An article in the Style Section of the February 18 edition of The Washington Post—on the inaccurate predictions of conservative pundit Bill Kristol—put me in mind of a Rudyard Kipling poem. Written in 1917, the poem commemorates the Indian and British troops who died in an ill-conceived and poorly administered campaign to wrest control of Mesopotamia from Ottoman Turkey.
They shall not return to us, the resolute, the young,
The eager and whole-hearted whom we gave:
But the men who left them thriftily to die in their own dung,
Shall they come with years and honour to the grave?
They shall not return to us, the strong men coldly slain
In sight of help denied from day to day:
But the men who edged their agonies and chid them in their pain,
Are they too strong and wise to put away?
Our dead shall not return to us while Day and Night divide—
Never while the bars of sunset hold.
But the idle-minded overlings who quibbled while they died,
Shall they thrust for high employments as of old?
Shall we only threaten and be angry for an hour?
When the storm is ended shall we find
How softly but how swiftly they have sidled back to power
By the favour and contrivance of their kind?
Even while they soothe us, while they promise large amends,
Even while they make a show of fear,
Do they call upon their debtors, and take counsel with their friends,
To conform and re-establish each career?
Their lives cannot repay us—their death could not undo—
The shame that they have laid upon our race.
But the slothfulness that wasted and the arrogance that slew,
Shall we leave it unabated in its place?
Bill Kristol is the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. The author of the piece, Paul Farhi, portrays Kristol as an example of a political type: the politician who thrives despite making judgment calls that have catastrophic consequences.
In Kristol’s case the most catastrophic of many poor calls were those relating to the US/UK campaign, in 2003, to wrest control of Mesopotamia from Saddam Hussein. Farhi writes:
As an advocate of the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, he said, among other things, that the war “could have terrifically good effects throughout the Middle East”; that Saddam Hussein was “past that finish line” in developing nuclear weapons; that “if we free the people of Iraq we will be respected in the Arab world.” He also said, “Very few wars in American history were prepared better or more thoroughly than this one by this president.” He predicted on C-SPAN that it would be a “two-month war, not an eight-year war.”
Of course, Kristol was merely a cheerleader for the 2003 invasion, albeit an important one. It would be unfair to reproach him for poor judgment that year without recalling the more culpable blunders of those who occupied senior positions in President George W Bush’s national security apparatus, and those in the Senate who voted for the war. Many of these have paid a political price for their poor judgment. Hillary Clinton and John McCain are among those who have thrived.
Ideology a Factor
Farhi goes on to suggest that Kristol’s ideological commitment to neoconservatism in part explains the poverty of Kristol’s judgement. Farhi quotes Alex Pareene, editor of Gawker, to make his point: “He [Kristol] is sort of ideologically motivated to make certain ridiculous claims—Iraq will be a huge success, Romney will win…”
It is tempting to take that idea and apply it to US foreign policy. Since the end of the Cold War, US foreign policy has had a more aggressive, bellicose stamp than might have been predicted in 1990.
That year the disappearance of an existential threat to the United States gave US foreign policy-makers the opportunity to position their nation as the world’s pre-eminent peacemaker and defender of the international rule of law. Instead the United States has become one of the leading belligerents of the post-1990 era.
That seems due, at least in part, to the influence of the neoconservative movement on decision-making. Each exercise in bellicosity (covert as well as declared) has been sui generis. But causes that are dear to neoconservatives have played an important part in the motivational mix: imposing democracy, championing Israeli interests (as defined by Benjamin Netanyahu, other Likudniks, and increasingly the settler movement), and antagonizing Russia.
Such have been the consequences of this belligerence that the decline of neoconservatism—or at least of its influence on US foreign policy—would be cause for celebration in most parts of the world. Will 2016 be the year in which American voters turn their backs on “the arrogance that slays” and avert the “sidling back to power” of those who have shown themselves ill-suited to having the lives of others at the mercy of their decision-making?