Yesterday I wrote about how the political scenes in Anthony Trollope’s Prime Minister remain relevant today. Today I share a nonpolitical scene that is similarly relevant. It applies to those hawks urging confrontation with Iran.
I made the connection after reading an essay in The Atlantic by Peter Beinart. Beinart is upset that those who urged us into the war with Iraq are not being held accountable as they counsel rejecting the Iran deal, even though doing so could well put us on a path to war. Here’s Beinart:
I have a fantasy. It’s that every politician and pundit who goes on TV to discuss the Iran deal is asked this question first: “Did you support the Iraq War, and how has that experience informed your position?”
Beinart confesses that he himself supported the Iraq War. He then models how one learns from experience:
For me, it would be a painful question. I supported the Iraq War enthusiastically. I supported it because my formative foreign-policy experiences had been the Gulf War and the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo, all of which led me to exaggerate the efficacy of military force and downplay its risks. As Iraq spiraled into disaster, I felt intellectually unmoored. When my sister-in-law was deployed there for a year, leaving her young daughter behind, I was consumed with guilt that I had contributed to their hardship. To this day, when I walk down the street and see a homeless veteran, I feel nauseous. I give some money and a word of thanks, and think about offering an apology. But I don’t, because there’s no apology big enough. The best I can do is learn from my mistake. These days, that means supporting the diplomatic deal with Iran.
A few others, such as Andrew Sullivan and The New York Times editorial, have also admitted that they were wrong. They are the exceptions, however:
Yet when it comes to Iran, the debate is almost entirely a la carte. It’s as if there are no relevant precedents (except, perhaps, Munich). Again and again, pundits who championed the invasion of Iraq—people like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer—appear on television advocating the same worldview they advocated in 2002 and 2003, and get to pretend that nothing has happened over the last 15 years to throw that worldview into question…Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in 2002 told Congress that “There is no question whatsoever that Saddam is … advancing towards the development of nuclear weapons” and that “If you take out … Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you that it will have enormous positive reverberations on the region,” can appear on Sunday show after Sunday show smugly lecturing the host about the state of Iran’s nuclear program and the Iran deal’s implications for the Middle East without having his earlier comments read back to him.
Unfortunately, a masterful scene from Trollope’s novel shows why it wouldn’t do any good to confront Kristol, Krauthammer, Netanyahu and all those others. The villain, Ferdinand Lopez, has been caught red-handed pressuring two different people to pay for the same set of election expenses. His evasive maneuvering is a thing of perverse beauty, very much like the way that neocons slide out of responsibility for America’s biggest foreign policy disaster since the Vietnam War. Notice how he ducks and dodges, never admitting wrong when his father-in-law accuses him:
“Lopez,” he asked, “what is this that the newspapers are saying about your expenses at Silverbridge?”
Lopez had expected the attack and had endeavored to prepare himself for it. “I should have thought, sir, that you would not have paid much attention to such statements in a newspaper.”
“When they concern myself, I do. I paid your electioneering expenses.”
“You certainly subscribed £500 towards them, Mr. Wharton.”
“I subscribed nothing, sir. There was no question of a subscription,—by which you intend to imply contribution from various sources. You told me that the contest cost you £500 and that sum I handed to you, with the full understanding on your part, as well as on mine, that I was paying for the whole. Was that so?”
“Have it your own way, sir.”
“If you are not more precise, I shall think that you have defrauded me.”
“Yes, sir—defrauded me, or the Duke of Omnium. The money is gone, and it matters little which. But if that be so I shall know that either from him or from me you have raised money under false pretenses.”
“Of course, Mr. Wharton, from you I must bear whatever you may choose to say.”
“Is it true that you have applied to the Duke of Omnium for money on account of your expenses at Silverbridge, and is it true that he has paid you money on that score?”
“Mr. Wharton, as I said just now, I am bound to hear and to bear from you anything that you may choose to say. Your connection with my wife and your age alike restrain my resentment. But I am not bound to answer your questions when they are accompanied by such language as you have chosen to use, and I refuse to answer any further questions on this subject.”
“Of course I know that you have taken the money from the Duke.”
“Then why do you ask me?”
“And of course I know that you are as well aware as I am of the nature of the transaction. That you can brazen it out without a blush only proves to me that you have got beyond the reach of shame!”
“Very well, sir.”
“And you have no further explanation to make?”
“What do you expect me to say? Without knowing any of the facts of the case,—except the one, that you contributed £500 to my election expenses,—you take upon yourself to tell me that I am a shameless, fraudulent swindler. And then you ask for a further explanation! In such a position is it likely that I shall explain anything;—that I can be in a humor to be explanatory? Just turn it all over in your mind, and ask yourself the question.”
Ah, novels don’t make literary villains like they used to. Real life does pretty well, however.