Trusting the Arsonists to Put Out the Fire


During the 1800’s (before the formation of today’s FDNY) there were some private New York City “fire departments” who would deliberately set fires then demand payment from property owners to put them out. This is how the Bush Administration is treating America regarding Iraq today: “We set the fire, so you should trust us to put it out.” (The image is from the cover of a 145-year-old Harpers magazine.)

In September of 2002, when the war in Iraq was still seen as something other than inevitable, Al Gore opposed the Bush Administration’s planned attack in an amazingly prescient speech. Almost everything he said and everything he feared has come to pass. Here’s an amazing excerpt:

Moreover, if we quickly succeed in a war against the weakened and depleted fourth rate military of Iraq and then quickly abandon that nation as President Bush has abandoned Afghanistan after quickly defeating a fifth rate military there, the resulting chaos could easily pose a far greater danger to the United States than we presently face from Saddam. We know that he has stored secret supplies of biological and chemical weapons throughout his country.

We have no evidence, however, that he has shared any of those weapons with terrorist group. However, if Iraq came to resemble Afghanistan – with no central authority but instead local and regional warlords with porous borders and infiltrating members of Al Qaeda than these widely dispersed supplies of weapons of mass destruction might well come into the hands of terrorist groups.

If we end the war in Iraq, the way we ended the war in Afghanistan, we could easily be worse off than we are today. When Secretary Rumsfield was asked recently about what our responsibility for restabilizing Iraq would be in an aftermath of an invasion, he said, “that’s for the Iraqis to come together and decide.”

Replace “weapons of mass destruction” and “biological and chemical weapons” with “conventional armaments and explosives” and you have a pretty accurate picture of where we are right now, with a well-armed opposition killing our soldiers every day. Can you imagine how bad things would be if there were WMDs in Iraq after all? With insurgents and Al Qaeda infiltrators using them the way they’re currently using Saddam’s conventional arsenal against us?

Gore’s use of the word “abandon” doesn’t perfectly describe Bush’s post-invasion strategy for Iraq, but given that Bush’s post-war “plan” was, apparently, for the Iraqi people to spontaneously form a democracy and not require a huge American investment, it’s close enough. Not sending enough troops to keep the peace in the post-war chaos is pretty much the same thing as abandonment. At best, they set a fire in a tinderbox apparently hoping that it would put itself out.

Many liberals and Democrats were happy to learn that there were no WMDs in Iraq, in part because we wanted the Bush Administration’s deliberate misinterpretation (or wishful, I’m not sure which is worse) of prewar intelligence to be proven wrong. But really we should all be happy no WMDs existed, both liberals and conservatives, hawks and doves, because if there were WMDs in Iraq, Rumsfeld’s war plan would have failed to have secured them before they fell into the hands of insurgents and terrorists, who would be using them today — both in Iraq and most likely elsewhere.

So now what?

So what do we do about Iraq now? And does it matter who was right and who was wrong?

The answer to the second question is Yes. I think more and more Americans will agree that America, and the world, is worse off now than we were before the invasion of Iraq, and that invading Iraq was probably a mistake. And how we actually conducted the war, of course, is largely the reason for our ongoing troubles (lying about our reasons for starting the war in the first place, not sending enough troops and thus allowing an insurgency to form, explicitly condoning torture and abuse and thus undermining our moral position, damaging international alliances and thus our ability to negotiate — or wage war — with Iran and other real threats, etc.), and a reasonable argument could be made that if someone besides Bush waged the actual war in Iraq that we’d be doing far better.

The American people seem to be starting to realize that the people who actually did run this war — the Bush Administration and their GOP Congressional followers — cannot be trusted anymore with running America’s international affairs. They were put in charge of the household, and they set the house on fire. And yet somehow many of us still tend to think that the crew that set the house on fire is the crew best suited to putting it out. Why? Because many still see Bush as a strong and confident leader, qualities which outweigh concrete results in many people’s minds.

