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Creative Destruction and the Iraq War

Last night I watched The New American Century, a documentary about the neoconservative movement and its influence on American foreign policy. There are things in the film I didn’t agree with—for example, its assumption that September 11 was an “inside job”—but it got me thinking.

Leo Strauss, grandfather of the neoconservative movement, felt that modern life is vulgar and trivial. Moral relativism had made America soft, and we were on the road to decadence and decline. To combat this, we needed to be united by a common enemy, even an imaginary one, to give us a sense of purpose in the fight of good against evil. This enemy was at first the Soviet empire, but after its decline, a new enemy was needed to justify American dominance of the entire world. Ultimately “radical Islam” was chosen.

Michael Ledeen, a key neoconservative theorist, feels that “creative destruction” is the force of progress, and traditions are mere obstacles to be swept away. He feels that Italian fascism was “revolutionary,” though it was betrayed by Mussolini who suppressed its “youthful creativity and virility.” Fortunately, the U.S. is now in a position to play the same role, one in which economic and cultural structures are continually smashed so as to build them anew.

    Creative destruction is our middle name, both within our own society and abroad. We tear down the old order every day, from business to science, literature, art, architecture, and cinema to politics and the law. Our enemies have always hated this whirlwind of energy and creativity…. Seeing America undo traditional societies, they fear us, for they do not wish to be undone. […] They must attack us in order to survive, just as we must destroy them to advance our historic mission.

This is how the Manichean worldview drifts into nihilism. “The end of history” or “the end of ideology” really means the triumph of a particular history, a particular ideology, in which all others have disappeared from view. This is absolutist and also nihilist. It must not be forgotten, however, that such dreams depend for their realization on the availability of cheap energy to fuel the machine of infinite progress—so they are ultimately dreams of conquest.

Halliburton was reimbursed for all its expenses in Iraq, and rewarded with a profit in proportion to the money they spent. They were actually encouaged to destroy their own equipment, and did so, so they could spend more and earn more. They burned trucks when they got a flat tire, and bought new ones. They deliberately ordered the wrong item so they could throw it away and order again. This is “creative destruction” in the extreme, and it was applied to Iraqi society as well, as recounted in “Baghdad Year Zero” by Naomi Klein.

    A country of 25 million would not be rebuilt as it was before the war; it would be erased, disappeared. In its place would spring forth a gleaming showroom for laissez-faire economics, a utopia such as the world had never seen…. They came to imagine the invasion of Iraq as a kind of Rapture: where the rest of the world saw death, they saw birth—a country redeemed through violence, cleansed by fire. Iraq wasn’t being destroyed by cruise missiles, cluster bombs, chaos, and looting; it was being born again.

The Iraqi invasion was a utopian-libertarian-nihilist project, and it resulted in mass death. Faced with what was done to the Iraqi people in the name of the radical ideology of “creative destruction,” cynicism is a feeble response. Indignation is needed—or more than indignation, justice. Only bringing those responsible to justice will restore the principle that despite illusions of infinite power, we are all accountable for our the effects of our actions on other people. But too many crimes will go unpunished in this case.

We live in a world run by others, for their own private interest. Obama may have won the Nobel Peace Prize simply for being there, but whether he likes it or not, he is the new face of an old system. He may help to restore a sense of realism to the debate, by reminding us that actions should be measured by their effects on other people’s lives, but until the principle of justice is restored, nothing will change. Brushing the past under the carpet as he wants to do—sending it to the memory hole and moving on from there—is a moral failure.

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