There was a time during the Reagan administration when Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen was a voice of conscience. That was when I first became familiar with him. And I liked what he wrote. I thought he was an important voice in the national debate. Those days are long gone. Today, he has written a very revealing editorial that would pass as a confession if there were any evidence of contrition in it. There is not. There is no sense that he has learned a damn thing from originally supporting both the Vietnam and Iraq wars only to come to oppose them as the ponies didn’t show up on time.
I want to go over a few items from Cohen’s editorial because they have a lot to teach us about the mindset of the Washington elite and, to some extent, about a very touchy issue: the attitude of some Jewish-Americans toward our Middle East policy. This latter issue is often an elephant in the room that no one wants to discuss, but it is vitally important.
Now, why did Cohen support the invasion of Iraq?
I…originally had no moral qualms about the war. Saddam Hussein was a beast who had twice invaded his neighbors, had killed his own people with abandon and posed a threat — and not just a theoretical one — to Israel. If anything, I was encouraged in my belief by the offensive opposition to the war — silly arguments about oil or empire or, at bottom, the ineradicable and perpetual rottenness of America.
Notice here that Cohen does not disguise the fact that he considered Saddam a threat to Israel, but not to the United States. This threat to Israel was enough for him to support the United States invading the country. That’s wrong. That is a misplaced loyalty. We can be an ally of Israel, and we can even promise to come to their aid if they are attacked. But we cannot put our soldiers and treasure on the line to protect Israel from theoretical threats.
Also notice that Cohen was disgusted by arguments that the invasion of Iraq was about securing the oil fields or about bolstering the American empire. I refer Cohen to our President’s recent comment on this subject:
PRESIDENT BUSH: You can imagine a world in which these extremists and radicals got control of energy resources. And then you can imagine them saying, “We’re gonna pull a bunch of oil off the market to run your price of oil up, unless you do the following.”
That is pretty unambiguous, don’t you think? Would Cohen argue that this consideration is only being made after the fact and had no part in explaining the motivation for the invasion? I think that is horribly naive.
Let’s look a little deeper into Cohen’s thinking on the invasion’s merits.
On the contrary, I thought. We are a good country, attempting to do a good thing. In a post-Sept. 11 world, I thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic. The United States had the power to change things for the better, and those who would do the changing — the fighting — were, after all, volunteers. This mattered to me.
The graf is really shocking in its raw openness. When Cohen admits that he “thought the prudent use of violence could be therapeutic”, he isn’t saying that he was wrong, but explaining his thought process. There is a reason why we respect people like Jesus, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and we don’t respect Tiberius, Bull Connor, and Robert M. Shelton. It’s rare for a liberal minded person to admit thinking that a resort to violence can be therapeutic. It cannot. Sometimes it can be necessary. It is never good for the mind. Wise men have attempted to teach us this repeatedly. Most of them were assassinated.
I also am disturbed by his frank admission that our all volunteer army was important in his thought process. The clear implication of this is that our soldiers can be used for purposes that would not be appropriate if there were a draft. In other words, the act of enlistment confers a loss of moral protection. Cohen goes on to say, “To fool someone into sacrificing his life to battle a chimera is a hideous abuse of the public trust.” He seems to be completely unaware that this is the case regardless of whether the armed forces are all volunteer or not.
Cohen then goes on to explain why he now opposes our efforts in Iraq.
My dauntingly knowledgeable Post colleague Thomas E. Ricks reports from the Pentagon that the military is now considering three options for Iraq: more troops, fewer troops (but for a longer time) and no troops at all — the ol’ cut and run. The missing option here is victory.
Victory, Cohen remarks, will be defined down, but it won’t really be a victory any more than Vietnam was a victory. So, why continue to make sacrifices?
Would it be inappropriate to ask Cohen whether he no longer believes our actions in Iraq are helping Israel’s security? Or, has he calculated that the cost now exceeds the benefits?
It saddens me that we have so many people in Washington that put Israel’s security before our own. They will candidly admit this in one breath and then lash out in the next breath at anyone brazen enough to mention it.
Millions of Americans, including a healthy amount of Jews, believe our relationship with Israel is hurting the national security of both nations. Most of us supported and were very hopeful that Bill Clinton would succeed in attaining a settlement of the Israel/Palestinian question. We wanted that process to succeed because we believed it would be the best thing for protecting America and Israel, and it would bring relief to the Palestinian people. A lot of us believe that the process was derailed not just by Arafat’s intransigence, but also by people like Netanyahu and the neo-conservative elements in both America and Israel.
It was very frustrating to us to see important Jewish-Americans like Joe Lieberman, Mort Zuckerman, Mayor Edward Koch, Tom Friedman, Richard Cohen, go along with the neo-conservative grand experiment. I don’t know to what degree they were engaging in wishful thinking, and to what degree they were self-consciously putting Israel’s interests before America’s. To some degree it didn’t matter to me because I thought that, in reality, there were putting neither country’s interests first. They were just wrong, and were supporting policies that would be disastrous to both nations.
But it isn’t just Jewishness that determined this ill-conceived support for the war in Iraq. It was Washington groupthink, too. Cohen’s essay reveals almost all of these faults. His belief in the therapeutic potential of violence. His hostility to self-reflection about the inherent goodness of American foreign policy and its relationship with arms merchants and energy suppliers. His morally dubious belief that there is a distinction between how an all volunteer army can be used versus one that has draftees. His support for wars of choice that do not require the shared sacrifice of the nation.
All of these things are repugnant and Washington’s adherence to these values is what got us to the point where we are today.