessly plumbed for war, to raise this issue, of all issues, just about takes the cake for chutzpah. Wasn’t she “worried” about this before she began agitating for war? Or didn’t it occur to her that many would be horribly wounded, and that the costs, both in human and material terms, would be horrific? Of course she knew many would come out of the “liberation” of Iraq with missing limbs, or blinded, or maimed in some other horrible manner, but she didn’t care enough about it at the time – it didn’t figure greatly in her calculus of costs and benefits.

As we contemplate the enormity of the tragedy we unleashed in Iraq, these acts of contrition by clueless neocons are more than merely irritating: they are intolerable. There has to be some penalty for being so wrong – and yet there is none. Far from it, these people are being rewarded with honors and prestige: just this morning Applebaum’s buddy, Paul Wolfowitz, was on the op ed page of the New York Times advising us to stay “engaged” in Iraq. And Applebaum continues to regale us with her fact-free opinions from the august pages of the Washington Post.

Who will rid us of these omnipresent self-regarding conscience-less war-bots? They still dominate the op ed pages of the nation’s newspapers, and they’re all over television, solemnly averring that our moral duty is to police the world, and sagely advising that our godlike powers are equal to the task.

Soon enough this coalition of the clueless will be telling us that Iran must be our next target: that we can and must “liberate” the Persians, who are just waiting for the slightest signal from Uncle Sam to rise up and smite their oppressors.

Which brings us to the real lesson to be learned from Iraq, and it is this: whenever you hear someone pontificating on American foreign policy, do a little research. Find out what their position was on the invasion of Iraq, and if they were for it there’s just one thing left to do: change the channel and walk away.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].