Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Good War

It’s no secret that Barack Obama is not going to base his re-election campaign on his successful management of the economy.

If he tries blaming it on the Japanese tsunami and George Bush he‘s going to open himself up to ridicule.

And he is not going to run on hope and change again.

Last time Obama ran as a blank slate. Skillfully he allowed people to project their hopes and dreams on him.

Unfortunately for him, once the campaign was over and the real task of governing beckoned, Obama kept drawing a blank.

Political candidates run on achievements. “Next time I'll be better” is not a winning campaign slogan.

It should be clear by now that Obama will be presenting himself as a great warrior, as a commander-in-chief who has won significant victories over terrorists and tyrants.

Obama took down Osama bin Laden, decimated al Qaeda with drone attacks, and helped overthrew dictators in Egypt, and Libya.

Brave, courageous, and ultimately tough, Obama will portray himself as an intrepid leader who fought “from behind” for freedom and democracy.

At the least, his actions will immunize him from the idea that the Democrats are weak on national defense. At most, his actions will be presented as the proof that the Democratic approach to national defense is effective and efficient.

The press will collude and connive with the Obama campaign. Bad news coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan will be downplayed. If anything bad happens in Libya or Egypt it will be called growing pains.

Is it a great political irony or a confidence game?

The anti-war party will band together behind a warrior president. They party that won the White House by running against the Iraq War will present itself to the American people as a militaristic.

Obviously, this gives liberal columnists like Roger Cohen palpitations. How can they justify Libya while continuing to feel that they were correct about Iraq?

In his last column Cohen explains how he learned to stop worrying and love military interventions.

To his mind there are good and bad wars. They are good when they are conducted by Democrats and bad when conducted by Republicans.

To be fair, Cohen does not really put it in those terms. That would make him sound like a partisan political hack. So, he pretends to offer a rationale that finds good wars glorious and bad wars contemptible.

Iraq, he explains, was a bad war: “Whatever the monstrosity of Saddam, and whatever the great benefit to the world of his disappearance, the war as it was justified and fought — under false pretenses, without many of America’s closest allies, in ignorance and incompetence — was a stain on America’s conscience.”

Note that Cohen does not mention the fact that Iraq, after some difficulties and errors, turned out reasonably well.

He does not note that liberals insisted that we should withdraw in ignominious defeat.

Modern liberalism seems to be congenitally insensitive to issues of national pride.

Anyway, Cohen believes that we should feel guilty about Iraq. We should feel guilty about overthrowing Saddam Hussein and helping establish, against very long odds, a democratic government in Iraq.

Cohen has overcome his guilt feelings about military intervention because he can rejoice over the wars fought by liberal presidents like Clinton (in Serbia) and Obama (in Libya).

Let’s be clear where Cohen is not. The interventions in Serbia and Libya were not wars. They involved military actions but were conducted mostly from the air.

Even Obama's war against al Qaeda in Pakistan, a continuation and escalation of Bush administration policy, was conducted by aerial drone attacks.

The commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden was a quick strike. Boots touched down but did not stick around.

Democratic policy supports military interventionism when it involves multinational coalitions, all of America’s allies, the United Nations, and no boots on the ground.

Military action in Libya fulfilled liberal dreams of multicultural diversity. Different nations conducted different operations without overt American leadership.

This also implies that foreign countries should have the right to veto American military operations.

The liberal conscience is also soothed because there is no real national interest involved in Libya or Serbia.

Liberal guilt directs some kinds of operations and avoids others. We had to intervene in Libya to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe. The same applied to Serbia.

Foreign policy does not matter or count. If we have the means to save lives then we are under a moral obligation to do so.

We are no longer in the business of defending America; we are in the business of saving lives. You would think that the American military is a charity organization.

If, for example, we had intervened militarily or even rhetorically in Iran or Syria, then it might appear that our national interest is involved.

To differing degrees these nations hate America and everything it stands for. Thus, it would look self-interested if we seemed to be trying to overthrow a government that is run by our enemies.

Liberal interventionists seem most happy to intervene in situations where the national interest is not threatened, and thus, where there is little chance that the American people find joy in patriotism.

We know that if people feel more patriotic they are more likely to vote Republican. Liberal columnists cannot countenance that.

Cohen calls the wars in Serbia and Libya good wars; I would rather call them immaculate interventions.

If we are not acting in the name of America, and if the interventions were not approved by Congress, then the immaculate interventionists can see themselves as God’s army. Assuming that they believe in God....

Interventions are qualified as immaculate because American soldiers do not step foot on foreign soil. It’s almost as though liberals are horrified at the prospect that Marines might land on the shores of Tripoli because their boots would defile foreign soil.

And yet, if we get beyond Cohen’s simple-minded division of wars into good and bad, we must note that, in all likelihood, none of the rebellions that are sweeping across the Middle East would have happened without Iraq.

And we would also notice that the Middle East is currently extremely volatile. No one knows what is going to come of these rebellions. They might turn out for the better but they also might lead to worse.

I hope that no one still thinks that it will all turn out for the best because America did not lead the way.

One ought to point out that geopolitical realities made it possible to influence the course of events in Serbia and Libya with mere air power.

Fouad Ajami writes this morning that the geopolitical realities that applied to Libya were not at all applicable to Iraq. The situations were not even remotely comparable.

Iraq was embroiled in a centuries old conflict between Sunnis and Shia. It was surrounded by enemies who actively meddled in the affairs of that country.

He might have added that the fair-weather liberal interventionists, the ones who supported the war from the beginning, turned on it with uncommon ferocity once it seemed not to be going well.

Domestic anti-war sentiment did not make it easier to conduct the war.

If liberal interventionists were to address their own attitudes toward the Iraq war and to ask whether their willingness to use it to score political points might have made it more difficult to prosecute, they would have to get back in touch with their feelings of guilt.

Surely, they do not want to do that.

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