Republicans have renewed their enthusiasm for Middle East war. Okay, fine. Let’s just be sure that this time, we win. And that means doing things differently: Different from Barack Obama, of course, but different, also, from George W. Bush.
Let’s start by defining “winning” properly. Clausewitz tells us that victory is achieved only when the mind of the enemy is changed. As in, the enemy gives up. So, as long as the enemy is still fighting, it doesn’t really matter what the casualty levels are; if the enemy is the last man standing, the enemy wins.
And that was our problem during the Vietnam War. Sure, we were way ahead in the body-count metric, and we effectively wiped out the South Vietnam-based Viet Cong insurgents. But even after nearly a decade of fighting, we hadn’t curbed the enthusiasm of the North Vietnamese invaders, not even one little bit. And so as long as they could be resupplied from China and the USSR, they were going to keep fighting. So, of course, in the end, the Americans went home, and North Vietnam won.
With that Clausewitzian point in mind, we can add a codicil: In addition to making the enemy want to stop fighting, the victor must be able to hold his own political support together. And here, the recent history of the US in the Middle East is not very encouraging. Operation Iraqi Freedom, launched in 2003, was popular enough—even though the mission wasn’t quite accomplished—and in 2004, George W. Bush was re-elected, albeit narrowly. Yet by 2006, support for the war had dropped precipitously, and the voters vented their frustrations on Republicans in Congress; the GOP lost control of both the House and the Senate in those midterms. And even though Bush’s 2007 “Surge” was a military success in Iraq, it didn’t change the domestic politics back home. In 2008, Republican John McCain lost the White House in a landslide, and Republicans in Congress took another drubbing.
So then we saw what happens when political support for a war evaporates. As we know, the new president, Barack Obama, couldn’t wait to get the last US ground forces out of to Iraq. He completed the US withdrawal in 2010, as he had promised to do. In fact, his “success” in withdrawing from Iraq was one of his key campaign planks; the 2012 Democratic platform included a headline praising the 44th president for “Responsibly Ending The War in Iraq.” And with that platform, Obama went on to win a second landslide.
Indeed, a 2013 Pew Center poll found that even among Republicans—traditionally the more hawkish party—a majority agreed with the statement that the US “should mind its own business internationally.” Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Rand Paul rose to prominence during this era of disillusion.
Meanwhile, among the rightist intelligentsia, enthusiasm was very definitely curbed. In 2013, National Review’s Michael Walsh was unsparing in his criticism of Bush as a war leader. The 43rd president was “almost completely wrong” on everything since September 11, Walsh declared. Walsh went on to dismiss as “bushwah” the 43 notion that “Islam is peace,” scorning Bush for attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Then he added this final jibe:
So now Iraq will go from an officially secular/Baathist, Sunni-run thugocracy to an officially Islamic, Shi’a-run thugocracy… and America will have lost thousands of fighting men and women, squandered its tactical advantage against Iran, and have nothing to show for it…
So as we can see, it wasn’t that long ago that conservatives and Republicans shuddered at the thought of Middle Eastern military intervention.
Yet since then, the rise of ISIS in the Middle East has changed Republican thinking, especially in its would-be presidential wing. Scott Walker was out early: On February 1, he went on ABC News to call for an “aggressive strategy” against ISIS, including consideration of, yes, “boots on the ground.”
A February 24 headline in The New York Times captured the new spirit of hawkery: “Presidential Contenders in G.O.P. Shift Attention to Foreign Policy Issues.” As the Times noted:
Nearly three-quarters of Republicans now favor sending ground troops into combat against the Islamic State, according to a CBS News poll last week. And in Iowa and South Carolina, two early nominating states, Republicans said military action against the group was, alongside economic matters, the most important issue in the 2016 election, according to an NBC survey released last week.
