A Sort of Haunted Look

The Ring with the Red Velvet Ropes, Night Gallery episode

Rod Serling got his start in writing by writing boxing stories (a radio play he’d written won a contest) and quite a few of the most affecting of the episodes of his old Twilight Zone series were boxing stories. I’m thinking of stories like The Big Tall Wish and Steel. The greatest teleplay ever written, Serling’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, is a boxing story.

I recall a story from the old Rod Serling’s Night Gallery series, The Ring With the Red Velvet Ropes. This is, of course, a boxing story. In this story, based on a short story by Edward Hoch, every winner of the world’s heavyweight boxing championship, on the moment of his victory, is transported to a sort of hell in which the real championship bout is fought. If he wins, he is returned to his life but forever after he has a sort of haunted look, knowing who the real champ is. If he loses… Well, that would be telling. You’ll have to seek out the episode and watch it for yourself.

I’ve occasionally wondered about this story in a political context, particularly with respect to the presidency and especially with respect to foreign policy. There’s been a remarkable continuity over the years in American foreign policy. For details on how and why this might actually be see Walter Russell Mead’s book, Special Providence.

Whatever platform they might run on, presidents seem to continue with an evolutionary foreign policy rather than a revolutionary one. I wonder if this isn’t as true with George W. Bush as with the presidents that came before him.

I do not subscribe to the “error” theory of why the Iraq War has turned into such a mess by nearly anyone’s yardstick. According to this theory, the invasion was a good idea that was soured by a series of errors, mostly made by Bush Administration officials. The disbanding of the Iraqi Army is often pointed to as such an error. So is de-Ba’athification, the conduct of the CPA, letting al-Qaeda re-group in Fallujah, and a host of other things.

I disagree. I think that the invasion was a bad idea that could not have been redeemed however deftly handled. I’m skeptical, however, that a better outcome can be achieved by withdrawing our forces from Iraq before the place is significantly more stable than it is now however awful the situation there.

But here’s my question. Is the error uniquely George Bush’s? I know that Dan Nexon of The Duck of Minerva, for example, whose opinion I respect enormously, believes with all his heart that Bill Clinton would never have invaded Iraq if he’d been president in 2001 (and 2003). Nor would President Gore. Or McCain. Or President Hillary Clinton. Is that true?

Do not think for a moment that I’m trying to mount a defense of GWB. That’s not my intent. I didn’t vote for him in 2000, I didn’t support the invasion in 2003, I won’t defend him now. What I’m looking for is real evidence, from the 2001 to 2003 timeframe, that only George Bush, with a unique genius for miscalculation, would have invaded Iraq. Or is President Bush just another president with a sort of haunted look, compelled by the exigencies of events, politics, and the presidency?

7 comments… add one
  • PD Shaw

    Didn’t Bob Kerry write an editorial circa October of 2001, saying that we shouldn’t let the coming Afghanistan campaign distract us from Saddam’s long-term threat? Perhaps even made the case that we should use the world’s post 9/11 sympathies for the cause? Can’t find it.

  • Looks like the article you may be thinking of was in the WSJ in September 2002

  • PD Shaw

    If that’s the article, it doesn’t quite make the point I wanted to make, which was that there was at least one Democrat supporting some sort of aggressive military action after 9/11 against Saddam, but well before the Bush administration began to make the public case. Googling correct and incorrect spellings of Kerrey’s name suggests otherwise.

    It would still be my view that to the extent Kerrey, Lieberman, and McCain were in positions of influence, war with Iraq was a possible outcome. Gore is a little more tricky. Pollack pretty much says he was interested around ’98, but that the administration cooled on the idea when the Kosovo conflict became more difficult than anticipated. So the young, impetious Gore is a hawk that would have invaded, but the wiser, chastened Gore would not. Or who knows?

  • I believe that Clinton – either one – or Gore would have invaded had one of them been President in 2003. Kerry, less likely. So, no, I don’t think that the mistake (as you see it) would have been only Bush’s.

