War on War, Mainstream Defeatism Edition

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Michael Kinsley over at Slate today writes one of the most direct and clear statements of a standard libertarianoid antiwar line regarding the futility of American intervention and the inescapable reality of blowback I've seen in a "mainstream" press outlet. (Other examples welcome.) An excerpt:

When the United States should use its military strength to achieve worthy goals abroad is an important question. But based on this record, it seems a bit theoretical. It's like asking whether Donald Trump should use his superpowers to cure AIDS. Or what George W. Bush should say when he wins the Nobel Prize in physics.

It goes on to explain, well but succinctly in column form, how most of our troubles in Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan are the results of previous choices we've made to intervene or interfere overseas, and ends amusingly with:

So, we marched in and got rid of the Taliban. Then we marched into Iraq and got rid of Saddam Hussein. Now we're–well, we haven't figured out what, but we're hopping mad and gonna do something, dammit, about Iran.

And they lived happily ever after.

While I pretty much applaud every word of this piece and its intention, to be devil's advocate, Kinsley doesn't mention his own June 28, 1999, Time column praising U.S. intervention in Yugoslavia, in which he mocked the anti-Clinton Wall St. Journal editorial page for being "unable to hide their irritation that the U.S. would not be humiliated after all, that NATO would survive, and that America had done good in the world at little cost to itself" and notes that Milosevic

surely was influenced in his thinking about when to hold and when to fold by his assessment of the climate of opinion in the U.S. Relentless predictions of quagmire are partly self-fulfilling. The constant carpers and gloomy doomsters of the commentariat and Capitol Hill encouraged Milosevic to think America would fold first. Thus they prolonged the war and added to the human cost they claimed to deplore.

That piece goes on to do a typical mainstream columnist two-step in which he acknowledges that of course such arguments can't be used to shut up all dissent in wartime, but then there's "a distinction between heartfelt opposition to a use of military force and treating this issue as fodder for a different and less important battle of politics and personalities."

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  1. Great point.

    Dissent is a factor the enemy takes into account. Although the side ultimately responsible for choosing war is responsible for taking this into account, dissent has some responsibilities.
    So what moral responsibilities does the dissenter have?
    For a quick response, I would say, genuine dissent when considering America’s overall interest, not partisanship (I believe there are arguments against dissenters in both cases, although I would think it would be harder to disentangle the motivations of the dissenters who were correct (Iraq) vs. those that were not).
    Then there also has to be a responsible attempt at understanding the real consequences.

    Any serious restrictions on dissent are catastrophically bad policy for other reasons, most notably potential governmental abuse, but it can fairly be said that dissent in time of war should carry a moral responsibility. I would agree with Kinsley on both counts (from the excerpt).

  2. I also applaud every word of that piece. Great article.

    AMEN

    BTW Brian, there’s this great interweb tool called Google. I used it to find that other Kinsley article online here

  3. Warren–When I go to that link, it doesn’t give full free content of the article, merely the first paragraph. Have you a magic bypass link? If so, I’ll add it to the post.

  4. Pro-war types will bring up our successful nation-building in Germany and Japan after WWII, and as far as I can tell they have a point.

    It should really be undertaken on a case-by-case basis. In particular as a response to ongoing events, not (as was the case in Iraq) with a view to long-term geostrategic planning, which I wouldn’t trust even intelligent people to get right.

  5. Mark,

    In Germany and Japan, there were already nations in place that resembled what we were trying to build. Not so in Afghan/Iraq. Case by case indeed.

  6. Jim—Thanks! Post amended to include link to Kinsley’s old Time column.

  7. Warren–When I go to that link, it doesn’t give full free content of the article, merely the first paragraph. Have you a magic bypass link? If so, I’ll add it to the post.

    EEEK I hate when I spit into the wind like that. Should have gone with the second Google hit … Which I see Jim Nelson has alread supplied

  8. Matt –

    Exactly. Germany was already a part of the post-enlightenment western world and Japan had a history of adopting foreign customs when they found those customs to be advantageous.

    Yugoslavia was more of a calculated risk, I think, but if I understand correctly our decision to intervene was based on some understanding of the history of the region (the phrase “powder keg of Europe” comes to mind). Same with the first Iraq war.

