Murray Polner is a blogger, writer and editor.
Before President Obama delivered his recent televised talk to the nation about ISIS, he assembled a group of Washington-based political junkies--foreign policy specialists and ex- government officials -- probably not a dove among them-- to hear him ruminate about his decision to strike at ISIS.
The NY Times’s Peter Baker described the meeting in which the president recalled the coming of the Iraq War, stimulated by war fever in Washington. “It would have been fascinating,” he said, looking back at 2002 and 2003, “to see the momentum and how it builds.” Well, Cheney, the neocons and a genuflecting mass media surely helped. According to Baker, Obama saw the same thing in his time, “a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists.”
Even so, he said he wouldn’t be rushed into any decision but instead would be cautious and deliberate. But why then did our reluctant and introspective president, nuanced and brainy, so unlike Bush the Second, decide to resume one war and expand yet another?
Was it because a “virtual fever” is only heard in our insular Imperial City and nowhere else in the country? Washington is overflowing with living room heroes whose kids go to college rather than into the military and who bear no responsibility for the appalling outcomes of the wars they urge on the nation and its presidents. It is a city replete with Think Tanks, dozens of whom, the Times recently revealed, are doing very well financially, taking money from foreign governments and writing “policy papers” and whose advice is often taken too seriously by the city’s power people. As the Times headline put it, “Foreign Powers Influence Think Tanks.”
Washington’s “virtual war fever” was assailed by an ordinary Times reader, Len DiSesa of Dover, NH, in a letter to the Times (I’ve never met him): “As a Vietnam veteran all I can say is, please—not again. Once more we go down that slippery slope where Americans are put in harm’s way to carry out a political objective…. Have we learned from our past mistakes? Or are we doomed to repeat the history we are ignoring? Where are voices of the Vietnam veterans”? Sorry, Len, but the Vietnam War and invasion of Iraq are ancient history in today’s Washington.
So we’re back at war again, a so-called limited war, taking on ISIS, that savage, beheading crowd that we are informed by the war fever crowd threatens to attack our homeland. President Obama, no fanatical warrior, has said over and over again that this limited war may take three years to finish and he may have to hand the ISIS problem over to the next president while he goes off to write his memoirs and work for some prestigious law firm or university.
“Mama, don’t raise your son to be a soldier” went the old tune. Well, maybe not (or maybe yes, if the draft is reinstated) but Obama, our introspective and reluctant warrior pledged over and again there will be no “boots on the ground.” Woodrow Wilson and FDR also made that promise. It depends on who you believe and whether our latest war opens a new can of Middle Eastern worms, with new groups of rebels or terrorists (take your pick) to fight, naturally, with no U.S. ground forces. General Martin Dempsey, no doubt with Pentagon vetting, isn’t so sure, telling a Senate committee “ I, of course, would go back to the president and make a recommendation that may include the use of U.S. ground forces.” If that happens, let’s hope that the VA scandal has been resolved and its hospitals are ready to handle the new wave of wounded troops. When a columnist at Obama’s gathering asked what he would do if bombing failed, the president would not speculate. How could he, given that bombing alone rarely defeats guerrilla forces.
If Hunter S. Thompson were alive today rest assured he would not have been invited to Obama’s get-together but the astute HST, while no foreign policy expert, famously and prophetically uttered after 9/11: We are AT War—with somebody—and we will stay AT War with that mysterious enemy for the rest of our lives.”
Meanwhile, to shore up the dispatch of more and more bombers over Iraq and Syria, Obama has also embraced the peculiar notion that he and most likely every other president after him can take the nation to war without asking Congress, the Constitution be damned. The very idea aroused Yale’s Bruce Ackerman in a heated Times Op Ed. It “marks a decisive break in the American constitutional tradition. Nothing attempted by his predecessor George W. Bush, remotely compares in imperial hubris.” My favorite commentator Andrew J. Bacevich put it best: “Rudderless and without a compass, the American ship of state continues to drift, guns blazing.”
In any event, ISIS or no ISIS, war remains a treasured American tradition.