Home/Daniel Larison/Wrong But Ambitious

Wrong But Ambitious

Opponents of the First Gulf War, for instance, would argue that the events of 9/11 vindicated their concerns – because the Gulf War created a permanent U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, providing grist for anti-Americanism across the Islamic world – but there hasn’t been a massive post-9/11 backlash against George H.W. Bush or Brent Scowcroft, to say the least. Or to take a more remote example, I’m inclined to think that our intervention in the First World War was a strategic mistake and that both the Spanish-American War and the Mexican War violated just-war principles – but had I been an anti-war politician in 1914 or 1899 or 1846 I would have suffered politically for taking these stances, regardless of whether I was right on the merits. ~Ross Douthat

Ross is right: there has not been a backlash against Bush the Elder-style “realism” in recent years, since the “realists” have come to consider themselves something of the obvious, default alternative foreign policy position after the discrediting of aggressive idealism and neoconservative power projection.  There has also not been a terribly big eruption of thoroughgoing anti-interventionist sentiment.  Since the connection between post-Gulf War policies and 9/11 has been kept as obscure as possible by all interested parties, including the mass media, there is no reason why there would be a strong backlash against the foreign policy that brought us containment of Iraq, sanctions on Iraq, the stationing of forces in Saudi Arabia and maintenance of the (illegal) no-fly zones.  There has been no anti-Scowcroftian backlash because most people do not acknowledge that the first Bush administration’s policies had anything to do with what happened later.  The popular (and also the neocon) narrative is that of Clintonian fecklessness and inaction–it is quite acceptable in Republican circles to speak of these policies “inviting” terrorist attacks, because these are not the favoured policies of the most aggressive interventionists.  Their idea is that foreign threats and attacks are always the product of insufficient interventionism and insufficient power projection–there is nothing that a firmer hand and a greater demonstration of willpower will not overcome. The neocons’ problem with Clinton’s foreign policy was not that it used force indiscriminately, one might even say promiscuously, but that it used force only half-heartedly and without the full intensity that was necessary to show our national “resolve.”

Certainly, none of the Democrats who voted against the Gulf War authorisation has since been lionised for his principle and far-seeing vision.  Then again, how many of the Democratic Senators in particular who voted against the Gulf War authorisation were kicked out by voters in 1992, 1993 or 1994?  Not many.  If there were any who lost their seats in 1994, it was not principally because they had opposed the war with Iraq.  Likewise, Kerry and Edwards would not have lost re-election (even if they had been running) in 2002 or 2003 had they voted against the AUMF.  In any case, how many incumbent Senators lose races for re-election?  Not many.  Cleland was ousted only through a unique combination of extremely dirty politicking and a very pro-Bush Georgia electorate.

The issue is always one of presidential and national politics. Gore got on the ticket because of his foreign policy “expertise,” but more importantly he got on the ticket because he had voted the politically ‘right’ way on the authorisation the previous year, and all the other ambitious Senators then and later noted this and meditated on it whenever the question of using force came up after that.  When it came time to choose what to do in the fall of ‘02, Kerry and Edwards must have been thinking about what this vote would mean for future presidential chances, whether in the ‘04 cycle or later.  They knew that no opponent of the Gulf War had won the nomination of their party, so it would not have been difficult for them to think that opposing a new Iraq war would have been curtains for their presidential aspirations.  As with so many, many other things, Kerry and Edwards were wrong.  In the event, Kerry’s late transformation from pro- to anti-war man dogged his campaign and probably cost him the election; given the alternative of voting for a dithering, confused man, enough voters still refused to pick John Kerry.  Had he been antiwar all along, he might have claimed some clarity and superior judgement.  Instead, he had to play the wounded victim–”Ooh, George tricked me!”

As for the other wars, Ross’ politician double would have done very poorly running as an antiwar candidate in any of the European countries in elections in the early years of the war.  Nationalist democratic fervour for the war on both sides was intense and had a significant role in pushing all of the governments involved to enter into war and then to persist in it. Were Ross an American politician confronted with the question of WWI entry in 1916-17, he not only would have prospered as an antiwar politician (unless he had been arrested by the government for his subversive activities) but would probably have been wildly popular nationwide.  A supermajority of Americans opposed entry into WWI.  Their pathetic representatives lined up behind the President, as most pathetic Congresses have done down through our history, to support a declaration of war with the exception of one member of the House. With the Spanish and Mexican wars, it would have mattered a great deal where Ross the politician lived.  Had he been a Democrat in 1899, he probably would have done well for himself to oppose the war, and certainly to oppose annexation and the Filipino counterinsurgency that followed.  Had he been a Northern Whig in 1846, he might have survived the pro-war hysteria that swept over the country. Similarly, Democrats in 2002 in secure seats had little to fear from their constituents, because their voters tended to be less in favour of the war and were less likely to oust an incumbent on account of his opposition.  The strange thing about Democrats backing the Iraq war is that they were voting as if they all lived in deepest Alabama or Idaho, when they actually lived in very different parts of the country where people had significantly different views of the necessity and rightness of the war.

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.

leave a comment

Latest Articles