01/21/2008 09:50 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Staying Innocent about Iraq

Let us recount the figures. Out of a nation of 26 million, two and a half
million are refugees in Syria, Jordan, Iran, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Turkey.
Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and more than two million forced to
flee their homes within Iraq. The middle class: destroyed. American forces and
mercenaries (called "contractors"), over five years turned one of the world's
great cities into a free-fire zone. There is scarcely an Iraqi in all of the
south who has not had a friend or family member killed by Americans. And the
exact measure of our concern is this: from 2005 to the end of 2007, fewer than
a thousand Iraqis have been admitted as immigrants to the United States.

All this, the world sees and wonders at. But to judge by the presidential
campaign, none of it has happened. The surge (a word evocative of soft drinks
and internet carriers) has sealed off the images of smashed doorways and
roadside explosions. The Republican primaries are taking place in a different
country from the United States, a country that never had a constitution and
that (except for occasional reminders from Ron Paul) never gave a thought to
the inalienable rights of citizens. In that country, the motto "Live free or
die" has been replaced by "Live safe and punish."

On the subject of Iraq, the Democratic contest is a series of lies of omission.
Recall that in the presidential campaign of 2004, the words Abu Ghraib never
passed the lips of John Kerry. This year, following a similar path, Hillary
Clinton and Barack Obama and John Edwards seem to have resolved not to mention
Abu Ghraib, Haditha, or Falluja. The war, they say (Edwards more forthrightly
than the others), was a bad miscalculation which we are reviewing now. Give us
time, and trust us to count more honestly than President Bush. By their tact
and delicacy, Clinton and Obama are allowing people to conclude that their
disagreement with our Middle East policy is a matter of know-how. They have not
addressed the imperial assumptions that guided the war, or explained, with the
necessary patience, why this is a war we should never have fought; why, in the
nature of the conflict, it cannot be "won"; why a continued American presence
in the region is a surer breeder of terrorism than anything Americans say or do
on our own continent.

The failure of nerve is ominous. For unless these points are made soon, and
convincingly, the Democrats will have laid themselves open to be attacked as
defeatists in the face of a "success" which will leave the U.S. as the largest
militia on the ground in support of a puppet government. General Petraeus is
going to tell Congress in March that he needs time and money and commitment to
turn the corner in Iraq. They laughed at McCain's 100 years, but when Petraeus
says five-to-ten, will Clinton or Obama be ready with a reply? They have not
begun to educate the public whom they expect to mobilize.

A tacit reason for the omission bears thinking about. There is a continuity (for
all the differences) between the foreign policy of Bill Clinton and that of
George W. Bush. And none of the candidates outside of Kucinich and Paul has
threatened to break that continuity. The same pattern is discernible in the
mania of Giuliani, and in the sheer militarism of McCain, but it is there more
circumspectly in public statements by Hillary Clinton supporting American and
Israeli actions in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iran. From these statements Barack
Obama has dissented episodically, but never with a lasting emphasis.

The major candidates assume that we agree on all of the following. The United
States is the world's sole superpower. This is a good thing, but we can only
help the world if we use our power constantly. We have, indeed, a moral duty to
use all of our power--including military power--for humanity and for ourselves.
American actions under Clinton and Bush in the oil-rich horn of Africa; the
startling eastward expansion of NATO under Clinton, and its consolidation by
Bush; Clinton's bombing of Iraq in the 1990s, and Bush's catastrophic success
at regime change by a war of aggression in 2003--these events may be read as
part of a single story. The U.S. (according to the story) has now come to
realize that the nations of the Middle East contain violent people whom their
rulers have lost control of--people who, for strictly religions reasons
unconnected with any reality on the ground, are bent on the destruction of
Israel and the United States. The region, also, contains a great deal of oil,
which the United States needs. We therefore have both a moral and a practical
obligation to go in and change things in the Middle East.

We may do this by covert operations, by the funding of insurgents or military
factions, or by wars that, in our view, count as humanitarian wars, since no
human being wants to live that differently from us. To change things for the
long term, we must sink our national claim and our cultural presence deeply in
the region. Hence the superbases, and the giant embassy. Hence the coded
discussion of a pullback of American forces to the "horizon."

Thus far, nothing about our actions could suggest to a patriotic Iraqi, angry at
the American boots on his soil, that such a colonized future is unlikely. He can
look around and see the American contractors everywhere, guarding the diplomats
from point to point, committing crimes with impunity. He can track the
state-of-forces agreements with the client government of Maliki. He can see the
reluctance of American politicians--and of the mainstream media, as abject as
the politicians--to question the premise that there is something essentially
good about the projection of American power in the Middle East.

While the Republicans clamor to outbid the president in chauvinistic posturing,
and the Democrats try to look prudent and say as little as possible, a terrible
diversion has been coming to fill the silence. Americans are starting to think
hatefully about "the Arabs." Listen to your neighbors, and you will hear
exclamations in which the first sentence begins with "the Arabs" and the
second sentence begins with "They." (By Arabs the speakers mean at once Muslims
and people with a certain physiognomy and skin-color.)

A new racism is coming. For these are the phrases with which a growing number of
Americans lightly sum up more than a billion of the earth's inhabitants.

The sentiment, "No Arab can be as innocent as all Americans are," has not yet
been spoken by anyone famous. Perhaps it never will be. But it embodies an
idea, a savage delusion that is on the tip of many tongues.

Who will address it honestly? The hero of Moshin Hamid's disturbing novel The
Reluctant Fundamentalist
falls in love with an American but loses his love
for America in these years: "No country inflicts death so readily upon the
inhabitants of other countries, frightens so many people so far away, as
America." We very much want this to be false; and it may help our spirits to say
it is false. But we had better be asking why many sane people thousands of miles
away are coming to think it true.