Friday, July 13, 2007

NY Times Op-Ed: Iraq is Grendel and History is a Convenient Alibi for G.W. Bush

Not to interrupt our two fascinating and unfolding discussions on The Lindow Man and Forks in the Rift of Time, but . . . .

It's hard to know where to begin with this one, but on Wednesday of this week Maureen Dowd wrote an Op-Ed column in The New York Times in which she compared the Iraq situation to a "Grendel," with "no Beowulf in sight." It's kind of a lop-sided analogy [i.e., I agree that the situation in Iraq is a little like Grendel: voraciously and senselessly destructive with no end or appeasement in sight, BUT: isn't the U.S. already acting a little but like a Beowulf: proudly arrogant and aggressive and ultimately doomed to failure?], but I think I'm more disturbed by the way Dowd invokes "history" in the column, where she writes that studying history won't do the president [Bush] any good because "morality, security, and strategy" are more important than history right now, and further, in a present moment as direly dangerous as ours is right now, history is nothing more than a convenient "alibi" for not acting more wisely on the what might be called the ground of a present crisis. Hmmmmmm. Where to begin? [see full Op-Ed column below]

July 11, 2007
Op-Ed Columnist
History as an Alibi
On Friday, Condi Rice played hooky and spent the afternoon at the Tiger Woods golf tournament at Congressional Country Club in suburban Maryland. She had lunch at the clubhouse with Tiger, who had dedicated the contest to American servicemen. She followed Phil Mickelson and Brad Faxon for a bit, after having them over to the White House on the Fourth to watch the fireworks. She gave interviews about her newfound affection for golf, laughing about her errant drives and “wicked hook.”

Like W. going out boating and fishing in Kennebunkport as Britain and its new prime minister, Gordon Brown, reeled from terrorist attacks, Condi acted as if she didn’t have a care in the world. And why on earth should she?

The homeland security chief, Michael Chertoff, has a gut feeling that a Qaeda cell might be coming or already be here. “Summertime seems to be appealing to them,” he said, sounding more like a meteorologist than the man charged with keeping us safe.

With 30 mortars hitting the Green Zone yesterday and Army recruiting wilting, some Bush advisers are at long last coming around to the Baker-Hamilton report recommendation that they should engage in intense diplomacy with the countries around Iraq.

Someone might tell Condi — who said in one of her golf interviews that her zest for sports is so all-encompassing that “I love anything with a score at the end” — that she’d better get to work or America’s score in Iraq will be zero.

The Iraq war she helped sell has turned into Grendel, devouring everything in sight and making it uninhabitable. It has ravaged Iraq, Bush’s presidency, the federal budget, the Republican majority, American invincibility and integrity, and now, John McCain’s chance to be president.
And there’s no Beowulf in sight. Just a bunch of spectacularly wrong hawks stubbornly continuing to be spectacularly wrong at what an alarmed Republican Senator John Warner calls “a time in our history unlike any I have ever witnessed before.”

Watching the warring tribes in Iraq grow more violent has caused the beginning of a reconciliation among the warring tribes in Washington, as they realize they have to get the car keys away from the careening president who has crashed into the globe.

With Republicans in revolt over the surge and losing patience, and Bushies worried, as one put it to The Washington Post, that “July has become the new September,” the president decided to do a p.r. surge to sound as if he’s acquainted with reality.

But in a speech in Cleveland yesterday, the president was still repeating his deranged generalities. Making a tiny concession, he said we would be able to pull back troops “in a while,” whatever that means, but asked Congress to wait for Gen. David Petraeus to debrief on the surge in September — rather than focus on the report due this week that says the ineffectual Iraq government has failed to meet benchmarks set by America.

It was ironic that his strongest supporter to the bitter end was the Republican who was once his bitter rival. There was speculation that Mr. McCain would come back from his visit to Iraq and revise his bullish support of the war to save his imploding campaign. But the opposite happened.
As his top advisers were purged, Mr. McCain went to the floor of the Senate to reassert his warped view that “there appears to be overall movement in the right direction.”

