When I was haphazardly running my little business, a Kenny Rogers song would float through my mind uncomfortably often. The refrain of Don Schlitz’s “The Gambler” went:
“You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.”
Well, that’s like buy low, sell high. Not that it doesn’t work, but what the hell’s high, what the hell’s low?
It always comes down to an unknowable: we may distinguish a good hand from a bad one (though that is fairly hard); another decision is also important: is that stack at the middle of the table worth the risk? In America’s case, the people that are likely to spend the stack of chips aren’t as likely to be us and, while the short term risks of money and blood are ours, the greatest risks will also not be ours. (Well, now, we are beginning to suspect, in the long run attacks will eventually come our way. Still, a lot of other countries are likely to be bloodied on the way to get us–9/11 was preceded by 20 years of warfare often against us but mostly outside the U.S.) The choices are risky for us – and others. But, oh, the pot; the chips are no gilded base metals. This is the real thing–democracy, women’s rights, people’s rights.
I’m reminded of those worries, that particular mystery when I hear smug State Department types take a grim pleasure in critiquing Bush’s foreign policy; their Olympian self-satisfaction is hard to miss: Iraq is a debacle; not even one of us could undo this damage for a generation. Their dispassion implies the whole thing was merely a game; Bush made a move, we checkmate; let’s call it quits (and send him back to his dusty ranch)
But we also hear voices from Iraq. Amir Taheri argues
Iraq is not about to disintegrate. Nor is it on the verge of civil war. Nor is it about to repeat Iran’s mistake by establishing a repressive theocracy. Despite becoming the focus of anti-American energies in the past year, its people still hold the West in high regard. Iraq has difficult months ahead, nobody would dispute that. But it has a chance to create a new society. Its well-wishers should keep the faith and prove the doomsters wrong.
Amir Taheri, too, has his agenda. We all do. But his litany of energetic changes are more “real” than our malaise. He has gravitas, seriousness, perspective. We find that hard to find.
Actually, I suspect it is also with Taheri that history will lie – if we and his countrymen keep our eyes on the value of what is at stake. And I suspect the smugness of those “old hands” is phony; it covers a real fear that all the irony that was their stock in trade no longer has the same ring and that maybe today fewer people would be dead if they had looked at the world as it was in, say, 1993, not assuming it remained as it had in 1983. It is that cowboy and not they who recognized the world has changed, is changing. He responded to events. They bring out their cliches.
Some of us have our doubts about this idyllic past. We remember the French withdrawal from NATO before. We notice the scandal of the oil-for-food program. We remember how prescient these “old hands” were in describing the Russian economy, in not connecting dots. And we remember the European who turned to us less than a month after 9/11 and said, “Ah, we are so sorry for you. But if you will allow me to say it,” in the most condescending of tones, “we hope this will make your cowboy president act in a less unilateral way.” (This was, I think, a reference to Durban; I was quite proud we had not been a party to that little display. The French and Germans have not always been quite as good on the Jewish question as they might be.)
The hauteur, the world weariness, the curled lip that is disturbing. Don’t these spokespeople realize those are real lives – our soldiers, the Iraqis, the messy world of the Middle East, indeed, the Europeans’ world in a decade or two?
Right now, we need to define why the gamble is worthy, is a serious undertaking. Those of us who look at Germany and Japan may think the prize is worth while. But that’s history – I was born in 1945, what do I know? A lot of Germans and plenty of Japanese aren’t too happy with our bets. I think they’d say the risk of those years of occupation was worth it. But maybe not.
Europeans have a different history from ours; their beliefs are different as well. They have given us much—western culture, the rule of law–and in the last century we began to repay that debt. (A fact they grudgingly acknowledge – looking at Bosnia, at the beaches of Normandy.) They have more faith in institutions than we do – in that way, perhaps, we are still the revolutionaries that we were at the beginning–first in terms of beliefs and then in terms of politics. We are thoroughly true to our beliefs – our sense that the fallible nature of man is likely to mold fallible institutions; we worry that openness and transparency are lost in bureaucracies. The United Nations does little to disabuse us of that notion. We value the unencumbered will more than perhaps we should – we think the Europeans value the cushions of the safety net too much (we see retreat and apathy; they see aggressive noise). They see the inequality of annual income and think of permanent penury; we see the flow between medians of income and see potential.
