March 19

There’s a curious contradiction that keeps coming up with the situation in Ukraine, and how both Republicans and some in the press are criticizing President Obama. On one hand, there’s agreement in some quarters that Obama is just too weak; depending on your perspective, that’s either because he’s naturally cautious and the country doesn’t have much appetite for foreign adventurism after 12-plus years of pointless, frustrating war or because he’s bent on destroying the United States’ place in the world. The contradiction comes when the same people are asked what sorts of strong, muscular, testosterone-fueled approach might be an alternative, and the displays of toughness they propose sound awfully, well, weak. And even the nostalgic prospect of a new Cold War won’t satisfy.

So look, for instance, at this headline in The Hill: “Republicans demand Obama get tougher with Putin over Ukraine.” Get tough! But read the article and what do you find? “Calls for more muscular actions, from expelling Russia from the Group of Eight to offering military support to Ukraine, came as Russia’s stock market rallied and the ruble gained value a day after Obama authorized an initial round of sanctions meant to punish the Russian economy.” But is expelling Russia from the G-8 really “muscular”? That sounds a lot like economic pressure, which is the kind of exercise of “soft power” that tough guys are supposed to scorn. Noted tough guy John McCain says that the problem is that Obama didn’t bomb Syria, but that doesn’t tell us what sort of super-tough thing McCain would rather do now.

Yes, the call for toughness is kind of reflexive. But one does wonder whether, deep down, a few of Obama’s critics are really hankering for a war. Maybe not a war with Russia, but a war somewhere. After all, it’s been a whole decade since we started one. And unlike a conflict such as the one in Ukraine, a real war would allow people to advocate bombing and shooting and conquering — in other words, genuine tough stuff. Here, for instance, is an editorial by the Weekly Standard’s Bill Kristol lamenting the fact that Iraq and Afghanistan have made the American public “war-weary” and effectively telling them to stop being such wimps and feel that delicious bloodlust once again:

A war-weary public can be awakened and rallied. Indeed, events are right now doing the awakening. All that’s needed is the rallying. And the turnaround can be fast. Only 5 years after the end of the Vietnam war, and 15 years after our involvement there began in a big way, Ronald Reagan ran against both Democratic dovishness and Republican détente. He proposed confronting the Soviet Union and rebuilding our military. It was said that the country was too war-weary, that it was too soon after Vietnam, for Reagan’s stern and challenging message. Yet Reagan won the election in 1980. And by 1990 an awakened America had won the Cold War.

The next president will be elected in 2016, 15 years after 9/11 and 5 years after our abandonment of Iraq and the beginning of the drawdown in Afghanistan. Pundits will say that it would be politically foolish to try to awaken Americans rather than cater to their alleged war-weariness. We can’t prove them wrong. Perhaps it would be easier for a Republican to win in 2016 running after the fashion of Warren Gamaliel Harding in 1920 rather than that of Ronald Wilson Reagan in 1980.

But what would such a victory be worth?

If only those lily-livered voters had the courage of Bill Kristol, to never stop yearning for the glory of war! Sure, it’ll always be a war fought by others, but still.

It’s no wonder they’re feeling troubled. It’d be great to start a new Cold War with Russia, since the last one gave hawks purpose for so many decades. But this one won’t be nearly as kinetic as the last one. Back in the old days, we could confront the Kremlin with guns and bombs, not just the ones we pointed at them, but ones we distributed around the world. We could run proxy wars in Asia and Africa and South America. Every now and again we could invade a tiny country to our south, like Grenada or Panama, just to show the Russkies we weren’t going to take any guff. The sainted Reagan could sell arms to the ayatollah, then use the profits to fund an army trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. Now that was showing toughness! At least somebody somewhere was shooting. But these days it’s all imposing sanctions and freezing assets and boycotting economic summits and making statements. How can you feel tough and muscular doing that?