Machiavelli at the Bat

When Nicolo Machiavelli asserted that the ends justify the means, he did not intend any sort of moral statement. Rather, he meant that over time, the court of public opinion judges political actions not on whether they are accomplished through “legitimate” means, but on whether the actions succeed and on their end results. If our war in Iraq strengthens America’s security and makes the world a better place, no one will care whether we act in accordance with international law, and our government’s tortuous logic that led us into battle will be forgiven. The true problem we face is that the war and subsequent occupation and rebuilding of Iraq are unlikely to make us safer and better off in the long run. Therefore, the future may judge us harshly. On the other hand, if we succeed, it will be irrelevant that other nations, including our allies the Saudis, have worse human rights records than Iraq. It will also be unimportant that other “rogue states” have chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons of mass destruction. No one but historians and liberals with long memories will remember that Saddam has never had credible ties to al-Qaeda, who attacked us, or that Halliburton, the defense industries, and their friends in the government stand to make a-pardon the term-killing from the bloodshed. If we establish a stable democracy in Iraq, it won’t matter whether Saddam’s regime now possesses weapons of mass destruction. Of course, we know they do, as we still have the receipts. We probably won’t care that American and British support for the war, much like the German and French opposition to it, is grounded in geopolitics, and that the name of the adventure, Operation Iraqi Freedom, is more or less a ruse. If our preemptive war succeeds, then other nations will hopefully see the value of the so-called doctrine of preemption, and realize that it’s safe for us to use but dangerous for them. These are not the reasons for which we Americans should support our troops now that we’re fighting. Before we invaded Iraq, I supported the peace effort and the notion that we should give the weapons inspectors a chance before our rushing into battle with an enemy of our own creation. Consequently, there is every valid reason now to support our troops. As long as we are fighting anywhere, it is preposterous not to hope for our complete victory in as short a time as possible and with a minimum of US casualties. It is possible, even reasonable, however, to support our troops wholeheartedly without agreeing with our president, and without believing that this war is justified, necessary, or likely in the long run to benefit the US or the world. I hope and yet doubt that President Bush and his advisers are right. We Americans have trusted that when we defeat Saddam, the Iraqi people will welcome us as liberators, given that we fight on the side of might, light, and right. As the noted philosopher Barry Bonds once put it, “I’m not arrogant. I’m good. There’s a difference.” His words capture our national attitude. As Oedipus learned quite literally, however, hubris is blinding. The truth is that we are both good and arrogant, both Bonds and Oedipus. We are the hubristic hyper-power. While some Iraqis recently have cheered on our advancing armies, others, including many who suffered under Saddam, have greeted the American and British soldiers less jovially, in the ways that invading armies are usually welcomed. After the last shot of the war is fired, the struggle to build a new Iraq will begin. Presidents Bush Sr. and Clinton thought it better to leave Saddam in power but contained, than to attempt to build a free Iraq. Hopefully they were mistaken. It is clear, however, that rebuilding Iraq will require the type of commitment that is in a sense more difficult than sending in troops for a brief war, and a commitment we failed to make in Afghanistan, one in which we have largely abandoned to warlords and chaos. At this point we can only hope that Bush Jr. plans to persevere and make the US and the world safer and freer by building a free and stable Iraq. Otherwise, years from now, we’ll look back on this failed end, and question which of our means were at fault, and laugh because we must not cry.