Debating the War

Andrew J. Bacevich, a Vietnam veteran and international relations scholar who has publicly opposed the Iraq War for years recently lost his son to that war. In addition to the horrible grief that a father has to deal with the death a son, he has been accused of contributing to that outcome because his public opposition to the war “provided aid and comfort to the enemy.”

He rightly and quickly dismisses such talk as antithetical to the very notion of a free society. Indeed, though I went from an opponent of going to war in 2002 to a reluctant supporter by early 2003 and still think sticking it out is the least bad policy option, I welcome thoughtful opposition. Major public policy initiatives, especially those where life and death are quite literally at stake, should be under constant scrutiny and debate.

The truly poignant part of Bacevich’s essay, though, is his sense that all his own efforts have been for nothing.

Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others — teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks — to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

Indeed, that’s the hope of the public intellectual.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as “the will of the people.”

While I can understand his frustrations, this misunderstands the very essence of our Republic.

First, midterm elections are seldom unambiguous; the last one certainly wasn’t. We hold 435 separate contests for the House of Representatives and 33 or so separate contests for the Senate, each involving many variables unique to their respective districts, states, and candidates. Yes, the growing unpopularity of the war was a major reason the Republicans did so poorly. So, too, were several scandals, campaign trail meltdowns, and several domestic policy disputes from immigration to fiscal discipline. The war alone wouldn’t have cost the GOP the House and, certainly, not the Senate which was likely one Macaca away from staying in their control.

Second, and more importantly, we have a representative government with three distinct branches. President Bush stood for re-election in November 2004 and, barring impeachment, is entitled to exercise his powers over the executive branch until January 20, 2009. Each of the House and Senate Republicans was elected in his or her own right to two and six year terms, respectively, to exercise their judgment as to the best interests of their constituents. That the majority of the relative handful of new Members who came to office as a result of the last elections disagrees with them on the war does not negate that.

Indeed, that a majority of the country now disagrees with those people about the war is largely irrelevant. The people are often wrong. Indeed, a majority supported the war at its outset and, for a short while, the enthusiasm was overwhelming. We should not be governed by the day-to-day whims of a fickle electorate that is easily swayed by the emotions of the day. That’s why we don’t govern ourselves via plebescite. Foreign policy is not “American Idol.”

This is very interesting as well:

To be fair, responsibility for the war’s continuation now rests no less with the Democrats who control Congress than with the president and his party. After my son’s death, my state’s senators, Edward M. Kennedy and John F. Kerry, telephoned to express their condolences. Stephen F. Lynch, our congressman, attended my son’s wake. Kerry was present for the funeral Mass. My family and I greatly appreciated such gestures. But when I suggested to each of them the necessity of ending the war, I got the brushoff. More accurately, after ever so briefly pretending to listen, each treated me to a convoluted explanation that said in essence: Don’t blame me.

One would think that Kennedy and Kerry, who represent the most liberal state in the Union and who will be easily re-elected so long as they desire, would be free from the political game of hedging bets on an issue they claim so much passion for. But even they don’t want to be labeled as “not supporting the troops.”

Bacevich blames this on the entrenched money interests that maintain the “Republican/Democratic duopoly of trivialized politics” that “confines the debate over U.S. policy to well-hewn channels” and, ultimately, “negates democracy, rendering free speech little more than a means of recording dissent.” To me, it simply suggests that the public’s opposition to the war has not matured. It indicates the ambivalence that people feel about the war: They want it to be over, they think it’s unlikely we can win, but they don’t want the consequences of defeat, either. To be sure, these are gut feelings, not well-thought-out policy conclusions, but it’s enough to guide people in voting.

Ultimately, Bacevich is wrong. His voice very much matters. Ultimately, if he’s right on the war, he will prevail. Already, war moderates are jumping ship and there are plenty of signs that politicians on both sides of the aisle are looking for a way out. Come November 2008, things in Iraq will have turned around considerably or we’ll be about to elect a president who will get us out. The Democrats will surely nominate an anti-war candidate and it’s not inconceivable the Republicans will, too.

Representative democracy does not always reflect the immediate will of the people. It’s almost impossible, though, to ignore the sustained will of the majority for long.

UPDATE: Jules Crittenden believes that Bacevich has “adopted the thinking of all who despised him, and those who despise what his son did.” This is wrongheaded, in my view. Patriots, including those who have served honorably in our wars, can believe a particular war is wrong. Indeed, veterans are often at the forefront of anti-war movements, since we know all too well the high toll war brings.

Jim Henley, who has been opposed to the war from the beginning and for all the right reasons, nonetheless disagrees with Bacevich that monied interests are a significant factor in our having gone to war.

FILED UNDER: Military Affairs, Politics 101, US Politics, , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    The narrative has gotten ahead of the facts on the midterm elections. Yes, the control of the Congress changed hands. Democrats have a very slim majority in both houses.

