The War Party in American politics is beating its drum and once again, mobilizing hawkish politicians and policy experts of both parties to wage a high-minded war of words. Hawks are salivating because they see the world’s current turmoil as a chance to rehabilitate themselves and the virtues of US military intervention. Three hot wars are underway and the United States has a client state in each of them. Civil wars in the Ukraine and Iraq plus Israel’s invasion of Gaza give Washington’s armchair generals fresh opportunity to scold President Obama for his reluctance to fight harder. They are not exactly demanding US invasions—not yet anyway—but they want the dovish president and Congress to recognize war as a worthy road to peace.
“In my view, the willingness of the United States to use force and to threaten to use force to defend its interests and the liberal world order has been an essential and unavoidable part of sustaining the world order since the end of World War II,” historian Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post. “Perhaps we can move away from the current faux Manichaean struggle between straw men and return to a reasoned discussion of when force is the right tool.”
“Reasoned discussion,” that’s the ticket. By all means, we should have more of it. But please don’t count on it from Professor Kagan. What he neglected to mention in his stately defense of American war-making is that he himself was a leading champion fifteen years ago in stirring up the political hysteria for the US invasion of Iraq. Why isn’t this mentioned by The Washington Post when it publishes Kagan’s monthly column on its op-ed page? Or by The New York Times in its adoring profile of the professor? Why doesn’t the Brookings Institution, the Washington think tank that employs Kagan as a senior thinker?
Kagan was the co-founder of the Committee to Liberate Iraq, the neocon front group that heavily promoted pre-emptive aggression and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. You might assume Kagan was reacting to 9/11, but his role as propagandist for war actually preceded the terror attack by three years. Back then, Kagan and William Kristol also co-founded the Committee for a New American Century that was meant to restore American greatness through military power. They attacked the United Nations and warned that “American policy cannot continue to be crippled by misguided insistence on unanimity at the UN Security Council.” To Iraq’s lasting sorrow, George W. Bush took their advice.
Words matter in the doctrinal wars of Washington, not so much as facts but as a way to frame the argument and limit choices for the governing politicians. Both parties do this but Republicans are better at it, perhaps because they are closer to business, marketing and advertising. Academic figures lend authority and an illusion of disinterested expertise. But in Washington circles it is considered bad taste to go back and dredge up old errors to show that Professor X was full of crap or manipulated politicians with blatant falsehoods.
I suspect that is why the neocons are eager to stage a comeback now when they can dump the blame on President Obama. Academic authorities are undermined if people realize these thinkers were personally implicated in the bloody disaster of Iraq. Major media like the Post and Times are aiding their rehabilitation. Kagan was an adviser to Senator McCain when he ran for president in 2008. Kagan also advised Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state. Recent gossip assumes he is sure to be at State or the National Security Council if she becomes president. Someone should ask her.
Kagan slyly promotes the possibility of a Clinton presidency. “If she pursues a policy which we think she will pursue, it’s something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that; they are going to call it something else,’ he told the Times.
Brookings has other Iraq experts who also get generous media exposure but have the same handicap as Kagan—a past they do not like to mention. Maybe the think tank could create a war registry—something like the registries for child molesters. It would alert the public on which Brookings experts were right about Iraq, which ones were wrong.
A few days after Kagan’s column, Michael O’Hanlon of Brookings also appeared in The Washington Post urging President Obama to send American troops back into Iraq. Maybe 5,000 US soldiers and no more than 10,000, O’Hanlon promised. This would be “a bitter pill” for Obama, he conceded, but “it is what may be needed to keep America safe.” A decade ago, O’Hanlon was a media favorite (though, as I recall, he was against the war before he was for the war).
Ken Pollack was another Brookings cheerleader for war whose comments were frequently used by media. Now he is a lot less bullish but Pollack alo wants to see the US to clean up the mess America left behind. He says he has a plan. He told a recent Brookings forum the plan “would involve both the United States being willing to assist in a wide variety of different ways, military and nonmilitary, but only if there is a political component to it. We’ve got to recognize that military force without that critical political component will at best be useless and at worst could be counterproductive.” At this late stage, his insight sounds like a non sequitur.
Indeed, the facile commentaries of the Brookings thinkers made me think of small boys playing toy soldiers on the living-room rug. They enjoy the game of issuing sweeping strategies to cure the world of problems. They pretend their ideas would succeed if only events and other nations cooperated. Of course, they know this won’t happen. But it’s not their fault.
This is governing is by empty platitudes. No one goes to jail or loses their foundation grant or gets shot at. They continue to think hard and deep without personal consequences. Professor Kagan, likewise, reduces the bloody reality of what he helped to cause in Iraq to a harmless discussion of bland abstractions. Did America err by doing too much or by doing too little? Yes, yes, tell us the answer. He doesn’t have any answer.
“The question today is finding the right balance between when to use force and when not to,” Kagan solemnly concluded. “We can safely assume the answer lies somewhere between always and never.” This lame double-talk is not harmless. People died, people are still dying. The best news for the nation is that the people at large don’t believe any of Washington’s cheap talk and want nothing more of its war-making adventures. The public consensus is bipartisan and overwhelming—a firewall against more interventions anywhere.
In these circumstances, maybe the Brookings Institution should organize a truth and reconciliation commission where the architects of the US disaster could come forward to tell the truth, confess their errors and ask to be forgiven. I believe the US government’s poisonous stalemate is likely to continue until something as dramatic occurs. That is, face the truth of our damaged position in the world and change ourselves.
The War Party would object and resist; it seeks the opposite kind of cleansing—wipe away bad memories and pretend nothing happened. Yes, they would say, the US messed up here and there, but America is still the world’s all-powerful good guy. “I feel that we Americans have beaten ourselves up enough,” Michael O’Hanlon insisted. “By the end of 2011, the Iraqis did have a pretty good basis for moving forward. We struggled very hard, put in a lot of money, a lot of American lives, a lot of high-level attention. I believe that the Iraqi political system writ large squandered the opportunity.”
Despite all we did for them.