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How Hawkish Candidates Mislead the Public

Reihan Salam appears [1] to be a bit fuzzy on the concept of “last resort”:

Conservatives need to think seriously about how we might, in the words of Brookings defense analyst Kenneth Pollack, ”put pressure on Iran in various ways, to keep it on the defensive and to encourage the end of the regime.” A military strike might ultimately prove to be our best or our only option, but as the debate over Iran continues to unfold this year and next, it is vitally important that conservative candidates make it clear that war is their last resort [bold mine-DL].

Put another way, Salam wants conservative candidates to misrepresent their support for an illegal, unprovoked attack on Iran and claim it to be something that it clearly is not. If the U.S. attacked Iran, it wouldn’t be using force as a last resort. It would be launching an international war in violation of the U.N. Charter. Whoever supports attacking Iran has already rejected the idea that force should always be used as a last resort. If a candidate believed force should be used only as a last resort, he isn’t going to support attacking Iran, and he would presumably oppose any wars that aren’t in self-defense. What Salam is really saying here is that conservative candidates need to avoid appearing too aggressive in their support for military action because this will go over badly with most voters. These candidates may say that they believe force should used as a last resort, but their willingness to consider illegally attacking another country shows that they don’t mean it. It’s not possible to start a war as a last resort, but it is “vitally important” for these candidates’ election prospects to pretend that it is.

Salam cites a report [2] that includes a quote from North Carolina Sen. Richard Burr, who says, “I don’t think anybody in America believes that we’re on the verge of shipping a couple of hundred thousand troops somewhere to fight a war.” No, there probably isn’t anyone who believes that this is going to happen in the near future, but then an attack on Iran wouldn’t require anything like that to trigger a new and costly war all the same. Maybe Burr doesn’t want to be pinned down as a supporter of an illegal war, so he defines war as something involving hundreds of thousands of soldiers fighting in an Iraq-like conflict and says he isn’t for that. Is Burr also opposed to bombing Iran? The report never says either way, and Burr is permitted to create the impression that he is against attacking Iran when everything in his record [3] suggests that he would have no problem with it.

24 Comments (Open | Close)

24 Comments To "How Hawkish Candidates Mislead the Public"

#1 Comment By KXB On April 6, 2015 @ 10:49 am

It seems that there is now a distinction between “airstrikes” and “war”.

#2 Comment By SDS On April 6, 2015 @ 11:44 am

“I don’t think anybody in America believes that we’re on the verge of shipping a couple of hundred thousand troops somewhere to fight a war.”

Sure- and I expect that was a common refrain in 1964, too… And, as mentioned previously; “airstrikes” don’t count as “war”; until one of the planes is shot down; and then the refrain will be “they fired first! WE must respond in stength- Our credibility is at stake!”….

#3 Comment By collin On April 6, 2015 @ 11:47 am

I think conservatives who talk airstrikes are not going to be very effective as it is still “Making War.” Iran may strike Israel, Saudia Arabia or the US in which full scale war starts immediately. Or the airstrikes may increase Iran’s desire for the bomb and other allies, China or India, may end their sanctions. Historically, the US has not had to pay much for these ‘Strategic Bombings’ (although 9/11 could be argued.) so conservatives may wrongly consider this a good option.

#4 Comment By CaseyL On April 6, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

That was almost exactly the argument Bush-Cheney made for the AUMF: It wasn’t *actually* a declaration of war, it was something that would authorize a war if “all else failed.”

We know how that one turned out.

#5 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On April 6, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

In the case of Bush and Cheney, it was very clear that they wanted “all else” to fail so they could have their war. I recall a cartoon at the time in which they made three points in Iraq:

(1) We will go through the United Nations;
(2) War is a last resort; and
(3) We attack at dawn.

That sounded about right to me.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 6, 2015 @ 1:24 pm

It’s beyond the pale I know, but being they are so fond of invoking Munich, 1938, this is precisely the Hitler policy: meet my demands, or face blitzkrieg; then face it anyhow – but only as a last resort. It’s not bad because he was evil when he did it and ok because our elite interests who want to rule over all are good. But then, Just War Theory as based on millenia of Christian moral influence is as irrelevant to the neocon influenced as it was to the subversives who overthrew Weimar.

#7 Comment By Grumpy Old Man On April 6, 2015 @ 1:25 pm

They have no contingency plan for bombing failing, or leading to more hostilities. If they publicized the requirements of a land war with Iran, or even a significant interruption of petroleum supplies, there would be an uproar as with Obama’s proposal to strike Syria.

They don’t have the stomach for conscription, surtaxes, high oil prices, and all the rest. They want the rubes to think they can do this on the cheap.

#8 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 6, 2015 @ 1:36 pm

“In the case of Bush and Cheney, it was very clear that they wanted “all else” to fail so they could have their war. I recall a cartoon at the time in which they made three points in Iraq: . . .”

I am not convinced that Pres. Bush had any such notions. Attempting to measure out what his intentions were prior to 9/11 is tough call. Certainly they had a dsire to deal with Pres. Hussein. Whether that was at any and all costs is another question.