    But, as in every other recent election in this country, incumbents were returned to office in an enormous preponderance of the cases. As I documented at the time more anti-war candidates were defeated than elected and one of the most visible of those who oppose withdrawal from Iraq, Joe Lieberman, was returned to office.

    To me, it simply suggests that the public’s opposition to the war has not matured. It indicates the ambivalence that people feel about the war: They want it to be over, they think it’s unlikely we can win, but they don’t want the consequences of defeat, either.

    Probably true either by your assessment or by mine. Wishing won’t make it so.

    I haven’t heard it mentioned lately but, if we withdraw from Iraq before it’s more stable than it is now, we are completely without a strategy in the War on Terror. The present strategy is in disarray, it wasn’t much to begin with, but it was something. The closest I’ve heard from the opponents of the war in Iraq to a new strategy is a proposal for the invasion of Pakistan.

    Still, should Congressional Democrats be let off the hook? To end the war all they need to do is…nothing. No 2/3’s majority required. That would be taking responsibility. Mustn’t have that.

  2. John Burgess says:

    Excellent post, James.

  3. NoZe says:

    Great post, James. Either you are getting more reasonable in your dotage, or I am! Perhaps a little of both!

  4. James Joyner says:

    Thanks, guys.

    I’ve been pretty consistent, I think, in the view that one can simultaneously speak out against the war and be a loyal American.

  5. Andy says:

    I’ve been pretty consistent, I think, in the view that one can simultaneously speak out against the war and be a loyal American.

    For which you should receive credit.

    However, this makes you a rarity among pundits right of center.

  6. spencer says:

    As someone who though It would be a great idea to turn Iraq into a client state and establish a major military footprint there but strongly opposed the war because it was obvious this incompetent administration would not achieve that goal,
    this was a good comment.

    I congratulate you James Joyner.

    What we now need to do is move the debate away from support or opposition to the war to one of how do we minimize and overcome the massive damage this incompetent administration is leaving us with.

    And maybe more important how do we keep our domestic political system from being rent asunder by those like the ones who accuse Bacevich of giving aid and comfort to the enemy. Such ignorant ideologues is what got us in this mess to start with and how do we prevent them from making the situation worse?l

  7. how do we keep our domestic political system from being rent asunder

    Being just a tad hyperbolic here aren’t we?

  8. spencer says:

    As a 65 year old who is old enough to remember how our political system worked before the republican party was hijacked by the right wing ideologues who now control it I do not think my fears of the system being rent asunder is hyperbolic at all.

    the only thing I do not understand is how obviously intelligent and knowledgeable people like James Joyner can continue to support the republican party the way they do.

    Most of my life I was apolitical, thinking it did not matter much. But over the past decade I have become extremely anti-republican — but this does not mean that I am pro-democratic — because of the undemocratic and unamerican nature of those who now control the republican party.

  9. mannning says:

    I have yet to see a poll of the US citizenship that uses questions free of slant, cant, bias, and outright fraud to obtain a result unfavorable to the war. The 2006 elections were not a mandate for the Democrats, nor were they a vote to end the war.

    Questions like– Would you vote to end the war?– can be viewed in several ways. Even the most rabid war hawk would answer that YES! It all depends on the conditions for ending it.
    –Should we withdraw now?–leaves the answer up in the air too. Is there a proper context for this question? Does the average reader understand the consequences of leaving now?

    So I take neither midterm elections nor polls of the people very seriously at this juncture.

    What I do take seriously are the methods now being used in Iraq, the still very limited strength of the forces we have there, and the commitments we have made to the Iraqi people and the government. Also, I watch carefully for reports that we are succeeding in turning more and more Iraqi to our side, of which there are a few more tribes now.

    At the beginning of this war, I suggested that the American people are not disposed to support long foreign wars where victory is a drawn out process, and continuing casualties are inevitable, unless they perceive a threat that actually scares them.

    No one seems especially scared of Iraqi in Iraq here in the USA, and AQ is a ephemeral quantity, remembered mostly for 9/11, which seems to be receding into the fog of the past. Why, we have had no further attacks, so lets go on sleepwalking, playing and get out of the mess pronto!

    What a grave oversimplification.

  10. Anjin-San says:

    Pretty good discussion. Bacevich may be one of the most important voices in contemporary American life.

  11. I don’t think Bacevich should have wrote this essay. There’s too much pain there. His clear thinking goes out the window when he cries over the moneyed interests controlling the political system.

  12. NoZe says:

    >I’ve been pretty consistent, I think, in the >view that one can simultaneously speak out >against the war and be a loyal American.

    Oh, obviously, but I was complimenting you more on your explanation of the way our staggered electoral system (different offices elected at different points in time for different term lengths) is reflected politically. Very well done.

  13. Michael says:

    if we withdraw from Iraq before it’s more stable than it is now, we are completely without a strategy in the War on Terror.

    I’m a little confused on what you mean by this. Is this a cause/effect relationship, or a test/proof relationship?

