Archive for December, 2006

Robert Moses — and Iraq

Sunday, December 3rd, 2006

I just finished reading Robert Caro’s extraordinary book, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” As the book ends, Moses’ lieutenants are wondering why ‘the people’ aren’t showering their leader with more praise. He had destroyed thousands of their homes. His majestic highways had made traffic much worse than it had ever been. He had consciously and deliberately made life much harder than it already was for African-Americans and Puerto-Rican Americans. And he had done much more harm besides. Yet, as he stood on the stage carping about ‘man’s ingratitude,’ his aides could only agree, asking themselves, about ‘the people’, “Why weren’t they grateful?”

Slate’s Timothy Noah, an ever-perceptive observer of the delusions of powerful people, noted on Thursday that Americans of both political parties have begun to blame the Iraqis for failing to make the most of the situation we ‘gave’ them. That is, we invaded a country which at that time had no armed opposition, decapitated its (admittedly horrific) leadership, and fired its army. We knew the country was divided into three factions – kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. Our own State Department prepared a lengthy report about how to work with those divisions, butDonald Rumsfeld’s Defense Department blew off that report. And now our political leaders wonder why the Iraqis have failed to create a stable democracy.

As Noah writes, in words that could apply to Moses, “Ingratitude is a common lament of embittered visionaries, because it’s usually too painful to blame oneself.”

He continues, “But it’s rarely true that the people whose lives we try to transform are at fault when we can’t transform them, and it certainly isn’t true in the case of Iraqis.”

Americans used to understand that. The freedom to be left untransformed was a big part of what our founding fathers fought for. But with an overwhelmingly powerful military (see Andrew Bacevich’s outstanding “The New American Militarism: How Americans Are Seduced by War”), the temptation to coerce is never far away.