The U.S. invasion of Iraq was essentially the most consequential political occasion of the previous twenty years. However it doesn’t really feel that method. It has the faint whiff of youthful indiscretion, an episode that many Individuals would somewhat overlook. I used to be 19. The tenor of that point in American life—after the September 11 assaults—appears ever extra overseas to me. As a substitute of the chaotic info overload of the present second, wherein consensus seems unimaginable, the early 2000s had been a time of conformity, authority, and safety. Once I take into consideration why even the mere concept of consensus makes me anxious to this present day, I hold coming again to what occurred 20 lengthy years in the past. Consensus could be good, but it surely will also be harmful.
As soon as American floor troops had been engaged in Afghanistan, risking their lives preventing the Taliban, any criticism of the battle effort invited expenses of disloyalty. That was the “good battle.” I used to be a freshman in faculty on 9/11. Only a 12 months later, within the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, I grew to become energetic within the anti-war motion. Grappling with my very own id as an American Muslim in an atmosphere rife with Islamophobia, I needed someplace to belong—a secure house, so to talk. And I discovered it. For the primary and doubtless final time, I organized a die-in. I additionally helped manage a “tent-in” with a bunch of buddies and fellow vacationers, a motley crew of socialists, anarchists, and extraordinary college students who discovered themselves stupefied by a battle that appeared self-evidently absurd. Within the weeks earlier than the battle started—after which for your entire period of the invasion—we protested by organising camp in Georgetown College’s free-expression zone, the sarcastically named Pink Sq.. In follow, a minimum of one particular person was anticipated to sleep within the tents on any given evening, which translated right into a steady presence of greater than 2,000 hours.
We failed. Clearly, we had been simply faculty college students, naive and never but cynical. However there have been many people. On February 15 and 16, 2003—a weekend of coordinated anti-war demonstrations across the globe—greater than 6 million individuals stuffed the streets in lots of of cities. As Patrick Tyler put it in The New York Instances, “There should be two superpowers on the planet: america and world public opinion.” It was an odd thought, that the individuals, united, may cease a horrible factor from taking place.
When President George W. Bush infamously declared in Might 2003—lower than a month after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces—that the mission had been achieved, an prolonged interval of confusion and reckoning set in. After the apathy and triumphalism ushered in by the Chilly Conflict’s finish, mass mobilization was again. However what was the purpose of individuals energy if authorities officers couldn’t be bothered to pay attention? They’d already determined. A comparatively small variety of so-called neoconservatives, lots of whom had run in the identical rarified mental circles, had been dedicated to a wedding of overwhelming energy and maximalist goal. Because the Lebanese American scholar Fouad Ajami described it:
A reforming zeal should thus be loaded up with the luggage and the gear. No nice apologies must be made for America’s “unilateralism.” The area can reside with and use that unilateralism. The appreciable energy now at America’s disposal can be utilized by every one as a justification for going together with American objectives.
Like most utopians, they could have been well-meaning of their fervor. A real believer himself, George W. Bush had admirable views about democracy’s universality, for which he deserves some credit score. He excoriated critics for suggesting that Arabs weren’t prepared for democracy; this was nothing greater than “cultural condescension,” he mentioned. He was proper. In a November 2003 speech marking the twentieth anniversary of the Nationwide Endowment for Democracy, he requested, “Are hundreds of thousands of women and men and kids condemned by historical past or tradition to reside in despotism? Are they alone by no means to know freedom, and by no means even to have a selection within the matter? I, for one, don’t consider it.”
However the said justification for invading Iraq was not that Saddam Hussein was a dictator. In spite of everything, America’s closest allies within the area had been dictatorships too. As senior administration officers instructed the United Nations and Congress, navy motion was needed as a result of Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction and was due to this fact a mortal menace to the Center East. Others who may need in any other case been skeptical concerning the indiscriminate use of American energy—together with distinguished Democrats corresponding to John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—fell in line. In October 2002, 39 p.c of Democrats within the Home supported the Authorization for Use of Navy Drive In opposition to Iraq Decision. Remarkably, 58 p.c of Senate Democrats voted in favor. It was the worst and maybe most tragic instance of “bipartisan cooperation” in latest American historical past.
Their hearts weren’t essentially in it, however Senate Democrats had been an formidable bunch. For anybody who aspired to larger workplace, being on the incorrect aspect of the proper battle was a dangerous proposition. With the injuries of September 11 nonetheless smarting, vengeance was within the air. In mainstream media shops, passionate anti-war voices—earlier than the battle, somewhat than after—had been tough to search out. I largely bought my every day dose of anti-war information and protection from small leftist web sites. I even wrote for one such publication: It was (and nonetheless is) referred to as CounterPunch, an entirely acceptable description of each the futility and pluckiness of the endeavor.
A large minority of Individuals had their reservations about this new tradition of patriotic deference, however they had been on the defensive from the very begin. The post-9/11 consensus was a tragedy upon a tragedy, exemplified by a 98–1 Senate vote for the PATRIOT Act simply 44 days after the assaults. “Nationwide unity” is normally an aspiration not met. Right here, it appeared inside attain.
This was bipartisan cooperation at its finest but additionally its worst. At greater than 130 pages, the PATRIOT Act—a suitably Orwellian acronym for “Offering Acceptable Instruments Required to Intercept and Impede Terrorism”—ushered in a perpetually overreaching national-security state and a litany of civil-rights abuses that disproportionately affected Arab and Muslim communities. Because the ACLU described it, “Whereas most Individuals assume it was created to catch terrorists, the Patriot Act truly turns common residents into suspects.” Beneath an expansive surveillance regime, the FBI issued about 192,000 “nationwide safety letters” from 2003 to 2006, which allowed it to entry the personal info of Americans and not using a warrant.
That is what unity, consensus, and cooperation made potential within the fog of battle. For these Individuals immediately who lament polarization and lengthy for a return to the politics of consensus, watch out what you would like for. In 2001, inside a sprawling, unwieldy democracy of 285 million individuals, what may “consensus” even imply? Because the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe has written, “All types of consensus are by necessity based mostly on acts of exclusion.” The post-9/11 consensus was synthetic, guided and strengthened from above. It was additionally fleeting. When the Bush administration’s maintain on the general public creativeness weakened, Individuals returned to their pure boisterousness and mistrust of politicians and establishments alike. It is a good factor.
In relation to wars of selection—which is to say, most wars—Individuals ought to disagree amongst themselves, and they need to categorical these disagreements forcefully. A democratized information panorama, like democracy itself, could be messy. However that messiness is important. A sure type of chaos is exactly what permits for a vibrant trade of contending and conflicting views. In a democracy, the bulk nonetheless guidelines. On the similar time, embattled minorities want avenues—and encouragement—to register their dissent, within the hope of convincing sufficient of their fellow residents that they’re proper. As a result of typically they’re. And the Iraq Conflict was a type of occasions.