The dogs of war are howling again
“I don’t oppose all wars. ... What I am opposed to is a dumb war. What I am opposed to is a rash war.” — Barack Obama, 2002
For one brief, shining moment, it seemed as though Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, now seeking the Republican nomination for president, might be a strong voice in the GOP for military restraint.
Since his 2010 Senate campaign, he had shown a much-needed realism about the limits of American power in the world.
Alas, that Rand Paul is quickly disappearing. Having formalized his presidential ambitions, he and his surrogates have been running to get in line with the armchair warriors who dominate foreign policy circles in his party.
That leaves all hope for a sense of humility about American intervention with the Democratic Party — or, more to the point, with Hillary Rodham Clinton, the expected nominee. But Clinton has always been more hawkish than the president she served as secretary of state. And she is encumbered with biases about a woman’s ability to defend the nation, so she is unlikely to emerge as a champion of American restraint.
Besides, the political elite, both Republican and Democratic, has arrived at the conclusion that Obama’s foreign policy has been weak and feckless, contributing to the tumult in the Middle East. Though there is good reason to dispute that view, it is repeated endlessly in the echo chambers of the Washington commentariat.
How did we arrive here so soon after the disastrous military moves orchestrated by George W. Bush? How is it possible that the drums of war are beating so loudly?
For months now, Republican leaders have denounced the president’s negotiations with Iran, although a deal represents the best chance to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Earlier this month, on the same day that Paul announced his candidacy, a secretive political organization aired an attack ad denouncing the senator’s position on Iran.
While such groups can hide the identity of their backers, it’s pretty clear that the Foundation for a Secure and Prosperous America (such groups are always given names that seem ironic, given their politics) comprises wealthy Republicans who reflexively support Israel and back U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. On Iran, Paul once committed the apparent heresy of saying that the U.S. should continue “trying the diplomatic option as long as we can.”
There was a time, not so long ago, when “realism” among foreign policy elites was all the fashion. It grew out of the ill-advised war in Vietnam, which left Democrats and Republicans alike with an appreciation of the limits of military intervention. Instead, we talked to our enemies. Richard Nixon went to China. Ronald Reagan — yes, Ronald Reagan — negotiated with the Soviet Union to reduce nuclear weapons. We made peace with a Communist-controlled Vietnam.
What happened? How did we forget so quickly?
Here’s what we ought to remember: Our invasion of Iraq, another popular cause among the political elite, was a precursor to the current turmoil in the Middle East. It isn’t the only foundation stone — slow economic growth and lack of political freedom have also been important pillars — but it is critical. Saddam Hussein was a Sunni who cruelly repressed Shiites, but his rule held Sunni anger and resentments in check. The so-called Islamic State comprises Sunni jihadists.
Remember, too, that Saddam was an important counterweight against Iran, a Shiite stronghold. Since his death, Iran’s power throughout the region has only grown, and Iraq has essentially become its satellite.
The ill-advised decision to depose Saddam had consequences that will reverberate for decades. It was a dumb war, and we ought to think about it every time our political leaders seemed poised to propose a new one.