That’s the frustrating part to me: Although it’s getting better and better, I feel like America still barely realizes that the problems we’re having are the result of bad leadership. Some Americans still think that our lack of success could be the result of insufficient loyalty to Bush by the American people. The Republicans are already drafting up their “we-didn’t-succeed-because-we-were-betrayed-by-the-left” framing for the Iraq War’s historical legacy.

[Please, please read an excellent article about the history of the right-wing “Stabbed in the Back” frame in the June 2006 Harpers magazine, which you have to actually buy since Harpers does not yet publish their content online.]

Yes, it’s still important to make it clear to the American people that many prominent leaders, most notably Al Gore and Howard Dean, were courageous enough to point ot the specific problems with starting this war from day one.

But it’s also important, probably more important now, for America to realize that, regardless of whether or not invading Iraq was a good idea, many of our missteps after the decision to invade were not inevitable and that it is the incompetance of our leadership that has made our current problems as bad as they are.

A great many generals and military experts advised on sending more troops and having a better post-war plan, and they were silenced (including Colin Powell, who was apparently the most ineffectual and useless Secretary of State in recent history). Many Americans advised quite loudly against having a wink-wink policy towards torture, saying it would come back to haunt us. They too were ignored or shouted down. Many members of Congress asked the Administration if they should pass laws to legalize tribunals for enemy combatants, or laws to permit certain types of domestic surveillance — and they were told that no law was required, only to find out later that even the Administration itself might be in better position today if they had, in fact, passed these laws.

All of these naysayers were painted at the time as somehow undermining America’s ability to “win” in Iraq… and yet now we now know that (a) all of them were right, and (b) if we listened to any of them along the way, instead of to the Bush Administration, we’d all be better off today.

Putting the guy who set the fire in charge of putting it out is patently insane, but I think liberals need to realize that many Americans will do just that: They’d rather believe that the fire isn’t so bad, or that it’s going away in six months (or one “Friedman“), rather than trust new leadership to put it out. They’d rather have confident incompetance (Bush and his inheritors) than equivocating correctness (the Democrats) at the helm of our nation.

Of course, what we ultimately need is confident correctness. Yes, we still need to show that the Bush team and their supporters were and are wrong and incompetant in order to show that the Republican party is fundamentally flawed when it comes to international affairs.

But on the other hand, we need to recognize that the house is indeed on fire and that blaming people does not put the fire out. We need the Democrats to put forth a plan to put the fire out and bring stability to Iraq, one that is confident but not based simply on proving Bush wrong. I think most of us now know he was wrong, let’s figure out to make things right again.


10 responses to “Trusting the Arsonists to Put Out the Fire”

  1. I can’t really add anything to that. But I want to throw down a “harumph” and thank you for clearly stating this.

  2. Mate, you know quite obviously jack shit about the FDNY or it’s roots, so please next time you’re gonna write something, please leave this theme far from your ambitions. The volunteer firefighters were a members of NYC gangs, still such examples of arson as you stated here were never occured and on top of that to mention something like this in connection with terrorism is just really fairly weird. Slap yourself mate 😛

  3. Um, I never said the 19th-century arsonists were the roots of the FDNY — I put “firefighters” in quotes to indicate that they were frauds. That should have been obvious. Nothing in this post or in the caption has anything to do with FDNY, except that I pointed out that things were bad in NYC before FDNY was officially created.

    Second, you can’t say the arsonist gangs existed and then say that they didn’t exist in the same sentence, mate.

    Third, I never said anything about terrorism. This is about Iraq. Two very different things.

  4. But I was wrong about one thing: something called “FDNY” did exist long before the late 1800’s gang era. I should have said “the modern FDNY”, the paid, professional, city-wide municipal institution we know today.

