Believing in War

In my ongoing struggle to understand the rightie brain, I believe I have found a new clue. The rightie blogger Ace of Spades writes about “Democratic cravenness,”

I’m not calling them cowards because they won’t support the war. They’re liberals — they don’t believe in war. They believe in “aggressive, take-no-prisoners diplomacy.”

The clue lies in the words “believe in.” I take it the Ace does “believe in” war. But what does “believe in” mean in the context of war? Usually when one “believes in” something, it’s a statement of faith or trust. If someone says “I believe in capitalism” or “I believe in regular dental checkups,” he’s saying that he trusts the thing “believed in” to be to his benefit.

Sometimes you need context. Saying “I believe in spinach” makes no sense unless it’s in the context of, say, nutrition, commodity markets, or a Popeye cartoon.

Righties sometimes slam lefties for bumper-sticker slogans like “peace is the answer,” which draws the retort “so what was the question?” It’s a reasonable retort. “Peace” as a policy proposal is, well, inane. To me, “peace is the answer” is about peace as an ideal, but that’s what I’m reading into it.

I haven’t seen righties plaster “war is the answer” on their bumpers, but maybe I’m not looking hard enough. If someone “believes in” war per se, as I infer the Ace does, that’s pretty much the same thing. “Believing in” war makes war sound like foreign policy Pepto Bismol — the first remedy you reach for to soothe your foreign problem, whatever it is.

There are times when a nation must engage in war to save itself or a vital ally, and when that’s the case I guess I “believe in” war as much as the Ace does. But when someone talks about “believing in” war without qualifiers, I do wonder if he’s thinking at all.

Let’s flip that around. I “believe in” diplomacy in the sense that I think diplomacy should be the first remedy to try when foreign events are causing American discomfort. However, I won’t say that I have faith it will always achieve the desired solution. Sometimes diplomacy succeeds, and sometimes it fails. Sometimes diplomacy only preserves a status quo. But war doesn’t come with a money-back guarantee, either. And diplomacy is the safer remedy, in that it costs less and is less likely than war to have harmful side effects.

War, on the other hand, can have repercussions that are as bad if not worse than the original disease. Even when one achieves the desired outcome, the costs and side effects can leave a nation in a weakened, depleted state.

So even when diplomacy fails, sometimes it’s the better choice to live with the failure, or to patch together conditions — sanctions, perhaps — to keep a threatening situation from getting worse. It’s a matter of judging how vital the national interest in question is, what price the nation is willing to pay to achieve it, and what risks are involved. It’s also a matter of judging whether a military solution could achieve the desired result under any circumstances, or if sending troops would amount to dusting the porcelain with a hammer.

These are issues the Bush Administration, and the hawks, didn’t even try to think through before they got fired up to invade Iraq. So certain were they that war is the answer that they didn’t bother to formulate the question.

And after all this time, they’re still not thinking through the question.

The Ace (linking to Jonah Goldberg) repeats the usual drivel about how some people want to win but other people want to cut and run. But I think the fundamental question about Iraq is not whether the war is “winnable.” It’s whether a military victory in Iraq could help resolve the problem of Islamic terrorism (assuming that’s what we’re at war about) at all. And this is the question that righties lack the moral courage to address. Goldberg:

Here we have a president forthrightly trying to win a war, and the opposition — which not long ago favored increasing troops when Bush was against that — won’t say what it wants.

In fact, Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi have made it clear that it’s time to begin a withdrawal. Even Hillary Clinton has decided it’s time to withdraw. Other than Joe Lieberman and maybe a handful of conservative Dems from Red states, the overwhelming majority of Dems in Congress are now in favor of withdrawal, and have said so. Goldberg needs to keep up.

This is flatly immoral. If you believe the war can’t be won and there’s nothing to be gained by staying, then, to paraphrase Sen. John Kerry, you’re asking more men to die for a mistake. You should demand withdrawal. But that might cost votes, so they opt for nonbinding symbolic votes.

I don’t like the “nonbinding” resolution stuff, either, but I understand the strategy behind the “nonbinding” resolution is that Republicans are more likely to support it. We’ll see how that works.

Another Democratic dodge is the demand for a “political solution” in Iraq, the preferred talking point among Democrats these days. This is either childishly naive or reprehensibly dishonest. No serious person thinks that peace can be secured without a political solution. The question is how to get one. And nobody — and I mean nobody — has made a credible case that the Iraqis can get from A to B without more bloodshed, with or without American support.

Oh, really? How about

    “[M]y belief is we will, in fact, be greeted as liberators.” — Vice President Richard Cheney, March 16 2003

What Goldberg is too thick to understand is that calling for a “political solution” is not a strategy, but a goal. If he agrees that “political solution” is the proper goal, as he seems to do, then he and other war supporters need to think long and hard about how “military victory” could bring about “political solution.” By itself, I don’t believe it would.

Saying we need a political solution is as helpful as saying “give peace a chance.” Peace requires more than pie-eyed verbiage. In the real world, peace has no chance until the people who want to give death squads another shot have been dispatched from the scene.

There are plenty of people in the military and the State Department who tried to explain this to BushCo before the invasion of Iraq. The early section of Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco is the story of how experts tried to tell Wolfowitz and other neocon hawks that military force, no matter how well used, might not result in the desired outcome. And the neocons just brushed off the advice and called it crazy.

“The people around the president were so, frankly, intellectually arrogant,” this general continued. “They knew postwar Iraq would be easy and would be a catalyst for change in the Middle East. They were making simplistic assumptions and refused to put them to the test. It’s the vice president, and the secretary of defense, with the knowledge of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs and the vice chairman. They did it because they already had the answer, and they wouldn’t subject their hypothesis to examination.” [ Ricks, Fiasco, p. 99]

In other words, war was the answer. But what was the question? I do not believe everyone in the Bush Administration, or its pro-war supporters, were asking the same question. By that I mean they weren’t on the same page about the purpose or objectives of the war. We know now the WMDs and links to 9/11 were just the sales pitch, not the reason for the war. Certainly control of oil was a big factor, but I think most of the neocons really believed the fairy tale that deposing Saddam Hussein would by itself result in a more stable Middle East. Some (Karl Rove) probably just saw it as the Greatest Wedge Issue Ever and didn’t give a hoohaw about either security or peace. The war also promised to reward certain big, supportive companies with fat contracts (if only Enron could have hung on a little longer; war contracts surely would have bailed them out). For the President himself, I think a desire to depose Saddam was related to his unresolved oedipal conflicts with his father.

But Bush in his public statements still evokes 9/11 and the threat of terrorism, and still claims that a military victory in Iraq will make America safer from terrorism, even though I see no logical reason why that would be true. Either he’s still not thinking through the question, or he’s lying about the objectives. Or both.

And what the righties also can’t see is that talk of achieving a political solution by means of “victory” verges on magical thinking. They can’t see that using the military to dispatch “the people who want to give death squads another shot” is just turning the wheel and creating more of those people. The violence now is so out of control it cannot be contained by force of arms, in my opinion. One can argue that if we’d had many more troops in Iraq with a solid plan for occupation in the spring of 2003 it might not have come to this. But we didn’t, and it did come to this.

The question we should be asking now is, will our staying any longer make a damn bit of difference to the outcome? Anyone who says yes should try to be realistic about what might be achievable, how much it’s going to cost, and how long it will take. And considering that the hawks haven’t been right about anything for the past four years, let me express skepticism that they know the answers to those questions.

And, of course, if the answer to the question is no, then why are we staying?