Don’t Know Much About History
I recently happened to be in the audience for a discussion on the legacy of World War I, held at the Thompson/Reuters headquarters in New York City, when Henry Kissinger made an amazing observation: of the five major wars that the United States has fought since World War II, all were entered on behalf of “idealistic principles.” No less surprising to me was the fact that nobody else in the crowded room of media and policy bigwigs appeared to find anything odd about that statement. Given what we now know about the lies, deception and corruption that preceded the most catastrophic of these wars—Vietnam and the second Iraq War—to call them “idealistic” is to purposely evade history at best, or (more accurately) to rewrite it purely on the basis of ideology rather than evidence.
Now Kissinger, at 91, may be pretty old and famously amoral, but he is not senile and has never been stupid. He offered his blinkered version of recent events before a room full of knowledgeable people because he figured nobody really cared one way or another. After all, it was “history”—which, in contemporary American political culture, is another word for “irrelevant.” And it is this contempt for history, as the cliché correctly advises, that condemns our nation to continually repeat it. The circumstances may differ, but the pathology remains unchanged.
Neocons are surpremely aware of this tendency and exploit it to the fullest. In fact, most of their careers would be impossible without it. Would Elliott Abrams be able to mouth off as a respected Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, attacking Barack Obama in a recent Politico piece as “The Man Who Broke the Middle East,” if his patrons took the time to consider that Abrams both enabled and ran political interference for what the Guatemalan Supreme Court of Justice has deemed a genocidal dictatorship? (Abrams also got himself disbarred in the District of Columbia for his lies to Congress about these and other crimes in which he participated while serving in the Reagan administration, both before and after the Iran/Contra affair.) Should that stretch American memory muscles beyond their breaking point, how about the fact that this criminal, while serving on the National Security Council during Bush II, himself helped to “break” the Middle East by undermining the 2006 Palestinian elections, which helped lead to the creation of a Hamas-run rump state in Gaza in the first place? And yet he somehow gets away with the crazy claim that “the Middle East that Obama inherited in 2009 was largely at peace” in order to blame its alleged collapse on the current president. (Politico is, conveniently, the ground zero of American political ahistoricity: virtually everything it publishes occurred during the previous twenty-four hours and will cease to matter within the next forty-eight.)
Numerous observers have expressed incredulity over the eagerness of so many media mavens to allow the discredited armchair warriors of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq to dominate discussion of the current crisis in that country—a crisis whose foundations they helped put in place. In a saner world, each one would, at a minimum, be required to answer the following question: “Given your record the last time this issue arose, why in the world should we listen to anything you have to say today?” But as the respective rehabilitations of Henry Kissinger and Elliott Abrams demonstrate, being a known liar and an arguable (Kissinger) or unarguable (Abrams) enabler of genocide is no barrier to career advancement in the American establishment, thanks to the collective amnesia of its most elite institutions, especially its elite media.
Sometimes they lie outright. Here are Dick and Liz Cheney writing in The Weekly Standard regarding the Iraq invasion: “It is undisputed, and has been confirmed repeatedly in Iraqi government documents captured after the invasion, that Saddam had deep, longstanding, far-reaching relationships with terrorist organizations, including al Qaeda and its affiliates.”
Undisputed? Really? How about, just for starters, the 9/11 Commission, before which Cheney testified. Its final report, as Warren Bass noted in The Wall Street Journal, states that the commission has “seen no evidence [of] a collaborative operational relationship. Nor have we seen evidence indicating that Iraq cooperated with al Qaeda in developing or carrying out any attacks against the United States.”
William Kristol, perhaps the wrongest pundit in all of American history—and hence also the most sought-after by media institutions like The Washington Post, The New York Times, Time, ABC News, etc.—demonstrates a coy agnosticism when it comes to the choice between outright fabrication and contempt for the historical record. He doesn’t mind pretending, as he did on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulos, that the current crisis was caused by what he termed “our ridiculous and total withdrawal from Iraq in 2011,” when in fact that withdrawal had been decided on in the 2008 Status of Forces Agreement negotiated with the Iraqi government by George W. Bush. But Kristol is just as comfortable asserting in The Weekly Standard (in an article written with Frederick Kagan), “Now is not the time to re-litigate either the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 or the decision to withdraw from it in 2011.” This is perhaps the only path available to someone with the chutzpah to insist, back in April 2003, that it was merely a “kind of pop sociology in America that, you know, somehow the Shia can’t get along with the Sunni,” when that same person today is calling for yet another attack on the country to deal with the Sunni/Shiite massacres inspired by the earlier one. But as Kristol, Cheney, Abrams and Kissinger demonstrate over and over, success within our political punditocracy means never having to say you’re sorry.
Read Next: Leslie Savan on the Cheney family