In the forthcoming issue, Prof. Bacevich offers the conservative case for Obama, which is largely the conservative case for voting on Iraq and nothing else. In many respects, it mirrors the arguments I was making in 2006 for a Democratic victory in the midterms: hold the GOP accountable, don’t trust their flim-flam on domestic policy and move towards ending the war. As the last year has shown it is control of the executive that matters far more as a practical matter, so in this sense Bacevich’s argument is potentially even more compelling: unlike the ineffectual House and Senate Democrats, a Democratic President could follow through on getting out of Iraq. On the other hand, a Democratic President would be able to do many other things that clash directly with at least five of the six points Bacevich lays out in his definition of conservatism. Unlike the largely symbolic protest of throwing out the Republican majority, which has had essentially no effect on U.S. foreign policy anywhere and which seems not to have driven home the message that most Americans are sick of Iraq, the election of a Democratic President could do real harm to the United States in many other ways, including inaugurating other, post-Iraq imperial adventures in the name of global “leadership.” The latter would be politically possible for a Democratic President in ways that no Republican will enjoy for decades.
Americans believed that they were voting for an end to war in 1968, and instead got five more years of direct American involvement and casualties. If Obama has, as Prof. Bacevich correctly notes, “little affinity for serious realism,” but prefers “internationalist bromides,” he may be unable or unwilling to end the war, or at least he will be unable to end it quickly, since he will be more inclined to heed appeals from the United Nations and European governments not to leave Iraq. If we know from past experience that the GOP’s promises on domestic social policy are empty, vote-buying rhetoric, why would we assume that Obama’s antiwar message is anything other than a well-crafted appeal to keep antiwar progressives on board? In essence, the argument for Obama centered around the war is that we should trust that Obama is not conning us, despite the evidence that his foreign policy outlook is fundamentally no different from the people who landed us in this mess, but we should assume that everything else the GOP nominee says is a calculated lie. Cynicism about the GOP is certainly justified, and I share it completely, but why should we be any less cynical about Obama’s promises?
For some on the antiwar right, backing Obama is a risk worth taking, but I would offer a few additional notes of caution.
It seemed possible that repudiation at the polls in 2006 would chasten the hegemonists, or at least weaken them politically long enough to begin the process of withdrawing from Iraq, but this did not happen. Their defeat in 2008 may also change nothing. The 2008 election outcome will not necessarily determine the judgement of later decades on the worthiness or folly of the Iraq war, and even our extrication from Iraq will not mean a turn away from empire, but simply a moment for the supporters of empire to regroup and prepare for the next conflict. The 1920 election was a crushing repudiation of Wilsonian foreign policy, yet here we are in the twenty-first century still confronting the same madness. Meanwhile, if the “freedom agenda” has not already been discredited after the empowerment of Hizbullah, the election of Hamas and the creation of a sectarian government in Iraq, I fail to see what Obama’s election could do to drive the point home. As with Vietnam, there will be dead-enders on Iraq who will never acknowledge that the war was a gross error and a case of profound injustice, and in the decades that followed Vietnam it was not the Vietnam super-hawks, but the doves (who were right about the war) who suffered the gravest political setbacks. Electing Obama to end the war will politically free the GOP, and the hegemonists in particular, of the consequences of withdrawal, even though these consequences would have been impossible without the original invasion and occupation. Just as old Vietnam hawks dishonestly waved (and continue to wave) the bloody shirt of the Cambodian genocide to shame and discredit war opponents in later foreign policy debates, there will be post-Iraq accusations not only of the “stab in the back” but also of enabling whatever humanitarian catastrophes may emerge from Iraq in the wake of our departure. Indeed, this is another case where Obama’s instinct for interventionism will probably prevent withdrawal from Iraq, or will require an immediate re-deployment for the sake of “stopping genocide.” A hardened realist might wash his, our, hands of Iraq and refuse to be drawn back in; Obama’s foreign policy-as-moral preening would demand another intervention. Immediately the political debate would be inverted, as progressives suddenly discovered the virtues of interventionist warfare once again and Republicans would be outraged at the “distraction” from our real security threats.
If there is one thing that has been true about the Iraq war, it has only become less popular over time. An administration that actually continues the war for several more years will find the public extremely dissatisfied by the time of the 2010 midterms, and the GOP would risk an even deeper humiliation than they stand to suffer in Congressional races this year. The same political cynicism that Prof. Bacevich correctly identifies in Republican domestic policy promises may eventually prevail over the resistance of ideologues. While the GOP leadership has identified the party with Iraq, Iraq does not command anything like the unanimity of support in the party that anticommunism once did. As Iraq erodes public support for the GOP in Congress, the need to find a way out will become acute. Politically, the GOP has and will have a much greater incentive to cut itself free of Iraq, and McCain’s opportunism over the years, his willingness to turn against his party for the sake of good press and the realist advisors he has in his campaign all suggest the remote possibility of an end to the war, or at the very least a reduction in the numbers of Americans there. The interventionist Obama seems instinctively drawn towards the consensus of the moment, and the consensus in Washington is that the deployment to Iraq is going to continue for many more years. Arguably, if we cannot believe anything that the Republicans say about any other kind of policy, we cannot assume that they really intend to stay in Iraq indefinitely. To the extent that a bipartisan establishment foreign policy consensus exists that will prevent a President from either party from withdrawing from Iraq, the question may be moot anyway.
All of this is a long way of saying: vote for Obama if you believe it is the best choice for the good of the country that you can make under the circumstances, but don’t be at all surprised when the end to the war he promised does not materialise.