The U.S. invasion of Iraq was essentially the most consequential political occasion of the previous twenty years. But it surely doesn’t really feel that approach. It has the faint whiff of youthful indiscretion, an episode that many Individuals would quite neglect. I used to be 19. The tenor of that point in American life—after the September 11 assaults—appears ever extra international to me. As an alternative of the chaotic data overload of the present second, during which consensus seems not possible, the early 2000s had been a time of conformity, authority, and safety. After I take into consideration why even the mere concept of consensus makes me anxious to this present day, I maintain coming again to what occurred 20 lengthy years in the past. Consensus will be good, however it may also be harmful.
As soon as American floor troops had been engaged in Afghanistan, risking their lives preventing the Taliban, any criticism of the conflict effort invited fees of disloyalty. That was the “good conflict.” I used to be a freshman in school on 9/11. Only a 12 months later, within the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, I turned 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 arrange a “tent-in” with a gaggle of associates and fellow vacationers, a motley crew of socialists, anarchists, and extraordinary college students who discovered themselves stupefied by a conflict that appeared self-evidently absurd. Within the weeks earlier than the conflict started—after which for your entire length of the invasion—we protested by establishing camp in Georgetown College’s free-expression zone, the satirically named Pink Sq.. In observe, a minimum of one individual 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 school 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 folks crammed 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 folks, united, might cease a horrible factor from occurring.
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 completed, an prolonged interval of confusion and reckoning set in. After the apathy and triumphalism ushered in by the Chilly Warfare’s finish, mass mobilization was again. However what was the purpose of individuals energy if authorities officers couldn’t be bothered to hear? They’d already determined. A comparatively small variety of so-called neoconservatives, a lot of whom had run in the identical rarified mental circles, had been dedicated to a wedding of overwhelming energy and maximalist objective. 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 dwell with and use that unilateralism. The appreciable energy now at America’s disposal can be utilized by every body as a justification for going together with American targets.
Like most utopians, they might 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 stated. He was proper. In a November 2003 speech marking the twentieth anniversary of the Nationwide Endowment for Democracy, he requested, “Are tens of millions of women and men and kids condemned by historical past or tradition to dwell 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 imagine it.”
However the acknowledged 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 advised the United Nations and Congress, army motion was crucial as a result of Saddam’s regime had weapons of mass destruction and was subsequently a mortal risk to the Center East. Others who might need in any other case been skeptical concerning the indiscriminate use of American energy—together with distinguished Democrats resembling John Kerry and Hillary Clinton—fell in line. In October 2002, 39 % of Democrats within the Home supported the Authorization for Use of Navy Pressure Towards Iraq Decision. Remarkably, 58 % of Senate Democrats voted in favor. It was the worst and maybe most tragic instance of “bipartisan cooperation” in current American historical past.
Their hearts weren’t essentially in it, however Senate Democrats had been an bold bunch. For anybody who aspired to larger workplace, being on the mistaken aspect of the best conflict 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 conflict, quite than after—had been tough to seek out. I principally bought my day by 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) known as CounterPunch, a completely applicable 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 greatest but in addition 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 really turns common residents into suspects.” Underneath an expansive surveillance regime, the FBI issued about 192,000 “nationwide safety letters” from 2003 to 2006, which allowed it to entry the personal data of Americans with no warrant.
That is what unity, consensus, and cooperation made attainable within the fog of conflict. For these Individuals at the moment 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 folks, what might “consensus” even imply? Because the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe has written, “All types of consensus are by necessity primarily based 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. This can be a good factor.
Relating to wars of selection—which is to say, most wars—Individuals ought to disagree amongst themselves, and they need to specific these disagreements forcefully. A democratized information panorama, like democracy itself, will be messy. However that messiness is important. A sure form 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 Warfare was a kind of occasions.