What Neocons Don't Understand About War

Politics shapes strategy in conflicts of choice -- which is another reason to avoid themafghan full ish.jpg

In National Review, The Weekly Standard, and the Washington Post, leading War on Terror hawks are expressing outrage at the timeline President Obama set for troop reductions in Afghanistan. Their complaint: politics is driving American policy. "So why September 2012?" Bill Kristol writes. "Because, one has to conclude, Election Day is November 6, 2012. The deadline will allow candidate Obama to say that he has completely withdrawn the surge forces, and that we're on our way out of Afghanistan and coming home. The timetable President Obama has set isn't based on military considerations, diplomatic strategies, or financial calculations."

Perhaps it's time to let these guys in on a secret: elected officials are constantly playing politics. Even on matters of national security. As they wage foreign wars, they concern themselves with the mood of the American people, support for hostilities in Congress, and how troop levels might affect their prospects for being re-elected. Almost inevitably, the strategy and tactics they employ depend at least partly on all those factors, and other political considerations besides.

Most adults know this.

For that reason, it's wise to refrain from waging wars of choice, a label that arguably didn't apply to Afghanistan circa 2001, but certainly started applying at some point over the last decade. When our safety isn't imminently threatened, it is tempting to avoid the slaughter of our sons and daughters, especially if it saves billions of dollars. It's tempting even when it isn't militarily optimal.

Guys like Kristol constantly urge us to undertake ever more wars of choice anyway. It's as if they're blind to the fact that the American people tire of adventures abroad on a timetable that doesn't correspond to however many decades are required to prevail in them (if in fact winning is even possible). A prudent decision-maker, weighing whether to launch or extend a foreign war, would presume the eventual war weariness of the populace, and the political nature of presidents.

Kristol and those who trust his foreign policy judgment aren't prudent decision-makers. In their telling, the US would've prevailed if only we stuck it out longer in Vietnam. Islamist extremists wouldn't have been emboldened if only we'd stuck it out in Beirut. Iraq would've gone better if only we'd invested in a bigger military during the 1990s and sent more troops in earlier. We'd win all our wars of choice if only Americans would give neo-cons a blank check, unlimited troops, and no deadline! That the conditions they deem necessary for victory are fantastical doesn't bother them.

It doesn't help that their desire to wage new wars causes them to mislead the American people about how long victory might take. Here's Bill Kristol on October 1, 2001: "Saddam Hussein, because of his strategic position in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, surely represents a more potent challenge to the United States and its interests and principles than the weak, isolated, and we trust, soon-to-be crushed Taliban. And unlike the Taliban, Saddam Hussein may soon have at his disposal not only terrorist networks, but biological, chemical, and even nuclear weapons."

Here he is on November 26, 2001: "WITH THE TALIBAN DISLODGED and Osama bin Laden increasingly shorn of allies, the endgame seems to be in sight in Afghanistan." It's no wonder the American people are war weary and uninclined to trust the assurances of hawks that we just need to stay a little bit longer - but without any timetable for withdrawal - to assure American victory. They've been telling us for a decade that victory is just over the next hill. Why trust them now?

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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