Politics & Policy

On “Blowing It”

Arab-world issues.

T he going consensus among the chattering classes these days is that America has “blown it” since 9/11.

What’s “it”? Oh, well, that depends. “It” seems to shift with the day’s news. On any given day according to, say, the editorial page of the New York Times, America might be blowing the war on terrorism, the peace in Iraq, our moral capital in the world, the esteem of the chocolate-maker countries — Whatever.

Of course, for the sake of intellectual honesty, one must concede that the naysayers might be right. We might be blowing this or that policy. Who knows how all of this will play out? Maybe President Bush made some wrong decisions over the last couple of years. Some conclusions can really only be drawn in hindsight and some projects are inherently a mess until they’re finished. When you’re fighting barbarians, the only time you can tell for sure you’ve won the day is when you can’t count the bodies on the field. (See “War and Patience.”)

I should also say that measured against what some of the president’s critics have recommended, I don’t see any huge errors in judgment based on the facts as we knew them. Even in hindsight, the Dennis Kucinich plan, for example, certainly doesn’t look any better now than it did a year or two ago. (I’m fuzzy on the details, but I seem to recall it involved something along the lines of having the entire U.S. military bend over and say, “Thank you, Sir, May I have another!” after every terrorist attack. There was also something about a bake sale at the Pentagon.)

But we can have those arguments any day. Instead, I’d like to look at the bigger picture. In fact, I’d like to blame the “victim.”


The August 6 Christian Science Monitor ran a fascinating exposé of the real reason we haven’t been able to catch Saddam Hussein. He has a magic rock around his neck that protects him from harm. “It’s all true about the magic stone,” Mokhaled Mohammed, a car dealer sitting in a cafe on Baghdad’s up-market Arasat Street, told the Monitor. “First of all, he put it on a chicken and tried to shoot it. Then he put it on a cow, and the bullets went around it.”

Obviously, PETA is eager to get their hands on that rock. But it turns out that Saddam has got more than a Level-Seven Livestock Protector. More from the Monitor:

“Saddam never takes any step unless he consults with his magician advisers. I’m sure he has two or three with him now,” says Qassem Ali, an electrician in Baghdad.

“He brought them in from China and Japan because he wanted specialists,” says colleague Ali Mahdi. As they talked, a crowd gathered around to earnestly chip in their stories about Hussein’s supernatural prowess.

“Saddam is indestructible because of these powers,” Mr. Mahdi insists. Such a belief, widely but by no mean universally held here, has contributed to the atmosphere of fear and mistrust that is hindering coalition attempts to rebuild the country.

Putting aside the outrageous insinuation that the Chi-Coms are beating us in the magician-specialist race (why I understand the Pentagon alone has four necromancers who can actually make Michael Moore bathe on command), it’s worth noting that the people making these comments aren’t illiterate goat herders. They’re electricians and car dealers. (You may want to beat a car dealer about the head and neck with a petrified ferret, but they aren’t dumb.) In other words, they are educated members of the Iraqi middle class.

Let’s put aside the embarrassing fact that a sizable number of adult Iraqis actually believe it really happens every time their uncle pulls a quarter out of their ears. Let’s just say that the Iraqi people are a mess. Only 40 percent of the population can read. They are deeply superstitious, tribal, and ignorant of how the world really works. Of course, it’s not their “fault” to a certain extent in that their leaders have spoon fed them nonsense and propaganda for more than a generation. The Iraqis have been deprived, brutalized, and terrorized by their own government.

And since I’m going to get grief for writing this column no matter what, I might well keep going. The whole Arab world is a similar mess. (See “What’s Wrong with the Arab World.”) Sure, some countries are in considerably better shape than Iraq. But some aren’t. And illiteracy, paranoia, and ignorance still rule a vast swath of the Arab world. (And, of course, I’m anthropomorphizing whole societies here. There’s no doubt that there are millions of sane, decent, intelligent Arabs all around the world.) For example, Egypt, the cradle of civilization, has a literacy rate of 57 percent. One need not dwell on this. But all you really need to do is see what passes for intelligent commentary in leading Arab newspapers to understand that collectively, the Arab world is in a sorry psychological state. Here’s one — with extra exclamation points — which calls Americans “cannibals” and “human corpse-disembowelers!!”

But the most obvious evidence that the Arab world is a mess is that they are the ones who have been blowing it since 9/11.

