It has been strange to be in Washington lately. Although it’s always strange to be in Washington, for reasons that shift with the political preoccupations of the day, there has been a different kind of strangeness caused by the flare-up of violence in Iraq. All of a sudden, official DC is coursing with arguments over why the country has deteriorated and what, if anything, the United States should be doing about it. The strange part is that, for the first time in recent years, there is also a heated debate, playing out in private conversations and very public forums, about who gets to have an opinion on those questions.
When Dick Cheney blamed the chaos on President Obama (“Rarely has a US President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many”), he was pilloried even on Fox News, not just for what he said but for presuming to weigh in at all. Similarly, when Paul Bremer surfaced to argue that the US should send troops to fix the situation, a CNN host was incredulous. “Aren’t you the one who got us into this mess?” she demanded. And it’s not only neo-conservatives who have come in for a thrashing. James Fallows, a respected writer for the Atlantic, recently suggested that both liberal and conservative backers of the war “might have the decency to shut the hell up on this particular topic for a while”.
This is not normal behaviour for Washington, where it is possible to be demonstrably, epically, eyeball-burstingly wrong and still enjoy a very nice career, as long as you are wrong in the right way. Usually, the trick to longevity is to make sure you are aligned with an ideologically fashionable position. Leslie Gelb, a liberal foreign policy expert, once explained that his support for the Iraq War “was symptomatic of unfortunate tendencies within the foreign policy community – namely, the disposition and incentives to support wars to retain political and professional credibility”.
Straightforward admissions of error are rare – in fact, there is an Orwellian lexicon available to avoid making them. My current favourite is “inartful”, as in Hillary Clinton’s recent concession that it was “inartful” of her to have suggested that she and her husband are not “truly rich”.
In this low-culpability environment, the suggestion that an error of judgment might have consequences has hit a nerve. This is not the usual thrust and parry of DC political debate, where people say a lot of things without necessarily meaning them, but something a lot more defensive and personal.
You might think this sounds like a positive sign, a long overdue correction for the hubris and groupthink and shortsightedness that got the US entangled in Iraq in the first place, but it isn’t that, exactly. The arguments about how the US should respond do have a chastened quality to them; there’s less of the bombast that was common before the invasion or even the surge.
But now, as then, the discussion is still largely shaped by ideological views about military intervention and America’s role in the world, not the specific situation in Iraq and the increasingly connected conflict in Syria. It has turned into a shadow boxing tournament over who said what in 2003 and 2007 and who has atoned properly or half-heartedly or not at all. The city’s political class may have learnt many lessons from the Iraq disaster, but it still hasn’t learnt the most important one: it’s not about you.
Which is not so surprising in a place that places little value on accurately assessing reality and forming your opinions accordingly. In that way, going to Washington is like entering the wardrobe to Narnia and discovering a bewitching new world with its own laws and myths and allegiances and rewards. It’s only when you leave that you remember the real world is the one outside.
New Zealander Rachel Morris is executive editor of The New Republic.