The Good War This Time

No one is the same person they were a dozen years ago. Or they’re depressingly the same person, having learned nothing from all that can happen and will happen as the years roll by. Sure, personalities don’t change – the shy don’t become bold and the bold don’t become shy – but over the years you learn what just doesn’t work, so you stop trying to get people to laugh at certain jokes, and you might learn that what you thought about the world just isn’t true. A good attitude won’t save your job when the company is sold to Microsoft or Bain Capital. No one cares about your attitude. In fact, no one cares about you. Ah, your wife does – and then there’s the divorce. Your kids care about you, as they should – then they’re gone, out into the world, and they don’t think about you much at all. That’s how it should be, but there’s always your dog, always happy to see you with that goofy dog-smile. Dogs have small brains. You make adjustments. Much of what you thought a dozen years ago just wasn’t so. Your values and general principles haven’t changed – good is still good, evil is still evil, and you do know right from wrong and try to be a decent person – but you make adjustments. Otherwise you turn into Archie Bunker, singing that song with Edith about how the old LaSalle ran great, and then being perpetually bewildered and angry, and voting Republican.

That’s the party of how things were and still should be. Be wary of adjustments. No one is sure about climate change, really, and there may have been gay people here and there, way back when, but they had the good sense to keep that quiet. Hispanics weren’t always asking for a say in matters either, and blacks knew their place, and everyone was happy – look at Louis Armstrong. He was happy, and back then we also fought good wars against bad people, like Hitler, reluctantly but then brutally, because that had to be done. That’s what we do. That’s what we always do. We don’t fight unless it’s necessary – except the Korean War was a little unsettling. Why did we fight that one, and why did we settle for a draw, and why have we been fine with that draw for the last sixty years?

Vietnam only made matters worse. By 1968, a year of anger and bewilderment, the American public had come to realize that war didn’t seem to be one of those good wars against bad people. Few saw any reason we should be there. Some thought we shouldn’t have been there in the first place – that was none of our business. Some thought what had seemed like a good idea at the time wasn’t a good idea any longer, given the useless jerks in Saigon we ended up supporting. Even the folks who wanted to keep fighting seemed to argue that we should stay there fighting because we were there fighting, not someplace else – maybe things might work out. Nixon won the presidency in 1968 promising “peace with honor” – he had a secret plan to end that war. He said nothing of winning that war. He implied that we could get the hell outta there – but with dignity. We couldn’t. We only got out. That wasn’t a good war.

Perhaps the first Gulf War, where we tossed Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, after he had simply grabbed it, was a good war. We did toss him out, leading a broad coalition of allies, and then we left, having fixed things, that one problem. We didn’t march on Baghdad and take over Iraq and occupy it. Dick Cheney, our secretary of defense at the time, said that would be a stupid idea, and he was clear about that:

If we’d gone to Baghdad we would have been all alone. There wouldn’t have been anybody else with us. There would have been a U.S. occupation of Iraq. None of the Arab forces that were willing to fight with us in Kuwait were willing to invade Iraq. Once you got to Iraq and took it over, took down Saddam Hussein’s government, then what are you going to put in its place? That’s a very volatile part of the world, and if you take down the central government of Iraq, you could very easily end up seeing pieces of Iraq fly off: part of it, the Syrians would like to have to the west, part of it – eastern Iraq – the Iranians would like to claim, they fought over it for eight years. In the north you’ve got the Kurds, and if the Kurds spin loose and join with the Kurds in Turkey, then you threaten the territorial integrity of Turkey. It’s a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq. The other thing was casualties. Everyone was impressed with the fact we were able to do our job with as few casualties as we had. But for the 146 Americans killed in action, and for their families – it wasn’t a cheap war. And the question for the president, in terms of whether or not we went on to Baghdad, took additional casualties in an effort to get Saddam Hussein, was how many additional dead Americans is Saddam worth? Our judgment was, not very many, and I think we got it right.

Cheney will never live that down no matter how many times he says 9/11 changed everything. It didn’t. The first Bush administration did get it right. The second Bush administration – where Cheney was the son’s vice president and mentor – got it wrong. We did what he once said was stupid, at his insistence. Everything he said would happen did happen. How many additional dead Americans was Saddam worth? There were no weapons of mass destruction. There were no ties to al-Qaeda. We took down Saddam Hussein’s government, and what did we put in its place? That would be a Shiite strongman, Nouri al-Maliki, in bed with Iran, who systematically excluded the Sunnis and made their lives miserable. They had formed Al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became ISIS, staffed with former generals and senior military planners who had been purged from the now all-Shiite Iraqi military. Oops. We arranged for Nouri al-Maliki to be gone, but the new guy isn’t yet doing much to make things better.