If I try my best to convince a homeless drug addict to get help, I may fail in my efforts to help the guy. But, if I do fail, who really blew it? If I come to him with a ham sandwich and a cup of coffee, in the hopes of persuading him to get cleaned up so I can give him a job and a fresh start and he freaks out that I’m a Cannibalistic Human Corpse Disemboweler (a relative of CHUDs no doubt) and runs away, sure you could say that I blew it. But surely he blew it worse. I can go home to my nice house. He goes home to squalor. And, should the man ever come to his senses, he’d agree that his mistake was far greater than mine.

When Providence offers you a great opportunity to improve your life and the lives of your children and you fail to grasp it, you’ve blown it, big time. We’ve all made decisions in our own lives which — given the clarity of hindsight — we now understand to be colossal blunders. Usually, youth and ignorance are the culprits. But sometimes the elixir of crazy ideas goes to our head. The college Communist who turns down a great job because he doesn’t want to sell out, the guy who won’t follow the girl of his dreams out of pride, the girl who won’t settle down with the right guy because it seems too “traditional,” the shmuck who won’t get off his couch because it’s just so much easier not to: We all know these stories all too well. And, usually, the people at the heart of such tales eventually realize how much they blew it. Few truths are more enduring in the mind than the realization of blown opportunities.

Indeed, imagine the hopefully not-too-far-flung-future where humanity is having a grand time in the sunny cafes at the end of history. Conjure the image of a Star Treky age where greed and superstition and paranoia are rightly seen as the childish things long since put away by man. Well, when our descendents look back on the years since September 11, who do you think will say, “Man, we really blew it!”? Will it be the Americans who — at great risk and expense — offered a drowning people a lifeline? Or will it be those who preferred the familiar comfort of drowning to the mild sting to their pride which came with taking that lifeline?

As with all deranged people, the compassionate have two possible courses of action: They can try to help or, if that doesn’t work, they can try to protect themselves through less-gentle means. Obviously, the best protection is to help the deranged get un-deranged. And that is what we are trying so desperately to do in Iraq. We are trying through example, persuasion, and all-too necessary toughness to show the Arab world that there is a better way than grinding poverty, violence, and corruption. I, like most Americans, truly want it to work. But if it doesn’t, if the cup-of-coffee-and-the-sandwich approach doesn’t work, America will still do what is necessary to protect itself. And that won’t be the preferable option for anybody. Trust me.

One last thing: There are many people in the U.S. who do not accept that the predominant worldview in the Arab world, at least as evidenced by many of their publications (translated courtesy of the likes of MEMRI) and interviews with Western reporters (like that Christian Science Monitor classic), is deranged. I am convinced that the reason many find this fact unacceptable is simply that they think it’s not a very nice thing to say. They believe it is rude. They anthropomorphize whole societies too. But when they do so they conclude it is bad manners to call attention to ugly facts about someone else. It’s mean. It’s blaming the victim. Etc. As I know will happen in the e-mail I’ll get for this column, they’ll say, “How dare you criticize others when America has done blah, blah, blah.” These people are enablers. They’re not traitors and they’re not necessarily fools. But, they are hung up with enough misplaced guilt so as to refuse to accept the necessarily blunt truth.

I’m not referring here to honest critics, liberals and conservatives, of this or that policy. I’m referring to the folks who fetishize third worlders and aggrieved peoples generally. Such people may not agree that America is the land of the human disembowelers, though perhaps a few do. But they will defend to the death the right of aggrieved and offended third-world nations to call us such things. They will claim that barbarity, cruelty, and ignorance are “their culture” and that Americans have no right to judge. Such stuff can be crippling; Jean Francois Revel said, “Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.”

When I was growing up in New York I listened to the same sorts of people say that the homeless had every right to terrorize my playground because of all the terrible things society had done to them. And, besides, who are we to judge another’s “lifestyle”? We can talk about all that another day, but suffice it to say that very often when I hear that we are “blowing it” in Iraq, I hear the same people.


In a column last week about the stupidity of comparing Bush to Hitler I asserted that Nazis made soap out of Jews. I shouldn’t have said that. The Nazis didn’t. Rather this was a rumor turned into propaganda during World War Two and the Cold War. Some readers were kind enough to call this to my attention and I regret the error. Other readers somehow saw this error as a reason to reject the entire thesis of my column or to reject the notion that the Holocaust was all that bad. These people are being foolish or are fools. I don’t care to tease out the distinction.

Also, a great number of liberal readers have offered the exact same criticisms time and again — which leads me to think there is a blog out there whacking me on these points. Anyway, I responded to them here.

Lastly, if you haven’t heard, National Review is offering the full print version of the magazine in digital format. You can read about it here.


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