This delusion is the common thread running through two of today’s stories: The call from John McCain and Lindsey Graham for more war; and Leon Panetta’s new book criticizing President Obama on foreign policy.
For months, Republicans criticized Obama for not arming “moderate” rebels fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Nobody’s suggesting that we invade, they insisted, but we need to help these folks out! And now that the administration is doing just that, their demands inevitably ratchet up. So today, Senators McCain and Graham have an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal lamenting the fact that “the administration still has no effective policy to remove Bashar Assad from power and end the conflict in Syria.”
Just “end the conflict” — what could possibly go wrong? McCain and Graham do allow that what they’re recommending “would not be minor military operations,” but that’s exactly what gets the senators’ blood pumping.
Lest you think this is solely a Republican obsession, former CIA director and defense secretary Leon Panetta is out touring his new book, “Worthy Fights,” in which he argues that Obama “lost his way” when he became reluctant to dive into the Syrian civil war — a way-losing that by sheer coincidence happened to coincide with Panetta’s departure from the administration, at which point Obama was hamstrung by not having Panetta’s wise counsel to rely upon.
Although I haven’t read Panetta’s book, from the press descriptions and his interviews, he seems to see Obama’s principal shortcoming as a lack of enthusiasm for fighting, both at home and abroad, particularly the latter. And even after Iraq and Afghanistan, this remains the prevailing Beltway belief: “strength” is good, “weakness” is bad, and the two are defined by how often you cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war. Kevin Drum described this well:
Panetta isn’t even a super hawkish Democrat. Just moderately hawkish. But his basic worldview is simple: as long as Obama is launching lots of drone attacks and surging lots of troops and bombing plenty of Middle Eastern countries — then he’s a “strong leader on security issues.” But when Obama starts to think that maybe reflexive military action hasn’t acquitted itself too well over the past few years — in that case he’s “kind of lost his way.”That’s the default view of practically everyone in Washington: Using military force shows strong leadership. Declining to use military force shows weakness. But most folks inside the Beltway don’t even seem to realize they feel this way. It’s just part of the air they breathe: never really noticed, always taken for granted, and invariably the difficult but sadly necessary answer for whichever new and supposedly unique problem we’re addressing right now. This is what Obama is up against.
There are any number of explanations one could offer for the persistence of this mindset. Some Republicans just get off on dropping bombs on swarthy foreigners in dusty far-off lands. Some Democrats have spent so many years trying to prove they aren’t weak that they’ve become sincerely militaristic.
There’s also a catastrophic hubris that I think is related to the endless blather about “American exceptionalism,” the quasi-religious belief that says that America has the strongest military and the largest economy not because of a combination of geography and history, but because we are the smartest and most moral and generally the best people, whom God himself has elevated to our position atop the world. If you really believe that, then you also probably believe that the next war will work out great, for no other reason than that we’re America.
It would be wonderful if the current campaign renders ISIS impotent. It would also be wonderful if the Syrian civil war wrapped up soon, with the Assad regime replaced by an inclusive democracy in which everyone’s human and civil rights are honored. But realistically, chances are that in two years time Barack Obama will bequeath to his successor a situation that is still unresolved and still bad (though perhaps in ways we haven’t even yet imagined).
And no matter who that successor is, the answer he or she offers to the question of Syria and Iraq — and whatever questions follow — is likely to be more military actions. That president will either be Hillary Clinton, who throughout her career has been one of the most hawkish Democrats around, or it will be a Republican who is even more hawkish. And if you think that Rand Paul, who has expressed reservations about military actions in the past, might act differently if he were president, don’t bet on it. Any Republican will come under extraordinary pressure from within his party to answer any foreign policy challenge with more bombings, more aggression, more wars. After all, that’s what being “strong” means, right?
In 2008, in an election where the ongoing disaster of Iraq was the single most important policy issue, we elected a president who was inherently skeptical of the effectiveness of military adventurism, particularly in the Middle East. Yet even he could not resist the pressure to make things go “boom” in the hope that this time will be different. Once he has departed, we’ll be escalating our involvement in Syria. And we’ll probably be looking around for a couple of other countries to invade, too.