Our Warped Debates About War
Peggy Noonan wrote a thoughtful column on the horrors of war last week:
Our leaders are shallow on the subject of war. No, worse than shallow—they’re silent. Which is one reason they will likely not be fully trusted should they make rough decisions down the road on Syria, or Iran, or elsewhere.
War is terrible. That should be said over and over, not because it’s a box you ought to check on the way to the presidency but because you’re human and have a brain.
War is always terrible, and it is made even more so when it is waged when it doesn’t have to be. Most wars are avoidable and unnecessary, and yet most of our political leaders are reliably in favor of every U.S. military intervention around the world when it matters. Some may later say they regret their support for a previous war, especially if it was a much costlier one than they expected, but at the time the “safe” and “smart” position for ambitious politicians to take is to be for bombing and/or invading. Almost all of the political incentives at least since Desert Storm have flowed in the direction of supporting military action, and so most of the people that seek the presidency have learned not to be an early opponent of any proposed intervention.
Noonan recounts a telling exchange with a politician in which she asked him if he hated war. After being reassured that he wasn’t walking into a trap, he said yes, but still qualified the answer by saying that war is sometimes necessary. The trouble is that most of our politicians, and almost all of our presidential candidates, have never seen a war that they thought was unnecessary. Reflexive interventionists may sometimes include the caveat that they don’t want war, but in the next breath they are keen to tell you why “action” is imperative. Sometimes they dress this up with euphemisms. They don’t talk about going to war, but say that that the U.S. shouldn’t be standing “on the sidelines” or that the U.S. needs to “lead,” but invariably this amounts to a demand that force be used in another country. Sometimes they dress up calls for war with technical terms, such as the much-abused “no-fly zone” phrase, that obscure what they are talking about. At other times, they simply acquiesce in a policy of lending support to a client state’s horrific war, and that way they don’t have to say anything and can pretend to have nothing to do with it.
It is in this environment that relatively dovish candidates have to emphasize their readiness to use force while hawkish candidates are under much less pressure to prove that they aren’t warmongers. While there is near-constant U.S. warfare somewhere in the world, hardly anyone in politics talks about the need for peace. Just as our candidates don’t express their hatred of war, they typically don’t profess their desire for peace for fear that they will be pilloried as “weak.” Despite the fact that U.S. forces have been engaged in hostilities for Obama’s entire presidency, the loudest and most frequent criticisms of his foreign policy are that he is supposedly too reluctant to use force and didn’t bomb Syria. If one of the most activist, militarized presidencies in modern U.S. history is being portrayed in the media as insufficiently aggressive, we aren’t likely to hear our leaders regularly condemning the evils of war.