With that moral framework in place, Bush announced an invasion of Iraq. And at first, the story seemed to fall neatly into place. Within days of the invasion, we were told the mission had been accomplished. Baghdad had fallen to the US Army, and Saddam was on the run. From there on it was to be merely a mop up operation.
The ensuing five years was to not only disprove the idea of a quick and easy victory for the good guys, but also challenged America’s idea of itself as a force for good in a world in which things were no longer so black and white. Amid the fog of war, an impalpable greyness settled over America’s moral standing. Civilian casualties in Iraq reached staggering proportions; news of torture, waterboarding and CIA black sites disturbed our sense of righteousness. A theory of ‘extraordinary rendition’ was enacted to skirt the Geneva Conventions, and the use of contractors to carry out the dirty work was to provide a semblance of distance from the practice of torture. Legal memos seeking to justify the use of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ emanated from the Bush White House with ex-post facto dispatch. The real question of whether one can justify invading a country that has not attacked us or our allies, but harbors terrorists, was fraught with moral ambiguities. Guantanamo Bay happened. Targeted assassination of U.S. citizens on foreign soil was amoral frontier no one had even contemplated before the adventure began.
By the time the Bush Presidency ended, America was suffering from a case of terrible morale. In the eyes of many observers, the Iraq war seemed not only to be a failure – it had totally backfired. Rather than contain the evil of terrorism, the destruction of Iraqi state seemed to result in terrorism spreading like a plague throughout the region. No one wanted to stand by the results, even its chief architects fell upon themselves and the blame game began in earnest.
And into the vacuum snuck a total newcomer to the American political scene, Barack Obama. He had been one of the very few elected who opposed the Iraq war as a matter ofmoral objection, although unlike other politicians, he did not have to face the dilemma of voting for it. By the time he arrived in the Senate as a freshman, he could smugly pontificate about what he might have done had he been in the position to choose.
Both Obama elections became more about a repudiation of the Bush doctrine than an embrace of a new theory of American power. Immediately after his election, and before withdrawing a single troop from Iraq or Afghanistan (and with war very much raging in both places), the Nobel Prize committee crowned Obama with a premature investiture that wedded him formally to the idea of ending the American military presence in the middle east. Of course he had campaigned on ending the wars – for America’s benefit; but he was enlisted by the world as its leader before he even settled into office. Obama also went on a victory lap of his own through the Middle East, where he talked before large crowds about the dawning of a new day of democracy in those lands.
But already the seeds of doubt had begun to fester at home. Many saw Obama’s ‘apology tour,’ not so much as a repudiation of the Bush doctrine, but a repudiation of American exceptionalism. And for many, the strain of the war combined with the election to the highest office of a brown man with a Muslim-sounding name, would prove a little too much to bear.