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?

24 thoughts on “Believing in War

  1. Being realistic about it will be hard for people who ‘believe’ in war like children ‘believe’ in Santa Claus, as something exciting that magically brings good stuff to good boys and girls. Sometimes their complaints about those who don’t want to ‘win’ strike me like the child who complains that the cookies and milk have to be set out just right, because they don’t want Santa to reject them.

    It’s not that liberals don’t believe in war, it’s that we understand just what really goes into getting the presents under the tree.

  2. Staying longer will make a different outcome, a damn bit worse than immediate redeployment.

    We are entering a phase of good ole fashion ass kickin’, an insane display of face saving. Fareed Zakaria has an applicable piece in this week’s Newsweek:

    “We Might ‘Win’, But Still Lose”

    But it is Dahlia Lithwick’ s Op-Ed in yesterday’s Wash Post that reveals the phychoactive component of tle Kool Aid ito be

    “the New Paradigm, a constitutional theory of virtually limitless executive power, wherein ‘the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to disregard virtually all previously known legal boundaries, if national security demands it’ “.

    Apply the “One Percent Doctrine” and that pretty much amounts to everything but going shopping.

  3. I hope you don’t think I’m too lazy in quoting myself:

    I’ve wondered about this, apropo of the Iraq study group report; what if the real reason we don’t have a non-gradual withdrawal of US troops is because the Shia might then feel forced to make peace with the Sunni insurgency, and then maybe things would get better, demonstrating to the world, including US voters, that the US presence was in fact the destabilizing agent so many people insisted it was…

    In other words, the purpose of the continued occupation is to ruin Iraq completely before we leave, so that we “demonstrate” we had to invade. “They were irredeemably brutish and savage! Look what they did to their own country, in spite of our best efforts!”

    But if we leave before Iraq is completely ruined, the Iraqis might try to make peace with one another and salvage their nation after we’ve gone– not only suggesting that the US occupation was in fact the problem, but reducing the very perception of US relevance in the middle east.

    (The people who blithely talk of partitioning Iraq often have something of the same motive, especially if(like Joe Biden) they’re politicos who voted for war in 2002. I wouldn’t say Biden wants unnecessary death and misery, and I suspect he’s much more averse to it than the president, but if Iraq is eventually partitioned it will serve to take the 2002-2003 war supporters a bit off the hook because various gaseous pundits will then chalk it off to the old chestnut about how Iraq “wasn’t a real country.” As far as I know, none of these people who say that actually go to Iraq and go out of the green zone to ask Iraqis if they concur with the assessment.

    Partial disclosure: My maternal grandfather was a Sunni Iraqi and my maternal grandmother was Shi’a.)

  4. I’ve had some of the same thoughts that Jonathan Versen had about what would happen if we just left Iraq. The reason being is that many times when we had patients in the psych unit that stayed too long, they got worse after they got better. Everyone kept saying we can’t discharge them now, they will never make it. But then the insurance would run out and they would be discharged. A couple weeks later one of the staff would report seeing this person out in public and they were doing great.
    I’m just against predicting exactly what will happen in the future (about anything) because there are too many variables.

  5. “They did it because they already had the answer, and they wouldn’t subject their hypothesis to examination.”

    This is, of course, a sin; specifically the sin of intellectual pride. Perhaps you’ve seen the “Power Of Pride” bumperstickers. (Complete with wavy red, white, and blue stripes, of course). I have made a point of, whenever possible, leaving under the windshield wipers of those cars this note:

    “Power corrupts and pride is a sin. I’d rather have freedom than power, and I’d rather have conscience than pride. Freedom of conscience is like Heaven; power of pride is like somewhere else.”

  6. These people who are so quick to support military action to solve problems remind me of little children who are told “Use your big-boy words, not your hands, to work it out”. Maybe they never learned how to use big-boy words.

  7. The word “believe” is a very powerful one to the conservatives. To believe something makes it true to them, without any evaluation of the facts. And the more you repeat your beliefs to others, the more likely it is to become believed by them as well. Sort of like Colbert’s “Truthiness” (truth that comes from the gut, not books) or his new term this year “Factiness.”

  8. There is a deeper issue behind all of this. Einstein said that the only important question is whether the universe is friendly or not. Conservatives generally believe the universe is hostile, liberals see it as benign, even supportive.

    With these beliefs in place, everyone’s brain selects for data to support their beliefs. Out of the millions of bits of information hitting our nervous system every second, our beliefs are instrumental in organizing the data and filtering out the stuff we don’t want to see. We don’t see the world as it is, we see the world as we are.

    For the conservative, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t loving individuals or experiences out there, but they’re viewed as exceptional or anomalous in the conservative’s world of fear. For the liberal, this doesn’t mean that the world is all peaches and ice cream, there are real enemies and threats to be dealt with, and so we figure out ways to do so, while not losing our faith in the possibility for a better world.

    Given the fact that we can inhabit the kind of universe we want to, based on our beliefs, a universe that’s either hostile or loving, why anyone would want to deliberately choose a hostile, unfriendly universe is beyond me. Truly, a liberal is a conservative who’s been through therapy.

  9. What annoys me the most about the radical rightwingers is that they make such statements as liberals believe in this, liberals are terrorists, liberals are cut and runners, etc. They don’t know me. How dare they sit there and tell people what I believe, etc., when they have never met me, never talked to me, etc. I have never met Goldberg or Coulter or Limbaugh. Yet people who listen to them learn to make automatic incorrect assumptions about me based on their imagination.

    Partitioning Iraq is equivalent to turning it into three reservations. Not a good thing.

