Re-Thinking The War III


Ross thinks I'm way too excited by Ron Paul. Hey, excitability is my brand, isn't it? And I do get a frisson from the candor and fearlessness of the guy. I'm not alone. But I don't think Paul is a credible president, I don't think he has a chance, and there is a doctrinaire libertarianism about him that is not congenial to me. His comments about black criminals are unfortunate - but I see no evidence of anti-Semitism at all, unless anyone critical of the Israel lobby is automatically an anti-Semite. I do think Paul has done us all a service by bringing a conservative critique of the Bush foreign policy to the fore. It's healthy to have an actual debate about foreign policy and conservatism. And I don't buy Ross's idea that the fundamental divide is between realists and idealists. I think the last six years have opened up a deeper and more interesting debate between neoconservatism and paleoconservatism in foreign affairs, between internationalism and isolationism.

In thinking about this, I think the best way to sum up my own evolving view is as follows: 9/11 was the best argument that the U.S. needs to remain engaged in the wider world. At the same time, the Iraq war has become the best argument that the U.S. shouldn't actually become an empire, least of all in the Middle East...

It seems to me that occupying a Muslim failed state indefinitely and policing an internecine Muslim war at the same time is both anathema to the national interest and deeply counter-productive to the war against Islamist terror. Maybe if we'd done it right, gone in with real force, expeditiously handed over power to an exile government, kept but reformed the army, and poured reconstruction money effectively into the place, it might have worked. That was what I envisaged. But I fear now that even that would have failed. When you're dealing with a culture like the Arab world, the levels of paranoia and misinformation and ressentiment are so high that any form of occupation is almost certainly going to be more trouble than it's worth. When you're dealing with a country with the deep sectarian divisions that Iraq has, and suffering from post-totalitarian stress, it might be impossible.

Reagan's internationalism - very leery of troop engagement, supportive of democracy through proxies, maintaining a clear moral highground between the West and the enemy - seems to me a better balance. 9/11 definitely showed that we cannot withdraw; but Iraq has shown that the methods of our interventionism are just as important - and arguably more important - than the goal. I say this as a chastened neocon. I say it as a proud supporter of intervention in the Balkans under Clinton and in Kuwait under the first Bush. I say it as a passionate opponent of Islamist fundamentalist tyranny. I say it as someone who loathes al Qaeda and remembers 9/11 vividly in my bones. I have not forgotten that day. I want to defeat those bastards. But it is precisely because we need to defeat them that we need to think more clearly and frame the debate as carefully as we can. Let's be honest: we are currently losing both the military and political battle in Iraq and the broader battle for the Muslim world. Under those circumstances, not re-thinking the dangers of imprudent intervention is folly. A foreign policy that does not incorporate the lessons of Iraq is reckless. I have the feeling that Bin Laden has trapped us. And Bush is making the trap get tighter and tighter. It is not defeatist to want to fight this war on our terms, not theirs. It is not defeatist to want to escape from the trap as swiftly and as cleanly as possible.

(Photo: David Furst/Getty.)