When Is Optimism Depressing?

Confucius say, when AEI heads empanel themselves. Let’s unravel the riddle, shall we?

Kagan [Fred, that is] opened up by declaring that “the civil war in Iraq is over,” because the surge succeeded in quelling sectarian violence and now the Iraqi public is increasingly focused on preventing an uptick in violence. […] While Al Qaeda in Iraq is not fully defeated, Kagan argued, there is “no measurable likelihood” that it will achieve its goals of transforming Iraq into an Islamist state, because the Iraqi people have rejected them. […] Kagan argued that though the prevailing narrative is that the Iraqi government has failed to meet the benchmarks set by Congress, by his count, the Iraqis have actually met 12 of 18 benchmarks, while making progress on 5 others.

[…] O’Hanlon said that supporters of the surge had been “vindicated” by the success of the strategy, but that we are by no means out of the woods in Iraq […] by the end of 2012, we’d be looking at a troop presence in Iraq of about 30,000. While “not as sanguine” as Kagan on the political situation in Iraq, O’Hanlon acknowledged that there has been a lot of political progress.

[…] Pollack chimed in to say that it was “remarkable” to him as a military analyst that the surge has worked exactly as it was intended to. A year ago, he would have given very low odds to a best case scenario in Iraq, but now that scenario is not just possible, but perhaps even probable. […] If we pull out from Iraq precipitously, Pollack said, we may return to the levels of violence we saw in 2006 and run the risk of an all out civil war that would have ramifications for the rest of the region.

Now, I have edited this reportage by Phil Klein to underscore a rhetorical point, but I haven’t edited capriciously. The depressing optimism of which I speak really is always couched with the same disclaimer — ending the war means total cataclysm. But that’s not why it depresses. It’s the optimism itself, the emotional mantra that accompanies the rote-repeated talking points. We’re not ‘out of the woods.’ Certain expenditures ‘will rise indefinitely.’ Various portions of Iraq ‘remain bogus.’ But probably that best-case scenario we shelved in 2004 has simply been delayed, not shivered into irreparable fragments! The Surge has not only been the military improvement that was always to be expected but a political success transcending even the turning of the Sunni tribes! Civil war is over, although ‘the south’ is a shambles! Because it’s been turned over to brigands! Whoopee!

No, none of these gentlemen are actually saying Whoopee. Whoopee is always just around the corner. They are in the delayed gratification business. Which is fine when it’s not so damn self-conscious. “Gratification is postponed indefinitely” — now that’s a policy so depressing it inspires, which is where John McCain comes in, and where his psyche parts ways with the neoconservative reflex. Hope is just around the corner; metaphors of seasonal renewal are just around the corner; color-coded revolutions are a heartbeat away. Maybe. But when aristocrats dispense with their pessimism they always risk great silliness, and the best of the neocons — whom I have repeatedly praised as honest and even brave — would do well to internalize the pessimism their movement has made it a policy to attempt to defeat intellectually. One immediately wonders how a people or even a coterie are to be mobilized to liberate the world’s masses without the sweet waters of optimism. So maybe I am asking some neoconservatives not to be such democrats. Maybe that’s the nut of it: the ultimate depressing idea is that you can’t champion democracy anymore without embracing a duty to be optimistic. The only duty to optimism that’s ever really worked has been religious, and now we’re at the start of some other blog post.