Not surprisingly, hawkishness was on display at CPAC: The February 26 headline in Politico read, “Hawks Fly High at CPAC.” One of those war-birds at the Gaylord hotel, of course, was Marco Rubio. As Breitbart News’s Charlie Spiering noted, “As expected, he featured a robust foreign policy in his speech which is enjoying a bit of a comeback in the era of ISIS.” Yet in terms of upping the ante, Rick Perry flew even higher: ISIS, he declared, is “the worst threat to freedom since communism.”
Indeed just about every 2016-minded Republican this side of Rand Paul has said that we need to fight a lot harder against ISIS. Jeb Bush, for example, reckoned by many to be the frontrunner, has even gone so far as to bring back Paul Wolfowitz, chief architect of the 2003 Iraq War, as an foreign policy adviser. And even the Kentucky Senator, whose nomination prospects have been hurt badly by the swing to hawkishness inside the GOP, doesn’t completely discount the possibility of military action; he simply insists that the president should first seek Congressional approval.
(Note to the 45th president, whoever you are: You definitely want Congressional approval; as Gordon Silverstein wrote in his shrewd work of political science, Imbalance of Powers: Constitutional Interpretation and the Making of American Foreign Policy, a smart commander-in-chief wants the Congress inside the tent, not outside the tent.)
What a difference a year makes! A year ago, Obama was struggling to find a way to topple Bashar al-Assad in Syria and dismissing ISIS as the “jayvee”—junior varsity. Yet now, in a complete reversal, he is working with the Assad regime—and Iran—to defeat, or at least contain, ISIS.
Indeed, Obama has made such a mess of the Middle East that it’s reasonable to think, the “blue wall” of electoral votes notwithstanding, that Republicans have a pretty good chance of winning the White House next year. Yes, even against Hillary—maybe especially against Hillary.
So if a Republican does win in 2016, the momentum in favor of US “boots on the ground” in Syria—or Iraq, or Libya, or Yemen, or wherever—will likely be unstoppable. Just on Thursday, Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, speculated yet again on “boots on the ground”—hereafter to be known as BOG. So a Republican president, other than Rand Paul, will likely have been elected on a gung-ho platform, and there might well be no turning back from US intervention.
Yet here’s a prediction from Virgil, who voted for George W. Bush in 2000 and then watched as the presidency was broken on the wheel of Iraq: If the next Republican president, whoever he is (sorry, Carly Fiorina!) launches a military operation that even remotely resembles the ill-fated Operation Iraqi Freedom, the reaction from the Democrats, the media, and, soon, the voters, will be swift and extreme.
That is, immediately, both the Democrats and the media will be yelling “quagmire.” Today, Hillary Clinton, who voted for the 2002 Iraq war resolution in the Senate, is single-handedly upholding the relatively hawkish “Truman” wing of the Democratic party, but if she is gone—and if she is not president in 2017, she will be gone for all practical purposes—the national party will be nothing but anti-war neo-McGovernites.
So an interventionist 45th president will find himself in a ground war in Asia—and the “loyal opposition” will not have his back.
And we can add other factors, too: Most likely, the next Republican president will have no military or combat background. As we have seen in past wars, it’s hard to be a war-leader if one wasn’t first a warrior—the cry of “chickenhawk” will be heard.
And if that president has children of military age who aren’t at least in uniform, then that will be all the more awkward, leadership-wise. We might recall that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney were hardly paragons of war-service in their youth, and that mattered to people; by contrast, all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s sons were in uniform during World War Two, and three of them were in heavy and sustained combat. We might further note that the twins Barbara and Jenna Bush, born in 1981, would have been the perfect age for military service in Iraq, and their gender would not have been an obstacle; hundreds of thousands of American women served in Iraq and related countries, and as of 2013, 144 had died in service.
Of course, if this hypothetical Republican president scores a quick victory in the Middle East (as in Afghanistan in 2001) and then brings the troops home (as we didn’t do in Afghanistan after 2001), then he will be a hero, and Democratic and MSM ankle-biting won’t matter.
Yes, victory—permanent victory—makes all things better. And so in our next installment, let’s consider how to increase the chances of permanent victory.