Back in the 1980s, California Senator Alan Cranston was always threatening to run for President, but the rap on him was that he lacked charisma. It got to the point where every segment of media coverage recycled this cliche. Finally, Cranston blurted in exasperation: “Charisma is overrated.” When George W. Bush was vying for the Presidency, the ubiquitous charge was that he lacked gravitas. After watching the Iraq Study Group pontificate upon the issues of the day, I echo Cranston: “Gravitas is overrated.”
But let us not, as the esquires say, engage in personalities — if only because we have amply punctured their pomposity in previous columns. And while we’re not at it, let us not engage the substance of their recommendations, these having been scourged here and elsewhere for shortsightedness, wrong-headedness, tone-deafness and spinelessness, not to mention empty-handedness.
Let us rather examine the gestalt, the scheme of things, the larger picture, the sociology and psychology and anthropology, the ontology and the epistemology. Something big is happening here, something in the moral realm, and we dare not stand silent. We must fight the War on Error with what valiance we can muster.
Here is a place to start: who is the most resented classmate in grade school? First place in that category is a tie between two types. One is the person whose advantages, in strength or money or looks, are not earned, but who uses his edge to lord it over others. The second is the goody-two-shoes who worked hard for scholastic attainment but now acts like an officious know-it-all or a sanctimonious holier-than-thou.
A person who graciously avoids falling into the first trap often becomes complacent about the second. The Bible spells this out magnificently in the space of a few short sentences. The Book of Exodus (2:11-14) tells (my translation): “Moses grew up and went out to his brethren to see their toil. There he saw an Egyptian attacking a Hebrew…so he killed the Egyptian, burying him in the sand. When he went out the next day, there were two Jews fighting, so he told the aggressor, ‘Why would you hit your friend?’ He said: ‘Who made you a governor and judge over us? Are you saying you’ll kill me like you killed the Egyptian?’ Then Moses was apprehensive…”
Go on, tell me that doesn’t blow your mind. This is a stunningly precise depiction of our condition in Iraq.
Moses was rich and powerful, adopted grandson of Pharaoh, living in the royal palace. He could have complacently kept his seat in the ruling elite, but he chose to help the underdog escape tyranny. Once he proved he was not a snobbish bully, he assumed he had the political capital to issue moral directives to the infighting victim class. Wrong! He not only met resentment, he even got to hear a hint of ingratitude for yesterday’s rescue. Despite being downtrodden, despite lacking alternate saviors, they were still touchy about being subjected to moralizing. They were wrong and he was right, but the story shines a light on the vagaries of human nature.
We are at this exact spot in Iraq. The United States was the world’s only superpower and its wealthiest nation. It could easily have chosen the paths of imperialism or isolation. Instead it liberated Iraq from the clutches of a despot. There was no attempt to annex land or oil rights. The U.S. taxpayer paid the tab based on an abstract conception that a more secure global equation might emerge. We saw clearly, as did Moses, that a brutalized people can only recover if they abjure violence among themselves as a tactic for advancement.
Yet when we deliver that message, one geared to their self-interest, we are denounced as hectors. Who made us a governor or judge over them? They have the right to bash each other bloody if they choose. They have unresolved tribal clashes and family feuds; nothing like a little anarchic interlude to wreak havoc and see who is left standing when the dust settles. American liberals, decadent Europeans, all the usual disaffected suspects who abhor the least hint of a moral imperative, join the chorus with glee. And there we are, with Moses as excellent company, lorn in our puzzlement: weren’t we the good guys?
Would that the Study Group brought some nostrum to the rostrum, but their approach is more panic than panacea. The problem is as intractable as human nature itself, subject to mankind’s foible of placing pride before enlightened self-interest. The only way to handle the brickbats is to beat them back where possible and ignore them where necessary. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men cannot put Iraq together if it does not want to be; but we will stay our course and hopefully they will right their course. In the meantime, as Rodgers and Hart wrote, we sit uneasy in our easy chair.
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