  • Since I don’t accept your premise about the Iraq war, I can’t really argue your points.

    But I think there is, necessarily, a continuity in foreign policy between administrations because to do otherwise would be to cripple the US, politically as well as economically.

    That’s pretty much the case for domestic policy as well, of course. While radical promises can be made during the campaign, those elected find that the job is rather harder than they’d imagines. You just can do the Gordian Knot thing without the whole fabric falling apart. You can, however, seek to reweave certain parts, or at least change the color of the yarn.

  • I think it highly likely that we would have gone with or without the Bush administration in power.

    I think it ridiculous to suggest that no one would have thought much about Iraq if the Bush administration hadn’t pushed the issue. In point of fact anyone who was paying attention and remembers honestly knows that we had a long, slow (often frustratingly slow) and careful and deliberate national debate on Iraq. Members of Congress, including Democrats, were talking about Iraq weeks after 9/11.

    History will look back on the “he lied us into war” people with a sort of puzzlemenet.

    And yes, I agree: American foreign policy is remarkably consistent over the decades. Various administrations rarely make more than one or two significant changes of direction, and even those often fail.

    It would be nice iff more people would acknowledge that a decision to go to war is a national one, not a Presidential one.

  • I wish I deserved the endorsement… alas.

    Anyway, the easy counter-factual–the one that requires a minimal rewrite of history–is a Gore election in 2000. I don’t see a strong scenario under which Gore invades Iraq at all, and I have a lot of difficulty seeing an invasion between 2001-2004.

    Despite a general sense that the sanctions regime wasn’t succeeding, and would likely implode few of the Democrats–and certainly not Gore–had a particularly strong impetus to invade Iraq. The act Kerrey co-sponsored wasn’t exactly a high priority for the Clinton administration and, regardless, fell quite short of a major military commitment. This is the main reason why I find arguments of the kind advanced by Dean unconvincing–it is a long way from “he’s a problem” and “we need to do something” to “let’s invade” and “let’s invade while still at war in Afghanistan.”

    1. One has to understand the peculiar obsession with Saddam Hussein held by some members of Bush Administration during the time frame in question. It is hardly a secret that Wolfowitz developed such an obsession during his time at SAIS. Cheney himself seems to have held a similar fixation. I’m less certain about Bush, but there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest so. Remember, these guys were *already* talking about the need to do something about Iraq during the 2000 campaign, and Gore didn’t exactly jump on the bandwagon.

    2. Another unique circumstance in the Bush administration: a Secretary of Defense intent on proving a new doctrine of American force projection, one at odds with conventional wisdom (the Powell doctrine) about the use of U.S. ground forces. You needed someone as committed as Rumsfeld to provide a consistent (and erroneous) case that the war could be done on the cheap and low. If not, the costs of the war start to look politically prohibitive to an Administration (Republican or Democrat).

    3. The debate over Iraq was driven by the increasing evidence that the Bush team was interested in going to war. Without that interest, other pressures for war would have likely fizzled.

    4. I’m not sure I’d use the term “lie,” but it is pretty clear that a whole lot of exaggeration and deception went into the case for the Iraq War. I actually think I understand why the Bush administration did what they did: (1) they figured that even if the intel wasn’t great they’d find some sort of WMD in Iraq, (2) they figured that the strategic benefits of the war–out of Saudi Arabia, reliable US client, democratic demonstration effect–were so great that whatever they needed to do to sell it was in bounds. But, regardless, you need people really, really committed to the conflict to engage in that level of “truthiness,” and it isn’t clear to me that many of the other possible Presidents–at least Gore, Bradley, or McCain–would’ve themselves, or in terms of their national security team, have had been *so* intent as to have been willing to stretch the truth on the assumption that the facts on the ground would bear them out after the invasion.

    5. Regardless, it is hard to imagine a unique conjunction of personalities and events that would’ve produced such a miserably planned and executed occupation. Even if McCain, Bradley, Gore, or someone else would have invaded, I’d think we’d all be better off now.

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