With Every Mistake

By Gwynne Dyer

Journalism has been described as the first draft of history. Which is a nice way of saying journalists don’t always get it right. Reporting on the news as it happens gives us only part of the picture, a picture that inevitably needs to be expanded, modified, examined, and, where necessary, corrected.

As a columnist, someone who stands back and interprets the big picture, Gwynne Dyer knows he is held to a higher standard. And so it really bugs him that in the aftermath of 9/11 he “got things so badly wrong.” Of course he’s quick to point out that a lot of other people got things wrong too, but he doesn’t have to answer for them. What he does feel he has to answer for are his own mistakes. And so what we have here is a collection of his newspaper columns written between 2001 and 2005, with a brief running commentary pointing out where he went wrong and why.

Columns on international affairs from South America to Africa to Asia to Outer Space are included, but it’s clear from the outset that Dyer’s main focus is on Iraq (a subject he has already covered in two other books: Ignorant Armies and Future: Tense).

In a nutshell, Dyer is opposed to the American invasion and occupation of Iraq because it undermines the system of international law, implemented mainly through the UN, to prevent global chaos and a Third World War. In a column that he alerts the reader to pay special attention to, “The UN is Not a Morality Play,” he explains why moral justification is simply not enough. Punishing the wicked should be left to God. To the basic rule that you cannot legally attack another country Dyer will allow no exceptions. Even humanitarian military interventions to stop massacres in Bosnia and Kosovo “opened doors that should have remained shut.” “Countries should be left to deal with their own dictators . . . Foreign invasions are not the solution.”

And so the invasion of Iraq was wrong from the start, not just a botched job. In this Dyer can at least claim to be consistent. In a column published November 14, 2001 he congratulates the US on their quick Afghanistan operation but warns against overconfidence. “Above all,” he cautions, “don’t let anybody talk you into attacking Iraq.”

Here Dyer admits to blindness. In fact, the Bush administration did not need anyone to talk it into attacking Iraq. That was always part of their plan and there was literally nothing that was going to stop them.

Dyer has an interesting excuse for being wrong about American motives. As he points out, to understand America’s Imperial Strategy even this early in the game all that was necessary was a visit to the website for the neoconservative “Project for a New American Century.” Or he might have read any of the plethora of neocon columnists at the time. Were people like Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and all the others of that ilk, among the journalists who “got it wrong”? Hardly.

To this day, as every justification for the invasion of Iraq has been exploded (and Dyer reminds us that none of them were very convincing at the time), there is no clear message coming from the White House on what the actual mission was that was supposed to be accomplished, or what goals were to be achieved. And in this vacuum any analysis in the mainstream media that goes beyond the official platitudes about spreading liberty and freedom has come from the same Right-wing commentators, who have never been afraid to say what this is all about. It is only well-meaning critics on the Left who have had difficulty stating the obvious.


In his Introduction to The Great Unraveling, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman draws on the doctoral dissertation of Henry Kissinger to explain exactly the failure that Dyer has such trouble with: How the American media establishment responded to the radicalism of the Bush administration. Kissinger is describing the failure of the Great Powers of Europe to confront the revolutionary force of Napoleonic France (and, implicitly, their similar failure to confront Nazi Germany). This is what Kissinger has to say:

Lulled by a period of stability which had seemed permanent, they find it nearly impossible to take at face value the assertion of the revolutionary power that it means to smash existing framework. The defenders of the status quo therefore tend to begin by treating the revolutionary power as if its protestations were merely tactical; as if it really accepted the existing legitimacy but overstated its case for bargaining purposes; as if it were motivated by specific grievances to be assuaged by limited concessions. Those who warn against the danger in time are considered alarmists; those who counsel adaptation to circumstance are considered balanced and sane. . . . But it is the essence of a revolutionary power that it possesses the courage of its convictions, that it is willing, indeed eager, to push its principles to their ultimate conclusion.

Dyer is just such a defender of the old status quo. In the early going he admits to not being able to credit the idea that this was all about forcing a military Pax Americana upon the world. Now he views current American foreign policy as basically an “attempt to head off impending relative decline by the US back in the global driving seat.” He doesn’t think it will work, but even here he seems to avoid giving the neocons credit for the courage of their convictions. For example, he concludes that “there is no way of stopping China and India from catching up with the current Lone Superpower short of nuking their entire economies. And no: I don’t think the neocons would do that.”

Why not? Eisenhower threatened to use nuclear weapons against Korea, and by the end of the Vietnam War Nixon was in favour of dropping them on that unfortunate country (a decision that a majority of Americans probably would have supported). In the lead-up to the second Gulf War the US made it clear they were willing to use them against Iraq, a country it already knew to be defenseless. So why wouldn’t America choose to destroy a real threat like China or India, or for that matter a good chunk of the rest of the world, rather than experience a decline in their “non-negotiable” standard of living? Given the smashing of the existing framework of international law, what’s to stop them? The rising economic power of other parts of the world is not a military deterrent.

Will the current strategy for global dominance work? “Don’t be silly,” Dyer tells us. “It never works.” Maybe not in the past, but things are different today. Previous military empires have never had such apocalyptic military power. After the American Empire, there is no other.

Review first published December 24, 2005.

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