Thursday, September 07, 2006

Five Minutes to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

By James Wolcott

It seems odd to launch a major testosterone escalation of Tough Talk right before the country slopes off for the long holiday weekend marking the unofficial end of summer. I don't get the sense anybody's in the mood to be summoned into battle, or eager to have their spines stiffened for the Challenges Ahead. Even the 5 year anniversary of 9/11 casting twin shadows on the skyline doesn't quite explain the ramp-up in portentous rhetoric. September 11th is a day of mournful remembrance, our annual hurdle of traumatic flashbacks and funeral orations. A somber day, not a saber-rattling one. Yet for the last week or so, the fearmongers and the blog militia have taken the safety catches off their loaded mouths.

We've had Rumsfeld rolling the charge of appeasement like a hand grenade down the Democratic aisle.

Bush unveiling that Frankenstein hybrid meant to scare credulous villagers, "Islamic fascism."

Charles Krauthammer launching the latest in his line of wind-up goosestepping Hitler dolls.

The thumb-twiddlers at NRO's Corner trying to come up with a catchy new name for our enemies.

The brain stormers at the Gates of Vienna trying to come up with a punchy new slogan for the War on Terror. And trying. And trying. Among the bubblings from the tar pit, we get: "If you don't have the brains to know Islam is a threat, you won't miss your head when it's gone." "Terrorism is cancer -- it's time to get radioactive!" "KILL A JIHADI FOR MOMMIE."

The slovenly Debbie Schlussel (see here) and a bodywaxed dummy named David Warren (here) heaping scorn on the Fox News captives, inspiring this Frank Frazetta-ish beefcake graphic via TBogg.

Put this hyperbole and head-scratching together and you get an apocalyptic warning cry represented best by this showcased post at Pajamas Media from The Intellectual Activist bearing the dire title, "Five Minutes to Midnight: The War Is Coming, No Matter How Hard We Try to Evade It."

After the customary history lesson starring Neville Chamberlain, his umbrella, and the sombre backdrop of Munich, the author milks the parallels to our own bleak situation, and plucks a silver lining no bigger than a coat thread.

"The good news, such as it is, is that the air of foreboding about this new war is somewhat exaggerated. Yes, the conflict will become larger and bloodier—far bloodier than it would have been had we acted earlier. But Iran is not Nazi Germany—a large, united, economically and technologically advanced nation that could nearly equal our military capability. Iran is a poor, backward nation with a large, restive dissident movement. Its military bluster is a hollow shell hiding its underlying weakness. It's time to break that shell and kill the monster inside—before it grows any bigger and more powerful.

"We can all sense that the war is coming. It is vital for America to seize the initiative and fight it on our terms, when we have the maximum advantage.

"It's five minutes to midnight. The time to strike Iran is now."

I have a theory on why the War Party rhetoric has gone skittish and skyhigh, a theory based on casual observation of New York streetfights (streetfights everywhere, really). What I've noticed is that the trash talk in a street altercation escalates in proportion to the expanding distance between the two protagonists. When two potential fighters are almost literally in each other's faces, their words are few, their expressions fierce. It's when the fist fight has been avoided (or tabled) and they're putting distance between each other that the taunting becomes louder and more florid. "Get back in my face again, motherfucker, and I'll pound your face into hamburger meat, motherfucker." "Come back and say that to my face, lame-ass motherfucker." Etc. You can supply your own David Mamet expletives and challenges. One of my favorite verbal showdowns occurred on 14th Street one rainy day when two non-pugilists kept up the trash talk until one of them said, "You're carrying an umbrella, motherfucker--how tough can you be?" Which I must say got quite a chortle from us idle bystanders.

Now what has this to do with the posings of our militaristic muscle mouths?

This: It is an index of the frustration and impotence they're experiencing at not getting their way. They're waging rhetorical escalation because de-escalation is the unacknowledged order of the day, and there's nothing they can do about it.

Steve Clemons published a dispatch from the Nelson Report indicating that despite all of the Cheneyesque bluster, the Bush administration is pursuing the diplomatic route with Iran. To the dismay of the hard nosers, Bush is also reeling back his use of "Islamic fascists", which will be interpreted as a capitulation to political correctness. You even have Rumself whining that his recent appeasement slur was taken "out of context," and calling for "constructive" dialogue regarding the situation in Iraq. And then there's the happy novelty of Rudy Giuliani blowing the whistle and calling a foul on "partisan bickering", which will not endear him to the more strident dickheads in his party.

There has been a major shift in the mood climate, one which the War Party and its bloggers are resisting at the top of their lungs. But resistance is futile. As John Robb writes in an important post at Global Guerrillas, "Playing at War", we're not going to the get the grand, conclusive World War III (or IV) that same neocon ideologues crave. Conflict is being ratcheted down, dispersed. Here's what's in the cards ahead:

"Operations of low lethality. Western militaries do not have the desire, nor the sanction, to conduct the high casualty operations typically associated with real wars. Technology has been leveraged to increase the precision of attacks to limit collateral damage and save the lives of soldiers. The corollary to this is that western militaries are also fiercely protective of the lives of their soldiers. Warfare, increasingly, is supposed to be costless. What this means is that we will not see Sherman's 'March to the Sea' or Hama in the near future - and - the loss of a hundred soldiers in southern Lebanon will be enough to stop the Israeli army."

[snip]

"Muddled objectives. Given the lack of the cohesive and singular reason for war -- the survival of the state and its people through the elimination of its enemies -- the reasons for warfare will drift. This translates into a constantly shifting landscape of military objectives, where current objectives recede in favor of replacements before they can be reached. The result is confusion, mission creep, and conflict escalation.

"The upshot of this diminishment of warfare is that wars will become increasingly difficult to win."

Therefore:

"Ultimately, western societies will need to learn to live within the limits of this new framework. It is not possible for us to reverse the clock on this trend. Any mass mobilization for war that lifts existing limitations will be severely punished by both global markets and opinion (both domestically and abroad) if it ever was attempted."

This understanding seems to be slowly filtering into the visors of those in Washington, but adjusting to this new reality will deprive the most stubborn members of the War Party with the dramatic satisfaction of the final reckoning--the High Noon showdown--the climactic clash of civilizations--that they crave.

Robb:

"Given an inability to resolve conflicts through nation-building and state collapse, western states should endeavor to deescalate conflicts rather than ignite them. Escalation is a false God that promises a return of the motivational clarity found in the wars of the 20th Century. It cannot deliver this."

What we're hearing from pundits, bloggers, and likeminded belligerents this August is a baying to a false God, a nostalgic need for motivational clarity and a macho yearning for deliverance that the facts on the ground will deny them. Their commando belts tied up in knots, their umbrellas unfolded, they can turn on Bush, or on Condi Rice (as Richard Perle has done), but who can they turn to? Nobody. That's why they're egging each other on, flexing their biceps, and clinging to Mark Steyn for warmth. It's the only way to hold on to their fading relevance.

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