I would hope every candidate has in mind the manner in which tolead the contry with respect to any policy domestic or foreign. That plan as a contingeny or even a desire is contingent on te circumstnces nd nvironment. In the wake of 9/11, including the public desire/prssure for action pushed a lever in one direction. I think it is over playing the contend to ignore the shell shock of 9/11.

In any realistic assessment, our hands are tied with taking any military action on Iran. That woul strain US Iraq relatios to t brink and perhaps break, Libya and Syria have us vastly exposed as in at east one theater we are in league with Iran.

The more I think about it, given the pinch, Iran is being extraordinarily cooperative and at som level that concerns me more. But I hink it’s too at to reroll the dic we have continuallly played since 2003.

A throw I wish we hadn’t made.

#9 Comment By Richard W. Bray On April 6, 2015 @ 2:02 pm


It was President Obama who normalized this distinction without a difference when he declared that dropping bombs on people in Libya did not constitute “hostilities.”

Can you imagine how the apparatchiks at MSNBC would have howled if George W. Bush had said something like that?

There are so many things (like the number of press conferences a president gives) that establishment liberals only care about when the president is a Republican.

#10 Comment By RobZ On April 6, 2015 @ 3:06 pm

“It was President Obama who normalized this distinction without a difference when he declared that dropping bombs on people in Libya did not constitute “hostilities.””

As I recall at that point, USAF airplanes weren’t doing the bomb dropping. Instead, they were flying support for NATO planes. (Inflight refueling , etc.)

I don’t doubt that Bush would have received criticism for doing the same thing.

#11 Comment By Misrepresentatives On April 6, 2015 @ 5:26 pm

What cynicism.

It bespeaks the hermetic character of the echo chamber in which these people operate, the real contempt in which they openly hold the rest of us, that this Salam character can presume that American voters won’t feel insulted by the outrageous suggestion that GOP candidates misrepresent their true position on starting a war with Iran until the campaign is over, at which point they’re free to announce that the “last resort” of their campaign rhetoric can become the first act of their presidency.

Given it’s insitutional immortality, there may be no final verdict on Harvard-educated conservatives, but it seems to be producing more specimens like Kristol, Cotton, Salan, Toomey, or Cruz than Eliots or Douthats.

#12 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On April 6, 2015 @ 5:44 pm


It seems that there is now a distinction between “airstrikes” and “war”.

It is the most crucial distinction. Current cultural milieu, sadly, is not an environment which likes firm clear definitions. You know, like what the word “is” means;-)

#13 Comment By collin On April 6, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

Three points on Obama interference on Libya.

1) Most liberals I knew were against it and most of them blame Benghazi on that decision.
2) A lot liberals really disliked Obama thinking of bombing Syria at Charles Pierce and Jon Stewart went full scale what was Obama thinking on this one.
3) If anything good came out of Libya is Obama has become more dovish since that endeavor.

#14 Comment By FL Trsnsplant On April 6, 2015 @ 9:22 pm

There seems to be a belief that if we go to war against Iran by destroying their nuclear facilities it’ll be a brief, bloodless effort on on part. Pretty much like all of the other air wars we’ve waged over the past couple of decades–we’ll beat up on a bunch of baby seals and aside from the loss of a couple of platforms and crews we’ll have no military consequences. It’s all about targeting, specialized weapons that can destroy hardened facilities, and whiz-bang aircraft coupled with planning and tactics that can penetrate defended airspace, destroy the targets, and return back to base to repeat for the few days needed.

What makes anyone think that Iran will go “rats!” and accept this situation? They’ve had decades to prepare to wage a counteroffensive. How about if 10 days after our attacks we suddenly experience
— Attacks on chemical plants and refineries (turning North Jersey into Bohpal, and cutting our gasoline supply by half)
— Attacks on key electric grid nodes, destroying the speciality transformers and other infrastructure that take years to replace but that make our grid possible? A third to half of the country into darkness for months or longer.
–Attacks on key transportation nodes–ports, airfields, railroad bridges and tunnels, Mississippi river locks, a few highway nodes (DC without the Wilson, Cabin John, and Douglass bridges for a year or more–awesome to contemplate). Not only will the latest flat screen TVs not make it to Best Buy’s shelves, crops will rot in the fields, food processing will shut down, coal won’t make it to generating plants, no beef/pork/chicken shipped, no natural gas or oil for home heating–it’ll be a cold, hungry winter. Plan now to tear up your front yard to plant root crops.
–Cyberattacks on financial institutions and communications infrastructure. Iran was the recipient of the first known cyberattack on a nation–the Stuxnet virus; it’s certainly not a stretch to think they’ve positioned themselves to return the favor. Banks shut down, account balances zeroed out, credit card balances zeroed (great for consumers, not so great for the businesses they owe money to), stock and commodities exchanges shut down. No long-haul comms–no national TV/radio networks, no internet, no cable news.