  5. If you’ll read it properly you’ll see that I just say that the vollies were members of the NYC gangs (in fact not all of them when we’re talkin about it) but I somehow can’t see how did you get the idea that I’ve said that these gangs were arsonists (??). The other thing, you was not wrong, the FDNY as we know it today was (as you sure know) officially created in 1865 to replace the volunteer companies (which were btw quite often battling between each other, still this again has nothing to do with arson and I’ve got a suspicion that you’re at this point mixing together two different elements in the history of the NYC fire dept’s -the 1800s vollies and the 1970s “war years”).
    I donno, probably take a look into the book called “Our firemen” describing the history of NYC fire departments from the very beginning (if you haven’t read it yet of course), maybe you’ll just see what I mean -to connect firefighters or any similar agencies with a fuckin politics of this global level is just sick..
    This is just a fuckin porno, it looks good, but nothin in it mate

  6. Here you go:
    Please take your time before writing something funny again
    Btw: sorry for being so “aggressive”, I don’t mean it, but I really get upset when somebody who haven’t seen the job even from an airplane and don’t know it’s history just spit on it, or connect it with pure politics shit like you did.

  7. It seems you and I are revisiting a hundred year old political battle, between the vollies (I’d not heard that term before, thanks for introducing me to it) and the people advocating for a city-run professional fire department. The latter undoubtedly did all they could to smear the former in the press (which they controlled in many ways, including Harpers magazine, the source of this image and no friend to the Irish immigrants who formed many of the vollies), including claiming that the vollies, being closely ties with gangs, were criminals and likely arsonists.

    The history I have heard includes these accusations. You may think they are false, and you may even be correct given the nature of 19th century “journalism”. Clearly you’re more well-read on this topic than I am — have you never heard the stories of NYC gang-based fire companies setting or at least worsening fires, at least as part of their inter-gang battles?

    An anecdote: a researcher recently found that not a single story about Vietnam veterans being spit on by anti-war protesters ever appeared in any newspaper or magazine until the late 1970s or even early 1980s. While it may have happened, nobody documented it or said anything about it for nearly a decade — until it became a politically useful story. Then it seems likely that journalists ended up reporting those politically-motivated accusations as presumed facts. My point it that it’s certainly possible that my impression of the vollies (an impression many others have, too — I didn’t make it up) is similarly tinged by somebody’s political motivations.

    Which brings me to Iraq. Just to be clear, my metaphor — and that’s all it was, a metaphor — was not that the nyc gangs who had “volunteer firefighting” outfits were like Al Qaeda or even like Saddam, but that they were like the Bush Administration. Bush set Iraq on fire, and was asking us to trust him and his team to put it out. If you take offense at comparing vollies to AQ or Saddam, that’s not what I did. If you take offense at comparing them to Bush, I do apologize because they were never nearly as bad. If I was relying on a false smear as the basis of my metaphor, I also sincerely apologize, but I can only say that (and I did Google it) the story exists aplenty and, again, I didn’t make it up or fail to do any research before mentioning it.

  8. Chris, the reason I reacted on your article was just because the connection of these two totally different worlds -one of the US politics represented by Bush administration (and here I’ve got to apologize as well as I didn’t read the whole story yet when I wrote the 1st post, so I thought that you’re connecting the old ffs with the terrorists which turned to be a nonsense. On the other hand you connected them with the politics of G.W. Bush and his “team” which in my opinion is nearly the same, neither I am a big fan of him), a twisted world of absolute horror it causes for many years now in Iraq and Afghanistan and the other -totally different from the ground- world of people who set the standards for organizations like the FDNY which do have my deepest respect for saving countless lives during the decades. This (in my opinion) was just a really bad metaphor based on the old 1800s NYC vollies’s background which was not of the “smoothest” to say at least still (and nor I am making this up) I haven’t ever heard that they were using the arsonist practices even though between people like them coming from different gangs of the era something like this may seem quite likely to be true.

  9. Btw: I really haven’t ever seen such a comparison, so I’ve got to admit that at least in that you brought something completely new, still targeting the ones who are (and were) here to help may be a bit odd way to show that you’re on the “people’s side”.
    Anyway thanks for your responses, now I know at least what was behind all that

  10. Thanks for following up, David. I think we both benefited from the conversation.