The 10th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s launching of war in Iraq offers an occasion to reflect on a failing common to Oedipus Rex and King Lear, a syndrome the pre-Freudian Greeks of ancient Athens called hubris.
For Sophocles as for Shakespeare, hubris appears as the maddening arrogance that blinds a monarch to the truth and that leads, inevitably, to tragedy.
The televised arrogance of Bush and a supporting cast of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz would have been readily recognized by Athenian or Elizabethan theatergoers. The evocation of a mushroom cloud as the smoking gun was but one of the prideful deceits practiced by Bush and his courtiers. Recall how Rumsfeld discarded State Department plans drawn up by people who knew Iraq and who offered detailed recommendations for governance, security, economic stability, and basic public services after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Then there was Rumsfeld calling the first signs of incipient chaos the price of freedom; his prohibition against use of the term “insurgency’’ as an insurgency was taking shape; and his proconsul Paul Bremer’s sweeping dismissal of the Ba’athist bureaucracy and heedless dissolution of the Iraqi army.
The result was an enormous, avoidable loss of Iraqi and American lives, the squandering of more than $1 trillion, the empowerment of Iran’s Islamic republic, and a widespread perception of America as a nation that condones and practices torture.
These are among the wages of hubris in high places. But the vice of self-blinding pride is hardly confined to American CEOs. Consider Bashar Assad, the gangster-in-chief of the crime syndicate that has ruled Syria for more than 40 years. Scant weeks before the onset of the fierce uprising against his regime in 2011, he gave a long, boastful interview to The Wall Street Journal during which he ventured to explain why the popular revolts then raging in Tunisia and Egypt would never come to Syria. Whereas the populations of those other Arab lands did not agree with the beliefs of their rulers, Assad claimed, the Syrian public concurred wholeheartedly with his “resistance front’’ against Israel and alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.
The reality all along was that Assad gave resistance a bad name. It will be for historians to judge whether he was blinded by his own hubris or merely lacked his father’s ability to enforce submission.
For his part, President Obama generally seems free of the self-delusion that rulers afflicted with hubris usually exhibit. However, in the arsenal that he wields as commander-in-chief, there lurks a weapon that invites a particularly seductive form of hubris: the drone.
The public is being exposed to a needed debate about the use of drones to kill US citizens. The spectacle of Obama, a former professor of constitutional law, having US citizens assassinated without due process of law has rightly aroused protest from the left and the right. There has also been justified criticism of drone strikes that are carried out without congressional oversight or any other form of accountability.
But too little attention has been paid to the dangerous precedent Obama sets by using drones to kill designated enemies on a hit list. In so doing, Obama risks legitimating use of a weapon that is likely to boomerang against Americans. More than 75 countries now have drones, and they are ideal weapons for terrorists. Hezbollah has already flown Iranian-made drones over Israel.
Coming generations of drones will be smaller and smarter. On the horizon are autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles — drones that will be able to evade air defenses by themselves, refuel themselves, and deliver various types of explosives on a target. Drones will present a much greater security threat to Americans than a jihadist boarding a plane with a box cutter.
In falling for the temptation of drones, Obama is indulging in a form of technological hubris that is nearly certain to haunt this country in the future. Difficult as it may be, Obama should seek to have the lethal use of drones limited much as nuclear tests, landmines, and biological and chemical weapons have been banned or limited by international treaties.
That is the lesson to learn from Lear and Oedipus.