I’m thinking that having had decades to develop intelligence, accomplish needed operational and tactical planning and training, and prepare and position equipment and supplies I could do the above with well under 1000 or so well-trained, motivated operators acting as an infiltrated fifth column. Not SEAL Team Six trained, more like 82 Airborne trained. Launch the attacks simultaneously at 0100 West Coast time. By the time the sun rises in New York City the country will be remarkably different.

#15 Comment By AnotherBeliever On April 6, 2015 @ 9:35 pm

Is it really the last resort when you are talking about regime change? Last resort applies when they are attacking us imminently, or they just did, now we have no choice but to respond. But, hey let’s get a new regime in there because we dislike the current one – That’s not last resort.

And why do the hawks always assume a new regime will be friendly to us, and that this will work out to our advantage? Mostly, new regimes have come back to haunt us and/or simply failed. But this is just another variation on the perpetual hawk theme, “This time it will be different.”

#16 Comment By Darth Thulhu On April 6, 2015 @ 10:28 pm

The only hope I extend that our next air War “precision bombing campaign” against civilian targets won’t be completely ignored is the spread of social media since 2003.

The next time we straight up slaughter tens of thousands of people while simultaneously annihilating their infrastructure, I expect to see more video of it from sources less completely co-opted and supine than our national media.

Just as Israel has not enjoyed the wide outrage from the video of the “telegenic children” killed in their most recent Gaza slaughters, I do not expect us to enjoy having our noses finally rubbed in the abattoirs created by our air power.

#17 Comment By Let’s Go To Iran And Play Iraq! On April 6, 2015 @ 10:46 pm

in the words of Brookings defense analyst Kenneth Pollack, ”put pressure on Iran in various ways, to keep it on the defensive and to encourage the end of the regime.”

You know what, Mr. Pollack, that’s not our job anymore. It’s up to the people of Iran. One reason that it’s not our job anymore is because of the utter shambles people like you made of Iraq. Your contribution to the Iraq disaster was to use Brookings’ prestige to persuade liberals to support the invasion. Well done! And look at the results!

Now you’re trying to persuade liberals and others that the US should “put pressure on” Iran to effect another “regime change”. What in God’s name do you think you’re doing? Trying for a disaster so big that it will eclipse the one you helped make in Iraq?

And golly, I see that you’re the guy named in that government indictment as passing US national defense secrets to the AIPAC spies. Why am I not surprised?

#18 Comment By SmoothieX12 (aka Andrew) On April 6, 2015 @ 10:55 pm

@Let’s Go To Iran And Play Iraq!

I didn’t read competent military-political analysis (let alone one which came true even 50%)from any US “analytical” institution, be it CIA, RAND or full o’ sh.t STRATFOR, let alone Brookings, in decades. I know, it sounds bad but that is the way it is…. As Clausewitz said….

#19 Comment By By Their Fruits On April 6, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

“the guy [Pollack] named in that government indictment”

Poor Mr. Salam’s argument fails on its merits, with or without the quote. But one wonders how someone addressing an issue involving trust and verification could be so careless in quoting such an obviously tainted source.

#20 Comment By Ken_L On April 7, 2015 @ 12:27 am

Demanding that a nation change its government to one more friendly to a belligerent nation, or face war as a consequence of refusal, is the kind of thing strong powers have done throughout history. The USA used to pretend it was above that sort of thing, even it if really wasn’t. It’s telling that more and more on the right are prepared to come out now and state quite openly that America should wage aggressive war if it can’t get its way by other means. So much for American Exceptionalism.

#21 Comment By sherparick On April 7, 2015 @ 9:10 am

Salam kinds of gives the game away with the remark that “military strike” (a/k/a “war”) “being our best option.” Very Straussian of him to try to encourage Republican politicians to call it “our last resort” and to evade the consequences. But our Modern Movement Conservatives are the Tom and Daisy Buchanan’s of 21st century, careless people who like to smash things up and leave the mess to others to clean up, as they safely retreat within their wall of money and influence. And there certainly would be fortunes to be made in such a war, as fortunes were made during the Iraq war. [4]

#22 Comment By Sophie On April 7, 2015 @ 9:38 am

SDS – spot on!

#23 Comment By Cornel Lencar On April 7, 2015 @ 11:35 pm

”put pressure on Iran in various ways, to keep it on the defensive and to encourage the end of the regime.”

I would also like to comment on the idea of regime change. Why Iran needs a regime change and why the US consider the current regime in Iran is not legitimate? The US public would perceive Iran more akin to US if it is compared with Saudi Arabia. There is a modicum of democracy in Iran. Why threaten it? No other regime, bar a client one, which will not resist, would behave differently in Iran, because it would be against national interest.

So it seems that the Iran hawks are a bunch of infatuated war mongering dilettants.

#24 Comment By tzx4 On April 11, 2015 @ 10:30 am

@ FL Trsnsplant
I am surprised that you left the Straight of Hormuz out of you speculations. That is the first thing that comes to my mind.