    I think Clinton and the first Bush, for all their faults, understood and respected the complexity of what they were dealing with. By all accounts, the current administration does not.

  9. Or what George W. Bush should say when he wins the Nobel Prize in physics.

    I’d like to thank my friends from Yale who supplied me with enough cocaine to stay up and study for my nucyular physics final.

  10. I’m surprised by the positive reaction – this piece doesn’t seem well-written at all; it’s just a rundown of various simplistic complaints about American foreign policy from the last 20 years, with barely a connecting thought. Somehow even the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan is America’s fault (“The war we sustained in Afghanistan destroyed the country…”). As if the right way to respond to Soviet aggression was to just let the Soviets take over whatever country they wanted, and that this would have ended Afghan suffering.

    He brings up the U.S. backing Iraq in the mid-80’s, but doesn’t note that Saddam at the time was posing as somewhat of a moderate, “our bad guy”, attacking a sworn enemy of the U.S. And that there was a Cold War going on at the time, which made a strictly moral U.S. foreign policy untenable. He also brings up selling of arms to Iran, but doesn’t bother to mention that that was done strictly as an attempt to free American hostages.

    He says hatred of America in Iran is “fierce”, confusing the government with the people and not realizing that, among the oppressed majorities, there’s no such hatred and never was.

    Most telling is that Kinsley doesn’t try to offer any alternatives. He won’t bring himself to say that the U.S. shouldn’t have deposed the Taliban, or Saddam, and he certainly won’t say anything negative about invading Iran. He seems content to just throw up various charges in the hope that something will stick.

  11. Yaron,
    I agree, but what this does is show that those who point to things going right in Iraq are pointing to irrelevant things.
    The chaos left behind wherever US forces have been is the relevant thing.

  12. …that there was a Cold War going on at the time, which made a strictly moral U.S. foreign policy untenable.

    This is confounding to me. It suggests that we could not have won the Cold War without helping to overthrow democratically elected governments or giving aid and support to mass-murderering dictators and terrorists. I think that philosophy is untenable.

    Our Cold War foreign policy wasn’t just not strictly moral. It was amoral.

  13. And the kicker about the Kosovo war is that while the ethnic cleansing (most of which triggered by the air campaign) was halted, the conflict as a whole was not resolved. Albanian Kosovars still demand independence and a campaign of intimidation against the few remaining Serbs continues. Not to mention that the only leader with enough moral weight to keep things under control died this January.

    Expect to see this issue simmer up again in the next few months, coinciding with a referendum on the independence of Montenegro, another region seeking to secede from Serbia.

  14. War on war! What good is it good for?

  15. Deus, Operation Horseshoe – the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovars by Serbian military and irregulars – had been planned for years, and was in its initial stages when the US intervened to stop it. Yes, once the air campaign began, the Serbs sped up their atrocities in an attempt to finish what they’d started before time ran out.

    But to shift the blame from the Serbs to the Allies as you’ve done, is as morally vacant an argument as I’ve seen in a long time.

    ‘Oh, no, don’t fight back against that bully. It might make him mad! And then it would be your fault.’ Immoral, and cowardly.

  16. This is confounding to me. It suggests that we could not have won the Cold War without helping to overthrow democratically elected governments or giving aid and support to mass-murderering dictators and terrorists.

    Well, maybe we could have and maybe we couldn’t have. We certainly couldn’t have won World War II without siding with the Soviet Empire. It’s very easy now to point to U.S. actions that may seem immoral, but at the time, with Communism having taken over nearly half the world’s population, with the Soviets making client states out of unstable 3rd-world countries, and with the constant threat of nuclear warfare, things weren’t nearly that simple. I’m willing to grant a pretty big leeway to the various U.S. governments of the 60’s-80’s as far as what they did to combat Communism.

    One other thing – Kinsley doesn’t mention the possible negative repercussions of the U.S. not intervening. Various terrorists have said they were emboldened by seeing the U.S. retreat from, for example, Vietnam in 1975, Iran in 1979, and Somalia in ’93.

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