In his 1960 book We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (which remains, happily, in print), Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray raised a cautionary flag about the American future that seems, today, eerily prescient:
What is at stake is America’s understanding of itself. Self-understanding is the necessary condition of a sense of self-identity and self-confidence, whether in the case of an individual or in the case of a people. If the American people can no longer base this sense on naïve assumptions of self-evidence, it is imperative that they find other more reasoned grounds for their essential affirmation that they are uniquely a people, uniquely a free people. Otherwise the peril is great. The complete loss of one’s identity is, with all propriety of theological definition, hell. In diminished forms it is insanity. And it would not be well for the American giant to go lumbering about the world today, lost and mad.
An example of an America lost, mad, and dangerous to itself and international security was on offer at the January 23 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on the Benghazi disaster. There, Senator Richard Durbin (D., Ill.), a man who my Chicago friends tell me considers himself a future president, had the following to say after several of his colleagues dared to raise questions with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton about the Obama administration’s anti-terrorism strategy and the administration’s decision-making during the Benghazi attack:
I do want to make a point, for the record here, about whether the American people are told everything right away, in the right way, so that they can be fully informed. And I would like to refer to five words for them to reflect on: Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. We were told by every level of government here there were Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that justified a war, the invasion of the United States. We’re still searching for those weapons. They didn’t exist. Thousands of American lost their lives. We could have a hearing on that, if you like.
That’s a hearing I, for one, would welcome. In addition to straightening out Senator Durbin on who invaded what in 2003, a serious hearing on the decision-making prior to the invasion of Iraq and the deposing of the Saddam Hussein regime would clarify the following essential points:
1. Every American intelligence agency and every allied intelligence agency, as well as the United Nations, was convinced that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. and an international coalition invaded Iraq.
2. The decisions made by the U.S. government were based on an acceptance of that unified judgment by the intelligence community (which CIA director George Tenet described, it may be remembered, as a “slam dunk,” an image with which a Chicago Bulls fan like Durbin should be reasonably familiar).
3. The authoritative Duelfer Report, with which the Bush administration cooperated as it was being prepared, made patently clear that, while Saddam had no operational WMD at hand when the U.S. and its allies invaded, he maintained the façade that he indeed had WMD for his own political and strategic purposes (which explains his continued defiance of the U.N.) and he was ready, eager, and willing to operationally ramp up his WMD programs again after the U.N. sanctions regime had crumbled and the no-fly zones over Iraq had been lifted.
4. While concern about Iraqi WMD was a prominent part of the case for taking Saddam and his regime out (and was the case pressed at the United Nations because Tony Blair insisted on it, to cover himself with squirrely Labour backbenchers), it was in fact one component in a complex tapestry of causation, which included Saddam’s innumerable and horrific human-rights violations, his support of various terrorist organizations and sheltering of international terrorists, and the perceived strategic imperative to break up the variables in what had become a manifestly lethal Middle East combination of dictatorship plus oil plus support for terrorism plus defiance of international law. (On this last point, perhaps Senator Durbin could call as a witness Professor Fouad Ajami of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, as the senator clearly has not read Ajami’s book The Foreigner’s Gift: The Americans, the Arabs, and the Iraqis in Iraq.)
Such a hearing might also be an occasion to instill a little seriousness in the U.S. foreign-policy debate, which got off to a bad second-term start when the president, in his inaugural address, said that the past decade’s worth of wars was coming to an end — a claim that was surely news, if welcome news, to al-Qaeda and its affiliates throughout North Africa, the Gulf, and South Asia. Whatever the president may say in fits of rhetorical exultation that seem better fitted to his “permanent campaign” than to serious policymaking, these wars are manifestly not over, and they are not going to be over for decades.
Moreover, it will be impossible for the United States to form the political will to successfully prosecute this new, extended, and strange form of national defense and international security-building in the future until Americans with serious public responsibilities, like Senator Durbin, stop prevaricating about the past, and doing so by invoking the memory of juvenile slogans like “Bush lied and thousands died.” President Bush did not lie. The thousands who died gave their lives in an honorable cause (the positive results of which we may hope the second Obama administration does not completely fritter away), and it is despicable to suggest that they died in vain.
If Senator Durbin and other Democrats cannot acknowledge these elementary facts of the historical record — if foreign policy and serious strategic thinking are trumped time and again by the “permanent campaign” and its toxic partisanship — then we may well expect the worst, as Father Murray predicted in 1960. Durbin’s comments were disgraceful, and the fact that they were not immediately called out as such is yet another depressing indicator of national decline.
To repeat: “It would not be well for the American giant to go lumbering about the world today, lost and mad.”
— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.