That wasn’t a good war either, and it’s not even over. We just don’t participate any longer, but Barack Obama had seen this coming. When he was just a state senator, in 2002, almost a dozen years ago to the day, Obama gave his now-famous Iraq War speech:

I don’t oppose all wars. And I know that in this crowd today, there is no shortage of patriots, or of patriotism. What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war. What I am opposed to is the cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other arm-chair, weekend warriors in this Administration to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the costs in lives lost and in hardships borne.

That’s the key passage, and then there’s this:

I suffer no illusions about Saddam Hussein. He is a brutal man. A ruthless man. A man who butchers his own people to secure his own power. He has repeatedly defied UN resolutions, thwarted UN inspection teams, developed chemical and biological weapons, and coveted nuclear capacity.

He’s a bad guy. The world, and the Iraqi people, would be better off without him.

But I also know that Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States, or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history.

Cool. Saddam Hussein was worth no additional dead Americans at all. We get that now, a little late. Obama agreed with the old Cheney. The new one had lost his way, not that it mattered much. Americans were angry and frightened. They thought this would be a good war. That’s how we think. Damon Linker says that’s how we always think:

We Americans hear the “moral context” [for war] argument all the time. Professional, highly intelligent warmongers like Robert Kagan specialize in making the moral case for every single war we fight, telling us over and over again in suave, historically literate essays why all good things – very much including world order itself – depend on the U.S. dropping bombs on, and sometimes invading and occupying, nations around the globe.

The civic sermons have had an effect – so much so, in fact, that our president actually thinks he can get away with making the case for “destroying” ISIS while simultaneously denying that doing so is an act of war.

The United States has started bombing ISIS in Syria, not just in Iraq, and has bombed them inside Syria without Syria’s permission, which sounds a lot like war, but we say it’s a good thing, as we always do, causing no end of trouble, which Linker thinks should stop:

I submit that America has heard quite enough about the “moral context” that always seems to justify our use of military force (whatever we choose to call it). What we need is a little less about how important it is for us to blow other people to bits and a little more about what it’s like to live in a world in which a single nation has the power to strike a deadly blow wherever it wishes, anywhere on the planet.

The first step in moral reasoning, after all, is the imaginative act of placing oneself in another’s shoes. Judged by that standard, Americans regularly fail even to begin to reflect morally on how the nation conducts itself in the world.

We ought to:

How would we feel, I wonder, if we lived in a world in which another country was so powerful that it could inflict military pain on any nation, including us, with impunity? Without an act of imagination, we can’t even begin to answer that question – because we are the only nation in that position, or even close to it. Russia, our nearest rival, may be flexing its muscles in Ukraine. But as with all of Russia’s post-Soviet military adventures, this one is taking place right next door. The United States, by contrast, hasn’t fought a war with a neighboring power since the mid-19th century, and it regularly (as in, every few years) starts wars many thousands of miles from its territory. In this sense at least, America truly is an exceptional nation.

I will never write a word in defense of ISIS and its bloodthirsty, homicidal ambitions. But if we wanted to understand some of what motivates people from around the world to join its seemingly suicidal cause, we might start with the very fact of America’s incontestable military supremacy and the cavalier way we wield it on battlefields across the globe.

Every time we project our power to the other side of the planet, we provoke another around of asymmetrical blowback, which sparks another act of force projection, which inspires still more (ultimately futile) resistance to the global hegemon. Round and round it goes – with Monday night’s Tomahawk missiles over Syria starting a brand-new cycle.

If this is what defending our national interests truly requires, then this is what we should be doing. But we shouldn’t kid ourselves about its character.

Obama didn’t see it that way when he spoke at the UN, as this our “vision” versus their awful one:

This is a vision of the world in which might makes right – a world in which one nation’s borders can be redrawn by another, and civilized people are not allowed to recover the remains of their loved ones because of the truth that might be revealed. America stands for something different. We believe that right makes might – that bigger nations should not be able to bully smaller ones; that people should be able to choose their own future…

America is and will continue to be a Pacific power, promoting peace, stability, and the free flow of commerce among nations. But we will insist that all nations abide by the rules of the road, and resolve their territorial disputes peacefully, consistent with international law. That’s how the Asia-Pacific has grown. And that’s the only way to protect this progress going forward.

