The debate between President Obama and his hawkish critics comes down to this. Obama is—as he said yesterday at West Point—“haunted” by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His hawkish critics are haunted by the fact that he’s haunted.
From this core divide comes a fundamentally different reading of the history of American foreign policy. For hawks, the story of the last 75 years goes something like this: From Franklin Roosevelt through Harry Truman through John F. Kennedy, the United States pursued a muscular, internationalist and moral foreign policy. Then, because of Vietnam, America’s leaders lost faith in American might and American ideals. As a result, the Soviet Union began to win the Cold War, until Ronald Reagan rebuilt American power and American pride, and the Cold War was won. Now, as a result of Afghanistan and Iraq, another American leader—Obama—is losing faith in American power. The enemies of freedom are again gaining strength. And they will keep gaining strength until a new Reagan saves the day.
In this narrative, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan don’t matter much in and of themselves. They were either winnable wars lost through a failure of will or honest mistakes that say nothing important about the limits or fallibility of American power. The problem isn’t the wars themselves. It’s the way American leaders reacted to them. Jimmy Carter’s sin was to believe that Vietnam called into question the wisdom of intervening militarily against communist movements. Obama’s sin is to believe that Iraq and Afghanistan call into question the wisdom of intervening militarily against terrorist movements and anti-American dictators.