Like W., Senator McCain values the advice of Henry Kissinger and said, “We can find wisdom in several suggestions put forward recently by Henry Kissinger.” Why they continue to seek counsel from the man who kept the Vietnam War going for years just to protect Richard Nixon’s electoral chances is beyond mystifying. But Mr. Kissinger holds their attention with all his warnings of “American impotence” emboldening radical Islam and Iran. Can’t W. and Mr. McCain see that American muscularity, stupidly thrown around, has already emboldened radical Islam and Iran?

The president mentioned in his speech yesterday that he was reading history, and he has been summoning historians and theologians to the White House for discussions on the fate of Iraq and the nature of good and evil. W. thinks history will be his alibi. When presidents have screwed up and want to console themselves, they think history will give them a second chance. It’s the historical equivalent of a presidential pardon.

But there are other things — morality, strategy and security — that are more pressing than history. History is just the fanciest way possible of wanting to deny or distract attention from what’s happening now.


Jeffrey Cohen said...

As much as Dowd gives me a chuckle from time to time, she has always seemed to me the liberal version of the right wing columnists and bloggers: facile comparisons and witty insults rather than sophisticated analysis. I read her column regularly, and almost every time wind up saying aloud "Get some nuance!"

Here she is using history in an impoverished sense. While it's nice to see Beowulf and Grendel invoked, the metaphor fails to reveal the actual complexity of the poem cited.

Eileen Joy said...

What you say about Dowd, JJC, would seem to be true for most political pundits and op-ed writers, whether on the right or left. About the only one I can stand anymore is Nicholas Krystof, and that mainly for his impassioned and stubborn [and hopelessly futile] writing on the situation in Darfur. So, I don't expect much from Maureen Dowd, either, nor do I expect G.W. Bush to learn much from history, no matter *who* he invites to the White House, whether Stephen Ambrose, Robert Caro, or Simon Keynes. Nor do I expect invocations on "Beowulf," no matter how breezily intended, to be sensitive to the complexity of the original poem. I think the thing that mainly disturbed me about Dowd's piece, and that I thought was most apropos to discussons we have regularly on this blog, was its last sentence,

"History is just the fanciest way possible of wanting to deny or distract attention from what’s happening now."

I can't quite put my finger on why this sentence distresses me, but it partly has to do, I think, with how I can agree with it [somewhat--some times, when the shit is hitting the fan, there isn't time to consult a history book], and also be kind of terrified at the idea that "history," so called, is somehow just a fanciful way to distract oneself from the present [or present crises]. It's not so much a question, for me, of whether or not G.W. Bush has time to chat with historians *now* but rather, what was his sense of historical understanding [about *anything*] before this war even started, and why, or why not, might that matter?

Anonymous said...

I cannot help but agree with Eileen's feelings here. The more disturbing thing, for me, might be best summed up as the way in which this "history as distraction from the present" thing is very cognate to the "theory as distraction from the real or practical" rhetoric of the ole' anti-theory line.

Both see the poles as mutually exclusive systems which are really tied up in the same economy of life.

(Eileen: "what was his [Bush's] historical sense [about *anything*]...")

If it is possible for theory to *be* a practice (I admit an influence from theorist Paul Bové--esp. his book "In the Wake of Theory," (Wesleyan), then it is also possible, along the lines of what I have been pointing to in my recent posts, for History call to us, indeed call us into, the future.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Dan: definitely. Theory is a practice. Theology should be a practice too -- but Dowd's article makes it clear that Bush is consulting theologians and historians because he sees both fields as inert structures that contain eternal answers to today's troubles. In other words, he seeks reaffirmation of that which he already knows. What's noble about that? What's useful? Nothing.

I disagree, though, that all pundits are as flatly predictable as Dowd. Krystof is good. On a good day I learn something from Paul Krugman (not today; but then again my spouse is an expert in health care policy so ...). I don't necessarily find it the case that mainstream media or blogger pundits are simply reaffirming what I know, ventriloquizing a corporate line, repeating what has been said many times before, etc ... but then again there is so much that I don't know that's it's easy to teach me something new or give me a new perspective (even if the perspective is caused via catalytic disagreement).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

PS I want to add: what's at stake here is History conceptualized as an immutable, dead field containing all knowledge and answers, or history (histories) conceived as a living, breathing, changing network in which the past and future are as full of life as the present (and full of life doesn't mean empty or infinitely plastic; this life adds an element of danger rather than the reassurance a dead history -- like a dead theology -- might offer).