They seem less willing to accept the tragic nature of human life that comes from our religious tradition nor do they have confidence in the commonsensical, sturdy pragmatism we rely on. We accept we have feet of clay and move on. They are more likely to posit an abstraction. We tend to view that idealism as ideology; they dream of utopias, of perfectly managed economies, of heroic and romantic heroes. Sometimes we seem like a Thelma Ritter character (remember her glance in All About Eve, in Rear Window; let’s cut through the bull and see what’s real, let’s doubt those stories). Our leaders are term limited, our economy is open. We may assume innocence until guilt is proven – but that is a matter as much of our limits on our institutions as our confidence in human nature. And because we acknowledge the imperfection in the temporal, we can retain our respect for the eternal.
I suspect in some ways we are even farther apart than we realize. I like our system; they like theirs. In a thousand years, historians will probably observe that there were virtues in their world – and in ours.
They produce Beckett. We admire him. We produce Faulkner. They admire him. But Faulkner knows they are different. Faulkner told us:
It is easy enough to say that man is immortal simply because he will endure: that when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded from the last worthless rock hanging tideless in the last red and dying evening, that even then there will still be one more sound: that of his puny inexhaustible voice, still talking. I refuse to accept this. I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.
Some great leaders were heroic. We were already a superpower; our heroes may be no less brave and bold, but were less likely to think of their position as futile–the great tempter. These men did not give up when so many would; even though they had been sold out time after time—not just when they were center stage in Munich, but later (and earlier) as well. (These are the countries Chirac told last year to learn their place; it was a good time, he said, to be quiet. These were the countries that John Kerry described as the “bribed and coerced.” No, the selling out is not likely to stop now.) Their history is hugely different from ours even though so many of us are linked by blood to those regions. Bordered by Canada and Mexico, what can we understand of the centuries of bloodshed?
Our respect and affection is prompted by their heroism, but we can not, in important ways, know them. But they know, better than any others today, what those chips on the center of the table are worth. And some of them think they are worth very much indeed.
Some extraordinary men were heroes among those Europeans – people who with clear eyes and real courage were willing to risk much. Sure, our Czech friends look for a book about Mumia, think Oliver Stone is great. But, among them were those who stepped back and took perspective. Many feel that hunkering down is the best position; they are always a bit in preparation for the armies that have stalked across their lands too many times. They see America marching into another country; they worry. I might if I were in those countries. But others argue, no, this is worth doing. This is what we know as we hunker down; this is worth sometimes standing up for. It is they who saw farther than we or their neighbors did during the seventies and eighties; we can respect their voices.
One of those is Adam Michnik, interviewed in Dissent.
Adam Michnik: I look at the war in Iraq from three points of view. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a totalitarian state. It was a country where people were murdered and tortured. So I’m looking at this through the eyes of the political prisoner in Baghdad, and from this point of view I’m very grateful to those who opened the gates of the prison and who stopped the killing and the torture. Second, Iraq was a country that supported terrorist attacks in the Middle East and all over the world. I consider that 9/11 was the day when war was started against my own work and against myself. Even though we are not sure of the links, Iraq was one of the countries that did not lower its flags in mourning on 9/11. There are those who think this war could have been avoided by democratic and peaceful means. But I think that no negotiations with Saddam Hussein made sense, just as I believe that negotiations with Hitler did not make sense. And there is a third reason. Poland is an ally of the United States of America. It was our duty to show that we are a reliable, loyal, and predictable ally. America needed our help, and we had to give it. This was not only my position. It was also the position of Havel, Konrad, and others.
The interviewer observes: “Yes, you specifically mention that this is a view you share with Vaclav Havel and Gyorgy Konrad”.
And Michnik replies:
We take this position because we know what dictatorship is. And in the conflict between totalitarian regimes and democracy you must not hesitate to declare which side you are on. Even if a dictatorship is not an ideal typical one, and even if the democratic countries are ruled by people whom you do not like. I think you can be an enemy of Saddam Hussein even if Donald Rumsfield is also an enemy of Saddam Hussein.
(Other discussions are on, not surprisingly, Front Page.)
