Thinking Of Warfare As Welfare

The Republican party's resilient love of all things military and its elites' love of waging war at will anywhere in the world seem to me to be at odds with a core conservative insight. The critique of open-ended welfare was always that it perpetuated dependency and, in the long run, deepened poverty rather than alleviated it. But that logic never seems to be applied to the wars and nation-building efforts in Iraq, Afghanistan and now, potentially Libya.

If you remove the military welfare, individual countries have to gain the skills necessary for self-government. Similarly, it seems to me, if you reduce the US's thumb on the scales of sectarian conflict in, say, Iraq, a more sustainable equilibrium will emerge. Hence my concern about the "surge" in 2006 - 2007. It did not and could not achieve sectarian peace, which alone can be forged by the parties themselves. And any peace we did achieve remains premised on an American presence. Until that presence is removed, we will never know what has actually occurred beneath. And when that presence is removed, a different pattern will have to emerge, based on the actual facts on the ground, rather than those distorted by US intervention. Or else we have to stay for ever - a fate only Moqtada al Sadr - rather than Barack Obama - seems capable of saving us from.

What has been truly thrilling about the Arab Spring - as with the Green Revolution in Iran - was the irrelevance of America and the West.

That irrelevance meant that the revolution was real in Egypt and Tunisia - and its legacy far more stable. Of course, the neocons wanted to make it about us, hence their itching for the trigger, or complaining about inaction. But making it about us hurts democratic movements, by distorting them. Think of Afghanistan. At this point, the US presence is sustaining a government so corrupt it might have fallen by now without our support. And the US military has made Afghans' own fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda less their fight than ours'. Watching American soldiers train Afghans for a fight they have yet to psychologically make their own is like pushing cooked spaghetti around a plate. Observing the US act as a safety barrier in Kirkuk simply brings home how Iraqis themselves have been relieved of solving their own problems by US intervention.

When you see nation-building as a very expensive and usually counterproductive form of international welfare - you can see why its logic never ends. Intervention creates dependency which prevents departure. Like government programs, these wars have a life of their own. Afghanistan seems as ineradicable as the mohair subsidy. And it develops its own constituency: the Pentagon that doesn't want to be seen to fail, the NGOs and contractors that follow in a swarm, and the fear of any president that he might be seen as a defeatist or weak if he truly pulls the plug.

I'm not sure why conservatives who grasp this point domestically refuse to seize it internationally. But Libya could be a good point to start fighting back against the welfarism of constant intervention. And when you look at the recipients of this welfare, it would be tough to find harder cases: Iraq, Afghanistan and now, for goodness' sake, Libya. It's like providing welfare to individuals who are the most hopeless cases, and from whom you do not dare remove the teat.

We need to break the paternalism that requires us to guide or distort the choices and non-choices of others. The US is fast becoming not the world's policeman, but the world's welfare officer. I favor welfare reform. Which means leaving all these places as quickly and as cleanly as we possibly can.