“The joyless Panglossianism of Iraq”

by Michael O. Allen on April 9, 2008

That was Eve Fairbanks describing in The New Republic Gen. David Petraeus at yesterday’s Senate appearance.

Ms. Fairbanks was talking about the verbal pantomimic performances of the senators as well as Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, and the, ultimately, meaninglessness of the whole exercise:

But of all the posturers, Petraeus and Crocker were the worst. Their mode of self-protection was linguistic: Working in concert, they tried to brand this phase of the Iraq war with two specific words, “fragile” and “reversible.” “Such inflection points underscore the fragility of the situation in Iraq,” said Crocker. “Like so much else, Iraq’s economy is fragile … I must underscore, however, that these gains are fragile and reversible … Progress is real, though still fragile …” “The progress made since last spring is fragile and reversible,” Petraeus echoed. “Fragile and reversible,” snorted California Democrat Barbara Boxer, after the two were all done. “Those are terms of art.”

She was right. “Fragile” and “reversible” were consciously, artfully crafted words, meant to evoke a military and political situation so precariously balanced it cannot be touched. (If a hospital patient’s condition was described as “fragile,” would you try to move him?) It’s a Catch-22, as Fred Kaplan puts it: “If things in Iraq get worse, we can’t cut back, lest things get worse still; if things get better, we can’t cut back, lest we risk reversing all our gains.”

I had a favorite Petraeus line from the hearing, which contained no mention of “fragile” or “reversible,” but, I think, best revealed his real state of mind. “It is very easy to dislike where we are and be frustrated by it,” he told a red-faced George Voinovich, “but we are where we are.”

We are where we are, it is what it is: Call it the joyless Panglossianism of Iraq, in which we dislike the state of things simultaneously believe it represents the best of all possible worlds. Our imaginations become so captured by the disaster that could happen if we dramatically alter the way things are that we start just drifting along, aggressively preferring the status quo. It’s an attitude that seems to infect even the most ambitious Iraq fixers in the end, and made Petraeus and Crocker shadows of the confident men that appeared before Congress in September.

Perhaps more than anything else, Petraeus and Crocker’s performance reminded me of this exchange from Waiting for Godot:
ESTRAGON: I sometimes wonder if we wouldn’t have been better off alone, each one for himself. …
VLADIMIR (without anger): It’s not certain.
ESTRAGON: No, nothing is certain.

Who can break the hold of this attitude?

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