COVID-19, America’s Middle East Wars & the Ruling Class

August 24, 2021

Carson Holloway

Washington Fellow

This essay originally was published by RealClearPolitics on August 24, 2021.

Watching the fervor with which our elites press their anti-COVID prescriptions, we might be led to ask: “When is the last time that recognized experts, the national leadership of both parties, and the entire mainstream media agreed that a certain line of policy was necessary to America’s safety?”

The answer: “War in the Middle East.” 

This would make a good joke if the implications were not so grim. 

Thus we recall that unanimity, certitude, and zealotry among America’s governing classes is not exactly a rock-solid guarantee of wisdom. Indeed, our elites — and all Americans — would do well to ponder seriously the parallels between our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the present ongoing COVID crisis. 

In the first place, both situations have been marked by an extreme emotionalism and moralism that can only undermine the possibility of rational public deliberation. In both cases a sense of emergency has been used by the country’s most powerful voices in order to silence and discredit dissenting (and even cautionary) voices. Those who questioned the wars were called unpatriotic. Those today who question the establishment’s COVID prescriptions are accused of being “anti-science” or having a depraved indifference to human life. 

In the second place, in both cases the country’s elites have displayed an extreme and foolish confidence in social engineering. In the early 2000s, the nation’s leaders talked as if toppling the Taliban and Saddam would transform those nations in America’s image — as if destroying governments could undo centuries of historical and cultural development. 

Today, our elites are astonished, frustrated, and angry that ordinary people don’t want to wear masks, even though mask-wearing obviously frustrates natural human sociability (which depends to a considerable extent on seeing other people’s faces) and, in any case, is contrary to a lifetime of habituation for everybody. They are similarly flummoxed and increasingly enraged that their cheerleading and bullying cannot convince everybody to vaccinated — as if ordinary people should be glad to try a brand new vaccine in order to control a virus that is not a serious threat to most people. Memo to our allegedly enlightened rulers: Human reality is not as subject to political manipulation as you think it is. 

Finally, in both cases our elites have led the country in expending vast sums of money with no realistic chance of meeting the fairyland “goals” that have been placed before the public. It was relatively easy and certainly necessary to punish Al-Qaeda and the Taliban for 9-11. It was relatively easy but not so obviously necessary to bring down Saddam. But we have not succeeded in remaking the Middle East, as the current debacle in Afghanistan demonstrates. Similarly, while our massive mobilization against the pandemic may have stopped our hospitals from being overrun, it is becoming increasingly obvious that none of the (very costly) policies foisted on the country will succeed in making COVID just go away. 

Our Middle East wars and our response to COVID reveal underlying tendencies that are not reassuring with regard to the nation’s future. Can a country last long when it can be panicked, every twenty years, into spending trillions of dollars to address problems that, while real, are not even close to existential? Can it maintain the will to do anything to address problems in a realistic way after being repeatedly disillusioned by the inevitable failure of impossible promises? 

War in the Middle East and the war on COVID may also end up having significant (and unintended) political consequences. Although the public genuinely had war fever in the aftermath of 9-11, it eventually regretted the extended wars into which the country had been led.  It took out its regret on its leaders, first by electing Democrats in 2006 and 2008, and later by handing Donald Trump the Republican nomination and then the presidency.   

The present crisis is different, but not in ways that should reassure our rulers. In truth, the public has never been as panicked by COVID as our elites have been. Many people have gone along with the restrictions only grudgingly. Also, unlike our Middle Eastern wars, the war on COVID is not only costly and embarrassing but disruptive of the lives of ordinary Americans. If it turns out that our elites cannot solve the problem as promised — as seems increasingly likely — the public may turn on them more fiercely than before. 

To prevent this outcome, America’s governing elites would have to do three things: stop the hysteria, end the utopian promises to eradicate COVID, and return the country to something as close to normal as possible, while taking prudent measures to protect the most vulnerable. Based on recent experience, there is no reason to think that our elites have the humility or wisdom to do these things. Accordingly, we are probably in for even more interesting times.