He has a vision, a benign imperialist vision, where America only helps people choose their own future, where everyone follows the rules – or they get bombed. So did George Bush. Bush had the same vision. Michael Tomasky knows what people are thinking:

Last week, a Politico reporter phoned me to ascertain my thoughts on the new war. Among the questions: Was there concern among liberals that Barack Obama was in some sense now becoming George Bush, and did I see similarities between the current war and Bush’s Iraq war that, come on, be honest, made me squirm in my seat ever so slightly? My answer ended up on the cutting-room floor, as many answers given to reporters do.

Now he’s made up his mind:

The answer is a reverberating no. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine how the differences between the two actions could be starker. This is not to say that they might not end up in the same place – creating more problems than they solve. But in moral terms, this war is nothing like that war, and if this war doesn’t end up like Bush’s and somehow actually solves more problems than it creates, that will happen precisely because of the moral differences.

There you go, the moral stuff again, but he has a point:

Obama didn’t lie us into this war. It’s worth emphasizing this point, I think, during this week when Obama is at the United Nations trying to redouble international support to fight ISIS, and as we think back on Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 snow job to Security Council. Obama didn’t tell us any nightmarish fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction that had already been destroyed or never existed. He didn’t trot his loyalists out there to tell fantastical stories about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.

The evidence for the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in contrast, as non-fabricated as evidence can be and was handed right to us by ISIS itself: the beheading videos, and spokesmen’s own statements from recruitment videos about the group’s goal being the establishment of a reactionary fundamentalist state over Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. That’s all quite real.

Is it? It could be them baiting us. It could be that’s all they’ve got, but this is an important difference too:

This war doesn’t involve 140,000 ground troops. That’s not just a debating point. It’s a massive, real-world difference. I know some of you are saying, well, not yet, anyway. Time could prove you right. But if this works more or less as planned, it establishes a new model for fighting terrorism in the Middle East – the United States and Arab nations and fighting forces working together to do battle against terrorism. That’s kind of a huge deal.

And that leads to this:

This coalition, while still in its infancy, could in the end be a far more meaningful coalition than Bush’s. The Bush coalition was an ad hoc assemblage bribed or browbeaten into backing the United States’ immediate geopolitical aims. It was brought together pretty much so Bush could deflect the essentially true unilateralist charge and stand up there and say “41 countries have joined together” …

This coalition is smaller, but the important point is that it’s not built around a goal that is in the interest only of the United States. Defeating the Islamic State is a genuine priority for the region, and the idea that these Gulf States that have been winking at or backing violent extremism for years might actually work with the United States of America (!) to fight it is little short of amazing. I’m not saying Obama deserves the credit here, although it seems clear he and others in the administration have worked hard on this point. Rather, the fact is that the Saudis and the Emiratis and others are now doing, however reluctantly, what it’s in their self-interest to do.

Andrew Sullivan, however, doesn’t see much difference from Bush here:

Sure, we are indeed not being grotesquely misled this time about non-existent WMDs. But we are going to war despite the fact that ISIS is no more a direct threat to the United States than Saddam was – arguably much less, in fact. We have no answer this time to the unanswered question last time: what if our intervention actually galvanizes Islamist extremism rather than calming it? And the Arab coalition that Tomasky cites as evidence that this war is a far less American-centric one than 2003 has some issues when you confront reality. …

It sure isn’t close to the coalition George H W Bush assembled in 1990 – and it’s much smaller than George W Bush’s coalition in 2003. More to the point, the key element of any successful strategy will be the position of the Sunni Arab tribes – and they are still sitting on the sidelines. Turkey is AWOL so far. And the fact that the Arab states do not want their contributions to be broadcast more widely reveals the depth of the problem. Obama has Americanized the problem. Once you do that, the regional actors get even more skittish, because the only common thing for so many of the populations represented by these autocrats is loathing of the United States. This is the Arab world. The US will never get anything but hatred and cynicism and contempt from it.

And then there’s question of authorization:

George W Bush got a few Security Council resolutions (if not the final, vital one). Obama hasn’t even bothered – he’s bombing a sovereign nation without even feigning a request for formal authorization. GWB – against Cheney’s wishes – procured a clear declaration of war from the Congress. Obama seems to have decided that he is more in line with Cheney’s views of executive power than George W Bush’s – and has blown a hole so wide in any constitutional measures to restrain the war machine that he has now placed future presidential war-making far beyond any constraints. If that isn’t an outright abandonment of almost everything he has said he stands for, what would be?

And there’s the vision thing:

Bush’s war had a vague and utopian goal: the establishment of a multi-sectarian democratic republic in Mesopotamia. He had close to no plans for the occupation; and no real understanding of how quixotic a project he was promoting. Obama’s goals are just as quixotic – “ultimately destroying” ISIS from the air alone – and he has no Plan B for failure. Bush tried to defeat a Sunni insurgency with a multi-sectarian government in Baghdad. It never happened – and we had to bribe the Anbar tribes instead, and, even then we needed 100,000 troops to keep the lid on the whole thing.

