David Brooks: Our Child-like Fantasies About Iraq

Roundup: Historians' Take

David Brooks, in the NYT (May 11, 2004):

It's still too soon to declare the Iraq mission a failure. Some of the best reporting out of Iraq suggests that many Iraqis have stared into the abyss of what their country could become and have decided to work with renewed vigor toward the democracy that both we and they want.

Nonetheless, it's not too early to begin thinking about what was clearly an intellectual failure. There was, above all, a failure to understand the consequences of our power. There was a failure to anticipate the response our power would have on the people we sought to liberate. They resent us for our power and at the same time expect us to be capable of everything. There was a failure to understand the effect our power would have on other people around the world. We were so sure we were using our might for noble purposes, we assumed that sooner or later, everybody else would see that as well. Far from being blinded by greed, we were blinded by idealism.

Just after World War II, there were Americans who were astute students of the nature and consequences of American power. America's midcentury leaders — politicians like F.D.R. and Harry Truman, as well as public intellectuals like Reinhold Niebuhr and James Burnham — had seen American might liberate death camps. They had also seen Americans commit wartime atrocities that surpass those at Abu Ghraib.

These midcentury leaders were idealists, but they were rugged idealists, because they combined a cold-eyed view of reality with a warm self-confidence in their ability to do history-changing good.

They took a tragically ironic view of their situation. They understood that we can't defeat ruthless enemies without wielding power. But we can't wield power without sometimes being corrupted by it. Therefore, we can't do good without losing our innocence.

History had assigned them a dirty job: taking morally hazardous action. They did not try to escape, but they did not expect sainthood.

That rugged idealism looks appealing today. We went into Iraq with what, in retrospect, seems like a childish fantasy. We were going to topple Saddam, establish democracy and hand the country back to grateful Iraqis. We expected to be universally admired when it was all over.

We didn't understand the tragic irony that our power is also our weakness. As long as we seemed so mighty, others, even those we were aiming to assist, were bound to revolt. They would do so for their own self-respect. In taking out Saddam, we robbed the Iraqis of the honor of liberating themselves. The fact that they had no means to do so is beside the point....

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