Entry from February 20, 2003

It’s amazing to me to see in this run-up — more of a limp-up, actually — to war with Iraq how many different ways we have to talk about honor without ever mentioning its all-but forbidden name. The most favored alternative is “credibility,” as in Henry Kissinger’s apodictic contention that “if the United States marches 200,000 troops into the region and then marches them back out without having achieved more than a nebulous containment of a regime that has violated U.N. directives for over a decade, the credibility of American power in the war on terrorism and in international affairs will be gravely, perhaps irreparably impaired.” He presumably remembers the fate of the Grand Old Duke of York who, having marched his 10,000 men up to the top of the hill, marched them down again and became a laughing stock for centuries.

More surprisingly, Timothy Noah or “Chatterbox” writes in Slate in a similar vein.

We have to go to war with Iraq — or at least threaten to go to war until Saddam accepts exile — because the Bush administration and the United Nations threw down the gauntlet. We mean it this time, we said. Lose your chemical and biological weapons or we’ll take them away. Once we said this, any proof that Iraq had not gotten rid of those weapons gave the United States two choices. One choice — a choice that Chatterbox, given the war against al-Qaida, would have likely preferred — would be to keep secret our evidence that Iraq disobeyed the United States and the United Nations, and to continue trying to resolve the conflict diplomatically. But the Bush administration didn’t make that choice. It went public with the evidence, and in so doing laid the credibility of the United States and the United Nations on the line.

There’s that word again! “Is ‘credibility’ reason enough to go to war?” asks Noah. On the whole, he thinks it is, in spite of the risks of inflaming “Islamist hatred,” since “the possibility that explicit and highly public U.S. and U.N. ultimatums will no longer be taken seriously is. . . even more life-threatening. What little restraint we can impose on the world”s thugs and terrorists is due to the belief that the international community and/or the world”s biggest superpower will only let killing and territorial aggression go so far. Having threatened retribution, we have to follow through.” You can see his point.

But another way of framing the question about “credibility” is in terms of “saving face” — or losing it — and those who put the question this way generally come up with a different answer from that of Henry Kissinger and Timothy Noah. “I know Saddam would sacrifice lives to save his face, but for the first time have begun wondering whether there are people in London and Washington who might do so too,” writes the gay former Tory MP, Matthew Parris, in The Times of London, seemingly taking it for granted that sacrificing lives to save face is something that only a very bad person indeed would dream of doing. The kittenish Maureen Dowd of the New York Times seems to take a similar view, spiced up as usual with sexual innuendo. “The painful parts of Washington history,” she writes somewhat obscurely, “have often been about men trying harder to save face than lives.”

To her the projection of military force is, like a great many other things to do with Republican administrations, all a matter of insecure masculinity. “For this White House, pulling back when all our forces are poised for battle would be, to use the Bush family”s least favorite word, wimpy.” Well, maybe, but Maureen is typically reluctant to explore further the question of whether, in fact, it is wimpy, and not just because the Bush family thinks so. Maybe she thinks that the effete, preppy Bushes whom she has made a career out of sneering at invented the very idea of wimpishness as a projection of their own insecurity. In any case, “saving face” is clearly something that only “men,” with their absurd ideas about showing strength and dominance, would ever worry about.

Perhaps she is right. Perhaps that is why our forefathers oddly (as it must seem to us) excluded women from political life — because it was feared that they couldn’t, as a sex, be got to take seriously the ritual assertions and counter-assertions of masculine honor on which international relations have always been based. Some such incomprehension may belong even to military women, like Staff Sgt. Teresa Taylor of Company C of the 854th Engineer Battalion at Fort Dix, New Jersey, who told the New York Times that “I know what I have to do, but I still don”t know why we’re going. . .We’ve got all those people out there already, and it’s like we’ll have to do something now to save face.” Left hanging in the air is Sgt. Taylor’s unspoken query: “That can’t be right, can it?”

Ah, but it can, Teresa. At least a lot of the guys seem to think so. Though obviously there are many women who are perfectly capable of understanding political and diplomatic necessity as men have historically understood it — just as there are many men today who seem no longer capable of doing so — it is much more likely that a woman will see geopolitical reality as a mere contingency, one among many possible alternative orderings of the world. Somewhere deep inside, women like Maureen Dowd and Sgt Taylor are thinking that if only men wouldn’t be such big sillies and get themselves all worked up about the size of their “credibility” — even the men don’t dare use the word “honor” anymore — there would be no more wars. Or at least no more wars of the kind they disapprove of, which are the kind undertaken for so ridiculous a purpose as “saving face.”

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