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After The Bombs Fall

But I’m more interested in what happens after America attacks Iran. What if the government collapses? Do we occupy the country? Do we allow a power vacuum? Do we let a Revolutionary Guard commander assume control? A cleric? Could we exercise any control in Iran following an attack? And if the current regime hangs on and then redoubles their nuclear efforts, do we subject them to another pounding five years hence? As a famous general once observed, “tell me how this ends?”

We know from our rueful experience in Iraq that conservative defense intellectuals don’t pay much attention to the immediate aftermath of a conflict (with the exception of Max Boot). It’s apparently sufficient to start a war and then let the chips fall where they may. Not that we should have too much confidence in their predictive abilities on that front either, but it would be nice if those clamoring for a war with Iran could provide us with just a scintilla of analysis regarding U.S. policy in the aftermath. ~Greg Scoblete

In his critique of James Phillips’ call for war with Iran, Scoblete is picking up on something I was discussing in my last column. Describing the flaws of conservative internationalism, I focused on George Will’s Afghanistan arguments of the last few months:

Will’s view is often mistaken for that of a war skeptic, or even of a war opponent. It is in fact the opposite. He simply represents the conservative internationalist preference for air power (and the unavoidable civilian casualties that go with it), along with a lack of patience for the long grind of stabilizing and securing a country once the initial combat phase is completed.

Conservative defense intellectuals tend not to pay much attention to the post-combat phase because they don’t believe the military should remain for very long after concluding “major combat operations” (as Mr. Bush described them six and a half years ago). There was little or no Phase IV planning in Iraq, as Ricks documented in Fiasco and Zelizer has noted in Arsenal of Democracy, because many of the top officials responsible for that planning had no desire and no real intention of remaining in Iraq long enough to need such planning.

Scoblete credits Boot with paying attention to post-combat planning, but we should remember that the reason Boot does this is that he is a neo-imperialist who openly advocates for pursuing an imperial role in the world. While Boot’s so-called “hard Wilsonians” are very willing to think about U.S. post-conflict policies, in that they have no trouble supporting prolonged or even permanent deployments all over the world, their policies are mostly informed by arrogant presumption, naive universalism and cultural ignorance. This usually dovetails with the conservative desire to do as little nation-building as possible, because most of Boot’s neoconservative colleagues assumed that Iraqi democratic government would spring up and flourish almost immediately on its own with a ready-made exile leadership. Other conservative internationalists may or may not have believed this, but it provided them with the reassurance that the war would not “devolve” into a nation-building exercise. As the mission largely became more focused on nation-building, most conservative internationalists did not abandon support for the war, but this was a function of undue conservative loyalty to the executive, especially when the President was from their own party.

A quick war to topple a dictatorial regime and install a friendly replacement appealed to a broad cross-section of conservatives, but the badly flawed predictions of what would happen after the invasion revealed the error of both the “light footprint” approach and the democratist political fantasy that made that approach seem workable. We heard all about how modernized, secular and educated Iraqis were, which made nation-building seem unnecessary and it made post-conflict policies seem redundant. More often than not, the “stabilization” the “hard Wilsonians” propose to bring to the country was not necessary before the war, and their willingness to stay does not reflect an interest in repairing the damage to the country devastated by their war. It is instead an opportunity to project U.S. power and to create new responsibilities for the military and national security state, which make it that much harder to reduce and/or reform both.

Conservatives such as Will are no less hawkish and no less willing to enter and start wars than they were six or seven years ago, but they don’t like tying down so many of our forces in ongoing military campaigns, and they don’t like the political opposition to aggressive foreign policy that long campaigns generate. Prolonged campaigns with large ground forces potentially hamstring U.S. power projection and limit how and where Washington can intervene. For neoconservatives, the solution is simply to expand the size of the military, while many conservative internationalists prefer to withdraw in order to be able to intervene elsewhere. Both are trying to perpetuate U.S. hegemony, but they sometimes disagree about how this should be done.

Neoconservatives are more willing to support long campaigns and risk public backlash, because they tend to be more contemptuous of public opinion when it does not support their policies and because they have an even greater fondness for executive power and an ideal of “strong leadership” that requires a President to ignore public opposition to a war. Conservative internationalists are more concerned about losing public support inasmuch as they don’t want any one military deployment to undermine long-term support for activist foreign policy. The “surge” became sacrosanct and beyond criticism for most conservatives partly because it satisfied the needs of these groups. It combined a refusal to end the war with the sending of additional forces, which pleased neoconservatives, and it also held out the promise of reducing American casualties and making public opposition to the war less urgent and therefore less politically dangerous.

That brings us back to Iran. “Preventive” war against Iran unfortunately has considerable support, especially on the right, and one reason for this is the perceived low cost such a war would have. The cost is perceived to be low because it would initially be largely waged as an air war, and the memory of past U.S. air wars in the last twenty years is one of total dominance, success and very few American casualties. Of course, a war against Iran would not be an easy, short or cheap one, but I think the majority that supports such a war assumes that the costs would be few and the fighting would be over quickly. My guess is that James Phillips does not discuss what might or might not happen after the strikes on Iran’s nuclear sites because he does not think there is anything to discuss. This is another shared flaw that many conservatives who write on foreign policy and national security share, which is simple indifference to the consequences of our military actions.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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