How 'This Town' Justifies War and Peace

By Conor Friedersdorf
Reuters

Has an insular Beltway elite and its hawkish assumptions made war in Syria more likely? My argument to that effect garnered a response from Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic, who asserts that my concept of how Washington, D.C., works is "simplistic in the extreme," though he concedes that "there is a certain bias towards hawkishness in various press coverage of American military action (or inaction)." That concession alone nearly satisfies me.

Let's nevertheless look at a chunk of his critique:

Syrian atrocities have been going on for years now. The death toll makes the entire conflict a catastrophe of immense proportions. The war is occurring in what is sometimes called a "crucial region" of the world, and the effects of Assad's mania have been felt by nearly all of his neighbors. The refugee problems are enormous and depressing. And yet, here we are, several years after it all began, and during that time (until now) there has been ... absolutely no serious discussion of American military engagement! John McCain and others have been yelling at the top of their lungs to no effect.

That isn't my understanding of events. For several years, the American public has greeted news of civil war in Syria with apathy. There has been zero desire from the public to intervene. But there has been consistent pressure within Washington, where the prevailing assumption is that the U.S. should take an active roll in the Middle East, and where a faction wants us involved in every dispute. Circa 2011, the public wasn't party to most of the debate on intervention in Syria, but that doesn't mean intervention didn't have its advocates inside and outside government as well as detractors who reacted with alarm.

Insider pressure from McCain and many others led directly to President Obama saying, a year ago, that use of chemical weapons would cross "a red line" for the U.S. Did that not constitute serious discussion of American military engagement? Hawks are certainly citing it today as if, having uttered it, we can't not intervene.

The "red line" comment was hardly the only serious discussion of war. In the spring of 2012, for example, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Senator Jeff Sessions had this exchange:

SESSIONS: Do you think you can act without Congress and initiate a no-fly zone in Syria without congressional approval?

PANETTA: Our goal would be to seek international permission … Whether or not we would want to get permission from the Congress -- I think those are issues we would have to discuss as we decide what to do here.

SESSIONS: Well I am almost breathless about that because what I heard you say is, "We’re going to seek international approval and we’ll come and tell the Congress what we might do, and we might seek congressional approval" … Wouldn’t you agree that would be pretty breathtaking to the average American?

Shortly thereafter, Rep. Walter Jones cited fear of war with Syria as one reason why he introduced a resolution to impeach Obama if he went to war without Congress. That summer, the Heritage Foundation was warning against intervention. Lots of people seemed to think intervention was a realistic possibility. Senators yelling at the top of their lungs for intervention itself strikes me as "serious discussion of military engagement," which was their deadly serious goal.

Chotiner writes:

The issue occasionally made the front page of serious newspapers, but it was not a huge topic of conversation on cable television or even at the cocktail parties where Washington elites bow down before defense contractors. 

I can't speak to defense-contractor cocktail parties, my invitations having all been mysteriously lost in the mail, but it's no accident that serious newspapers covered Syria while cable television didn't. Newspaper editors understood events in Syria were important, and that America could conceivable be drawn into the conflict. And cable-news producers, whose coverage decisions are far less driven by what's important, correctly concluded that Americans aren't interested in Syria (save when hawks were yelling at Obama for not arming the rebels). The coverage described is consistent with an insular elite driving intervention.

Now, however, not only has the scale of the calamity continued to grow, but President Obama (who I think qualifies as a member of the Washington elite) made an off-the-cuff statement about chemical weapons and "red lines." Thus, after the apparent use of these weapons earlier this month, the president's was put in a difficult position of his own making. In essence, this pressure that Friedersdorf finds so nefarious is largely the result of a statement by the one man who, more than anyone else, has opposed American intervention!

But that off-the-cuff statement wasn't made in a vacuum. It was made in a town with activist assumptions about foreign policy, demands that Obama say something about Syria, and the inevitable filtering of his remarks through a press with pro-intervention biases. Had Obama said nothing about Syria ever, the vast majority of Americans wouldn't have cared -- they do not share The New Republic's notions of our global responsibilities, and many of them find absurd the notion that an off-the-cuff statement should be the deciding factor for war. Hyperventilating about Obama's "credibility" and "legacy" are insider ticks.

Surely Friedersdorf understands that presidents care about their publicly made promises regarding international affairs.

Why do presidents care about their publicly made promises involving international affairs? Are they morally averse to breaking their word, or embarrassed by reversing themselves? If that were so, Obama would care more about his public statements on how presidents must consult Congress before striking another nation in the absence of an attack or the imminent threat of one. He'd also care more about his prior statements on the importance of UN legitimacy. 

What I think is that presidents actually only care about publicly made promises when violating them has political consequences. It so happens that the political press treats promises to intervene as sacrosanct pledges that cannot be revised on penalty of losing all credibility, whereas blatantly breaking a non-interventionist promise is treated as a sign of hard-headed realism and toughness.

In my earlier piece, I wrote that "the president is on the cusp of launching a war of choice that the people don't want, and yet that isn't treated as problematic or even framed as a countervailing pressure against intervention!" In response, Chotiner writes:

Friedersdorf is awfully attached to the supposed moral credibility of public opinion.

Rather, I am attached to the civic illegitimacy of imposing a war of choice on a reluctant public that will have to pay for it, wage it, and deal with its consequences, even though the conflict has no bearing on their lives or safety, and has not been vetted by the legislature, as the law and the Constitution require.

Yes, most people oppose war. Yet that doesn't mean there is major "pressure" on the president to stay out of war. It's an issue people do not spend time thinking about, and therefore the percent of people opposing it (by the way, watch that number change once the missiles get fired) is probably not a huge worry to the White House. The same goes for the executive branch and Congress. I can't believe the Obamaites are quaking in their boots over an anti-Syria-war Congressional coalition ruining the president's other legislative plans. The whole issue has nothing to do with "This Town" and everything to do with a public that, most likely, couldn't care less.

James Madison once wrote, "The constitution supposes, what the History of all Governments demonstrates, that the Executive is the branch of power most interested in war, and most prone to it. It has accordingly with studied care vested the question of war to the Legislature." It is very "This Town" to turn this history on its head, and to cite a lack of public interest in war as a factor that legitimizes, rather than de-legitimizes, waging it. War is not the abstraction that it seems in "This Town." If the U.S. intervenes in Syria, it will cost real money from the Treasury that would otherwise be available for other things. It will risk real blowback. If missile strikes cause America to be drawn deeper into the conflict, as several former and current military personnel warn, war would mean real Americans saying goodbye to their families and traveling overseas.

That's why wars of choice should never be entered into without popular support. Obama's job is not to implement the foreign-policy priorities of a supposedly enlightened foreign-policy elite. His job is representing the people of the United States, and defending and protecting the United States Constitution. Admittedly, "This Town" would regard all of that as simplistic in the extreme.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2013/08/how-this-town-justifies-war-and-peace/279201/