  10. You are right, “believe in war” is confusing. I think the Ace is uncomfortable with diplomacy and patience.

    As a Quaker, I believe war exists, but is a great evil to be avoided as long as possible, and with every means possible. Quakers vary in their participation in conflict, though.

  11. Pingback: The Mahablog » Podcast: Give War a Chance?

  12. Joe — I’m not sure the righties even get von Clauswitz right. Clauswitz wrote that war is an instrument of policy, but righties think of policy as something you use to justify a war.

  13. Barbara, your blog should be nominated for the ‘Spock Award’ for it’s inescapable logic. Damn fine thinking expressed in clear writing. If only more Democrats has your clarity.

  14. I second Doug Hughes on the great clarity of this blog.

    ‘I believe in war’ has the same ego flavor, somehow, as ‘I believe in beating the wife’. Sorta like……if you’re the biggest, why bother talking to settle conflict?….. just pop ‘er a good one…..

  15. All true Barbara. Something else that has my fur up lately is the spin regarding the word “leftist” .
    Ahmadinejad has been visiting South and Central America, and NPR news refers to the countries he is visiting as “leftists”, and used with an implied sneer.. Perhaps they lean “left” and toward socialism, but more importantly, the concern seems to be that those countries are leaning toward nationalizing their oil and gas resources. This is the real concern. Strangely, Mexico’s oil industry is nationalized and that doesn’t raise a stink. The right indeed views the world as a big scary place. I’ve wandered the streets in Indonesia anda certain third worldie island in the Caribbean and felt far safer than in certain areas of Miami.I believe the right views this war like a slovenly football fan that tends to scream obscenities at the T.V. when his team makes a fumble, yet that fan could not last a second on the grid iron in real life. No brain, no pain…..

  16. If what I’ve read about self image psychology is correct…than Ace is a very troubled individual. His blog borders on a mental illness, and he’s screaming his insecurities to the world.

  17. For bleep’s sake, what is “Here we have a president forthrightly trying to win a war,” if not “pie-eyed verbiage”? Pie-eyed as in, after two kamikazes, half a pitcher of margaritas, and a couple lines of good old Republican blow.

    Years ago, a woman told me how her teenaged daughter’s male school friend asked her (the mother) combatively, “Do you believe in abortion?” The mother launched into a lecture on how one cannot believe in abortion any more than one can believe in appendectomies or root canals. I can’t do the woman’s scathing wit justice after all these years, but the upshot is, the combative young lightweight went home sniveling. Perhaps he grew up to become a rightie blogger.

  18. McGovern at the National Press Club last Friday.

    Story here:

    Excerpt from above:

    “During the long years between 1964 and 1975 when I fought to end the American war in Vietnam … my four daughters ganged up on me one night. ‘Dad, why don’t you give up this battle? You’ve been speaking against this crazy war since we were little kids.’ … In reply, I said, ‘Just remember that sometimes in history even a tragic mistake produces something good. The good about Vietnam is that it is such a terrible blunder [that] we’ll never go down that road again.'”

    Then he added, “Mr. President, we’re going down that road again. So, what do I tell my daughters? And what do you tell your daughters?”

  19. Just to put this nonsense to rest, sometime i’d like to see a nationwide poll to determine how many americans really wouldn’t support any war, anywhere, regardless of context. The Decider said in a pre-election speech he done figgered 25 percent or so. I’d put my money on 5 to 10 % tops, and maybe not even that. Hardliner pacifists, jehovah’s witnesses, quakers and such…

    I suspect that in the reality-based view, most americans either have some recollection of Vietnam, or are now finally paying attention to Iraq, and would no longer support a war without a clearly defined military objective and an exit strategy. (knock on formica)

    Perhaps essential to understanding the rightie brain is that these notions amount to little nuisances and formalities that righties can’t be ideologically bothered with… kinda like like cheney and basic firearm safety.

  20. also re: comment 13, in slightly different words, IMO righties see policy as a means to *ensure eventual war, not merely to justify it. Various “fighting for freedom”-based justifications are developed to entice the public, but the perennial focus of conservative foreign policy is to develop an inherently militant national stance that, based on any reasonable understanding of human nature, guarantees that some low-level violent conflict with some foreign power somewhere will shortly ensue: from time to time this can be spun into some publically acceptable justification for further warfare… periodically reaping taxfunded wealth beyond the wildest dreams of solomon into the military-industrial complex, and supplying the common folk with an all-consuming “we’re number one and didn’t have to do squat!” rush.

  21. True. Black Block Anarchists aren’t “Liberals,” but they’re on the Left. It’s safe to say the Left is presently at war… with the Right. Some call it class war. Others call it war for justice. It could be called a war to stop fascism. Some on the Left use non-violence as a strategy, some are willing to use violence. Some believe in a composite of both strategies playing off of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The key phrase is “believe in.”

    A former Director of Brazil’s Mint, who lived through the US-backed dictatorship, had some advice for me when Bush first came to power. He said, “It’s easier to prevent a dictatorship than it is to remove a dictatorship.”

  22. Now, about those Democrats…. lets look at what Ace of Spades says,

    I’m calling them moral cowards, consigning hundreds of men to die for a “lie,” because they believe (they say) the war is unwinnable and yet will not actually act to spare any of these men.

    They’d like Bush to do their cutting and running for them — so they don’t get blamed for a loss. But if Bush won’t oblige them, well then, those several hundred new US casualties will just have to die for nothing at all in order to vindicate the greater cause of electing a Democratic president in ’08.

    Frankly, Ace of Spades is right about his key thesis (Krisol and Goldberg aside). I’m betting the Democrats will adopt the strategy of Giving Bush enough Surge-Rope with which to Hang Himself.

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