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Noonan’s Sentimental Jingoism

John McCain made a widely-ridiculed suggestion to send U.S. forces into Nigeria without the permission of their government. Peggy Noonan thinks it’s a great idea:

John McCain has it exactly right. (I don’t think I’ve ever written that sentence.) He told CNN that as soon as the U.S. learned that hundreds of children had been kidnapped and stolen away by a rabid band of terrorists in Nigeria, we should have used “every asset that we have—satellite, drones, any capabilities that we had to go after them.” He told the Daily Beast: “I certainly would send in U.S. troops to rescue them, in a New York minute I would, without permission of the host country.” He added, as only Sen. McCain would: “I wouldn’t be waiting for some kind of permission from some guy named Goodluck Jonathan. ” That’s Nigeria’s hapless president.

Mr. McCain said that if he were president he would have moved already, and that is not to be doubted.

There is nothing wrong with taking action—when possible—that is contained, discrete, swift, targeted, humanitarian and, not least, can be carried through successfully.

It’s never a good idea to agree with McCain on these sorts of things, and it should worry Noonan that she’s agreeing with him despite the hint that she knows his judgment is not very good. Noonan’s column is a good example of how not to think about the use of military force in other countries. First, she never considers how something could go very wrong. There is no recognition that mounting a rescue might imperil the lives of the people being held captive. Noonan simply assumes that U.S. forces could–and therefore should–launch a raid in another country without its government’s consent, and she takes for granted that it would be successful. After all, what could be wrong with that? She thinks there is nothing wrong with it, which is more confirmation that she hasn’t given the matter much thought at all.

She doesn’t think about the possible negative consequences, since she seems to think that a “contained, swift, targeted” and “humanitarian” mission can’t have any of those. Like advocates for “limited” strikes on another country, Noonan imagines that the people being targeted by U.S. military action will play along and not retaliate in some way. If a raid provokes attacks against U.S. installations and results in the deaths of U.S. citizens, does Noonan think that the public will be pleased by the original decision to intervene? In what may be the most bizarre part of her argument, she imagines that it is not an exercise in hubris to intervene in another country’s affairs so long as no one publicly celebrates it. The hubris here lies in the presumption that the U.S. is entitled to police other countries with military action at will. Whether or not Americans brag about it afterwards is almost completely besides the point.

Maybe the most revealing part of her column is this:

Americans would feel happy about what we’d done, and good about not bragging about it. Actually we would really be proud but not sickly proud, just morally satisfied.

In the end, that’s what interests Noonan–making us feel good about ourselves and giving us a reason to be proud of using the military overseas. It doesn’t really matter whether or not it would make the situation in Nigeria worse. What matters is that we can be proud about taking military action for high-minded reasons, and there’s no need to worry about the consequences. In its way, this is far more delusional and worrisome than anything on display in a victory parade, because it represents the complete abdication of reason in favor of a thoroughly sentimental attitude towards the use of lethal force.

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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