And then there’s the Baghdad government:

Obama says he is fighting a Sunni insurgency with a broadly based Baghdad government – but replacing Maliki has led to no such thing. There is still paralysis in Baghdad over the interior and defense ministries, no cross-sectarian national entity to take the fight to ISIS, and the real risk of a Shiite government actually reinforcing the Sunnis’ sense that the US and the Shiites are now intent on persecuting them even further. That makes the prospects for this attempt at pacification even worse than in 2006. And look: I think Obama is sincere in doing what he can with the Baghdad mess; but we have to be crazy to buy this line of argument in counter-insurgency at this point in history. We are fighting a Sunni insurgency on behalf of a Shiite government and a near-independent Kurdistan, a fight which might well empower Iran and even Assad. This is about the worst formulation for this struggle as one could come up with. It does not bring Sunnis into the struggle; it may well keep them out.

And Obama’s response to this was to turn into Bush:

It is true we are not sending in 140,000 troops into another country. We are sending almost none – but to achieve the same result! To do the same thing we did last time and hope for a better outcome is the definition of insanity. But to do the same thing with even less of a chance to achieve it takes things to a new level of incoherence.

This is an illegal war, chosen by an unaccountable executive branch, based on pure panic about a non-existent threat to the United States, with no achievable end-point. Apart from all that, it’s so much better than Bush, isn’t it?

How do we get ourselves into these things? Damon Linker thinks it a matter of lack of imagination. Perhaps so, but Obama should have listened to himself a dozen years ago, and Cheney should have listened to himself back in 1991 – but the years pass and one makes adjustments. No one is the same person they were back in the day. Perhaps that’s the tragedy here.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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2 Responses to The Good War This Time

  1. I became very active in the Peace (they called it “anti-war”) movement in October, 2002. Bombing Afghanistan made absolutely no sense to me; Iraq, the real target, made even less sense.
    But here I sit, a dozen years later, still a peacenik, totally disillusioned with the anti-war folks (who are still having their emergency demonstrations with ever dwindling numbers of followers.) They are against war, period….
    Obama is playing pretty masterfully with the cards he has.
    The reason Congress hasn’t dealt with the War and Presidential power things (as Obama challenged them to do at the National Defense University a couple of years ago, and at other times as well) is that they (including too many Democrats) believe it is good politics to be running for reelection without need to protect their own record, rather to blame Obama.
    Unfortunately, they probably reflect the Americas in which they live….
    Obama is running for nothing, he knows that. He can take these risks.
    Back in the 1930s, America was isolationist, through its Congress, let’s not forget, and what happened was Auschwitz and other awful places. Pearl Harbor – where my uncle died on the Arizona – brought us into WWII.
    ISIL is an incredibly complex and very big deal. As you mention, above, having the surrounding Arab states as a true coalition of the willing is also a very big deal.

  2. Rick says:

    Not much to add today, except maybe to respond to this from Andrew Sullivan, comparing Obama’s ISIS “war” with Bush’s Iraq war:

    “Sure, we are indeed not being grotesquely misled this time about non-existent WMDs. But we are going to war despite the fact that ISIS is no more a direct threat to the United States than Saddam was – arguably much less, in fact.”

    Not really.

    The main difference between Bush’s claim that Saddam was a direct threat to the United States, and Obama’s claim of ISIS’s threats, is that Saddam never actually said he was coming after us — the Bush people just assumed it, or maybe just imagined it, or in fact, maybe just lied about it — while ISIS has literally, and very publicly, been specifically saying that they will see us in New York.

    Yes, there may be a question of whether ISIS really means it (I personally think they do), or whether or not they even have the capability of carrying out their threats (I personally think they or their sympathizers could cause a good deal of mischief over here), but those are separate issues.

    (Although by the way, I should mention that I do agree with Sullivan’s suggestion that maybe Obama should get Congressional — but especially United Nations — approval for this, something at least Bush did right.)

    Also from Sullivan:

    “We have no answer this time to the unanswered question last time: what if our intervention actually galvanizes Islamist extremism rather than calming it?”

    That is something we do need to keep in mind, if and when we find ourselves sinking deeper and deeper into this, but something else we need to consider is this: Despite that, do we have a choice?

    In other words, would our decision to not intervene tend to calm Islamist extremism, or might it even galvanize it?

    Rick

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