The Best Way to Build 'Momentum' for a War

Staff your administration with hawks.

Before President Obama's speech on his plans to intervene against ISIS, he met with visitors in the White House. According to Peter Baker's account in The New York Times, he mused that “it would have been fascinating" to be in Washington, D.C., prior to the Iraq War in 2003, "to see the momentum and how it builds."


"In his own way, Mr. Obama said, he had seen something similar," Baker's story continues, "a virtual fever rising in Washington, pressuring him to send the armed forces after the Sunni radicals who had swept through Iraq and beheaded American journalists. He had told his staff, he said, not to evaluate their own policy based on external momentum. He would not rush to war. He would be deliberate."

There are hawkish groups in Washington that exert pressure in favor of intervention regardless of the president. It is nevertheless frustrating to see Obama casting himself as a passive agent of external momentum, not only because he could be a decisive voice against intervention if that's what he wanted, but because his own actions contributed greatly to the interventionist atmosphere.

It's no fluke that momentum would build behind war.

What else did Obama expect when he staffed his administration with hawkish Iraq War proponents? Any attempt to measure the momentum for war must include Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel calling ISIS "beyond anything we've ever seen," heated rhetoric from Secretary of State John Kerry, and Vice President Joe Biden vowing that the United States will follow ISIS "to the gates of hell." Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also been a prominent hawk.

This is not a surprise. Obama elevated a faction of hawkish Democrats, despite purporting to believe that they all favored a "stupid" war. Little wonder that elites seem so overwhelmingly in favor of intervention. Obama had the opportunity to elevate less hawkish, more circumspect people to positions of power, but he stuck with the hawkish establishment. Of course it continues to hype threats and exert pressure. It's easy to imagine prominent positions filled with people less inclined toward intervention whose voices would help temper the national fever. But Obama chose not to empower people like that, so they're not there.

For that reason, I find it wrongheaded for Kevin Drum to read that New York Times story and conclude that perhaps Obama "really is normalizing a more levelheaded approach to the world's problems." Obama deserves credit for being more levelheaded than John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Hillary Clinton, but he's also paved the way for people like them to have their way as soon as he leaves the White House. He has done nothing to institutionalize his somewhat less reckless temperament, and everything to expand the discretion of all future presidents. He is either not what he presents himself to be or extremely shortsighted. Oh to give him a Texas twang and cowboy hat so more progressives realize this.