Back to us: Maybe early on, when we were threatening, we could have “folded” our hand and left. We’d have lost credibility. The UN already didn’t have much as far as I could see. Iraq would be just another place the UN talked of and did nothing about – Srbenecia, Rwanda, the Sudan, Palestinian refugee areas? I don’t think that would have been best, but what do I know. I do know that we, in remarkably short order, won a war and displaced a brutal dictator who had made the UN appear a farce for a decade. And I do know now we have the “peace” to win – that is, a nation to build on that scrapheap of mass burial grounds and erratic electricity and gold-filled palaces Saddam had made of his country.
We have to see this thing through – we have to not just restore electricity but also expand it, not just get the teachers back in the schoolrooms but new textbooks. These people have been brutalized by a ruthless leader whose omnipresent features were tattooed into their minds – it will take a while to clear those minds, detoxify those thoughts. They need to step beyond fear and assume the kind of responsibility democracy requires (one not all that many populations have been willing to take). And this in a country that is surrounded by ill-wishers, whose prisons were opened as America entered, and whose army fled rather than fought. Okay, it is going to be tough for us and tougher for them. But surely it isn’t as tough as living in a society with a children’s prison.
We see, as in the NYTimes report explicated by Morrissey, a powerful desire to fold, to walk away. That maneuver, unattractive in itself, tells us much. It is a game. The Times is playing the cards it has. It is out to win – but the pot it wants to win is cheap. The tone is world weary: Bush just doesn’t know what he’s doing and besides what is it that Iraq has now and didn’t before? Freedom, what is that? Freedom of press, but, ah, that and so much more are mere illusions. Those of you out there think you are free, but we, we know better. After all, women aren’t admitted to an Augusta (and my apologies to all those Augustans–the blogosphere’s fact checkers do keep us honest) golf club.
The less dishonest, the more worn down ask another question. These are the people that want guarantees – or at least this guarantee at this time. I don’t understand their question, aching with angst and malaise, asked in a tone that appears closer to a moan than an interrogatory – is it doable? Well, we damn well better make it “doable”—otherwise we have betrayed the Iraqis, we have betrayed those in the Middle East who think there is another way to govern than by despot, we have betrayed those who believed in our rhetoric, we’ve betrayed those injured and dead. We have also betrayed Tony Blair and those other Brits like him, those Australians and Poles and Italians and Czechs and. . .
Of course, the real problem would be that we have betrayed what we believe in and who we are. We have betrayed the vulnerable future and the vision of the past. For those of us who believe that this is something, indeed, to betray, “folding them” really isn’t an option. Our “idealism” does not lead us to trust authoritarian leaders or to imagine utopian statist fantasies. It does lead us to respect individual rights, the freedom that, as Bush put it but was just using the words of an old tradition, is not America’s to its citizens but God’s to the world. Because our sense of the fallibility of man is always accompanied by our sense of his individual responsibility, his potential for the heroic choice, the transcendent act.
At this point, we need to make damn sure we do it. Worrying about the doable half way through the game isn’t all that useful. There were times when I thought my husband was really, really irritating. But, as three kids came along, I figured we were in for a long haul and it damn well better be doable. When I looked over those stubs that told me how much my employees needed to be paid, I figured that was no time to fold and I’d damn well better make it doable. Looking at my quirky thesis and pile of novels, I wondered how I was going to get to the end.
Deeper thinkers, greater actors on a larger stage are in the middle of the play. All is not well, challenges have arisen and will arise; much will, inevitably, have to change. Of course, the business needed to be altered, the marriage needed to be thought out, the thesis needed to be refined. But my responsibilities needed to be met, each needed to be “finished” in some way. Because, of course, each represented responsibilities (and I would argue mundane but real values) that were bigger than me. Of course, I sold the business; divorces can be done with dignity and respect for mate and children, dissertations don’t need to be written. Still, the folding needs to be done in a way that doesn’t betray who we are.
I knew each time I’d damn well better work something out. And that is what those deeper thinkers, those bigger actors on that bigger stage need to figure out. But we need to be there, too. We need to ask, what can we do; the question shouldn’t be is it doable? but, rather, how?
And perhaps we can conclude with one of my own husband’s cw lyrics; the narrator starts telling a story and screws up and his friends yell “tell one you know”: he keeps forgetting a new song at songwriter’s night and the audience yells “play one you know.” The last verse points out that’s the trouble with life: we just can’t start over; we’ve got to play it to the end. Benjamin Franklin was a pragmatist, but he wanted a new edition, where he could clean up the errata. We understand that desire, but, well, he knows and we know, starting over isn’t an option, we’ve got to see it to the end.