What Nikki Haley Gets Right
We should thank her for exposing the lunatic id of GOP hawkism.
Before the headline on this column forces you to angrily click away and maybe write a letter in protest to my editors at The American Conservative, hear me out: There is almost nothing that Nikki Haley gets right. I boarded the Never, Ever, Ever Haley train not long after she announced her presidential bid. And if she represents the future of the Republican Party, it would make it easy for me to call it quits on the existing American right. That’s how much I disagree with her.
Still, we should be thankful for one of her recent brainstorms: Speaking in Iowa on Friday, the former South Carolina governor and U.N. ambassador vowed that if elected to the Oval Office, she would change the name of the Department of Defense to the “Department of Offense.” This would signal, she has suggested, that Washington is, well, on the offensive, and prepared to strike fear into the hearts of the Sino-Russo-Islamo-Iranian Adversary.
The proposal itself is childish and stupid, of course: a throwback to the circa-2003 blowhardery that used to cause global sniggering about the Bush administration. But it’s a good thing she voiced it, because it brings into light the repressed id of Republican hawks like Haley, reminding the American people of the warmongering lunacy that led the nation to waste thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on pointless interventions over the past two decades.
The department’s current name is itself a relatively recent euphemism. The first U.S. Congress created a Department of War in 1789, and the Cabinet-level leaders of this agency were known as secretaries of war. The emphasis on “war” was a relic of an age that was more honest about war-declaring and war-making (which doesn’t mean that all the wars fought by the early republic were just). It wasn’t until after World War II, under the Truman administration, that the department came to be called the Department of Defense, following a brief interval when it was known as the National Military Establishment.
The “Defense” euphemism wasn’t all cynical. In fact, it represented America’s commitment to a calm internationalism necessitated by the horrors of World War II and befitting the new nuclear age. Henceforth, responsible nations were to exhaust diplomacy before resorting to military action, and then only for just cause: self-defense, not imperial aggrandizement. Again, the United States didn’t always live up to this ideal, but at crucial moments, especially during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it did.
Still, it’s notable that after the Department of War became the Department of Defense, Congress abdicated its constitutional power to declare war. Military interventions, whether just and necessary or otherwise, became something the executive branch launched and the legislature “authorized.”
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Did Americans lose sight of the moral gravity of war, and the imperative to avoid it if possible, when the Department of War became the Department of Defense, and wars were no longer declared by the people’s representatives, but hatched as “interventions” and “police actions” inside the executive? Almost certainly. The ramifications were especially tragic in the case of the post-9/11 wars, when the adversary was defined in a loosey-goosey manner, authorizing open-ended commitments in pursuit of vague strategic objectives like promoting “freedom” in Iraq.
The consequences will be even more tragic if the likes of Haley have their way: unreconstructed hawks prepared to contemplate fighting three (or more) simultaneous wars against two great powers, Russia and China, and a regional power, Iran, heedless of the nuclear risks and the American industrial decrepitude revealed by Covid. Haley is an especially obnoxious specimen, because she wants all this on the foreign stage while remaining completely wedded to the old GOP’s free-market dogmas: She wants large-scale industrial war without industrial policy.
In recent days, much condemnation has been poured on identity and “intersectional” progressives for pooh-poohing, and in some cases even celebrating, Hamas’s atrocities against Israeli civilians. This is as it should be. The refusal to muster sympathy for murdered Jews, and the willingness to blame Israel for the murderous actions of its terrorist enemies, are symptoms of moral rot among the campus and campus-adjacent left. But make no mistake: The path of moral responsibility and moderation is also threatened by Republican hard-liners salivating for World War III. The latter, it’s worth remembering, have access to power.