  14. Michael says:

    Does the average reader understand the consequences of leaving now?

    I’ll admit it, I don’t. Could someone please tell me what would change for Iraq and what would change for America if we left now? And not just talking points, explain to me exactly what is likely to happen, and why it is likely to happen if we leave but not if we stay.

    Thanks in advance for all the thought provoking, informed and rational explanations I am sure to receive.

  15. Beldar says:

    Michael wrote,

    Could someone please tell me what would change for Iraq and what would change for America if we left now? And not just talking points, explain to me exactly what is likely to happen, and why it is likely to happen if we leave but not if we stay.

    What you’re asking for would run to at least 60+ typewritten pages, but here are a few talking points, with respect to which 60+ pages could easily be written to support:

    Al-Qaida will claim, and will be seen by much of the world to have won, the greatest strategic victory over the United States in history, with commensurate effects on its influence, fund-raising, and recruiting in dozens of countries, including nominal American allies (Egypt, the Gulf principalities, Indonesia, Jordan). Other terrorist organizations (e.g., Hamas, Hezbollah) will likewise take heart. Basically every terrorist or terrorist wannabe for the rest of the 21st Century will be absolutely assured that the U.S. has about a five-year attention span, and that the strategy pioneered by the North Vietnamese and then perfected by al-Qaida will let a determined adversary who can avoid annihilation eventually whip the world’s only “superpower.”

    Every ally of the United States, large and small, old and new, will have grave cause to wonder about our commitment to keep our commitments. Some of them will hedge their bets. Pakistan, for example, would be almost certain to create further distance from the U.S., and radical Islamic elements within it would be encouraged and strengthened. That would in turn affect our on-going efforts in next-door Afghanistan. The “stans”-countries from the former Soviet Union, who have been (fairly quietly) supporting our efforts in Afghanistan, will also cool their relations with us, and radical elements inside them will be encouraged, too.

    Best-case scenario for us, Iraq itself will probably bust up into at least three separate states — Kurds in the North, Sunni in the center, Shi’ites in the South. The Sunni middle will become even more violent that it is now in terms of sectarian conflict; it’s likely to become the new safe haven for al-Qaida that Afghanistan was under the Taliban; and it’s likely to be at more or less perpetual war with the Kurds to the North and Shi’ites in the South because they’d be left sitting on top of Iraq’s oil reserves. The Shi’ite southern state would become in everything but outward form a total proxy for Iran. It’s unclear whether Turkey, NATO membership notwithstanding, would permit the existence of an independent Kurdish state in the North because of its concerns about its own Kurdish minority rebelling. (Turkey will also be another ally whose faith in the U.S. will take a huge hit when we bail.)

    Pretty much everyone currently in Iraq who’s invested with us in the notion of a strong secular state in which Shia and Sunnis live side-by-side will bail out along with us, since they’ll bear the brand of “collaborators.” Accordingly, there will be tens of thousands, and possibly hundreds of thousands, of deaths through ethnic cleansing, and probably millions of refugees — a humanitarian disaster that will make anything that happened in the Balkins or Africa lately look like patty-cake.

    Syria will gain a sudden reprieve, and its Ba’athist government will undoubtedly become more repressive both internally and in dominating Lebanon.

    The likelihood of further war between Israel and, literally, everyone else in the region, individually and/or collectively, will increase many times over. And our ability to intercede with the Israelis — e.g., to deter them from trying to take out the growing Iranian nuclear threat, or to avoid repressive measures in dealing with the Palestinian issues, will be significantly degraded. As for a Palestinian state anytime in the next decade or two, forget it — unless Israel is destroyed first.

    Energy prices will probably double, or triple, and stay there as long as there’s conflict in what’s now Iraq — which would likely be a period measured in decades. (World trade in general will take a hit.) Russia, though, will not be unhappy, since its ability to dominate its former client-states through energy cut-offs and other means will be enhanced.

    From state sanctuaries either in the former Iraq, or in states (like Syria, or maybe a newly defiant Libya) that have kept their heads down (comparatively) since 9/11 and the toppling of the Taliban, al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations can regroup, recapitalize, refit, re-arm, and retrain cadres of the sort needed to launch multiple operations against Western civilization targets around the world, certainly including attacks on U.S. soil.

    The American military will, by and large, feel betrayed — again — by a failure of will on the home front. Vietnam syndrome all over again.

    China — already our only rival for “super-power” status, and tight as a tick with Iran — will shed no tears. As our status in the world declines, theirs rises.

    But Iran is the big winner in any scenario in which we abruptly pull out of Iraq — not only because it establishes a puppet state in southern Iraq (gaining control of those oil fields), but because it is instantaneously relieved of the pressure of having large, combat-ready American forces based next-door in at least one of its neighbors (Iraq) and perhaps two (Afghanistan). Any realistic hope of deterring Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or of engaging in combat operations short of war to take out their nuclear facilities, pretty much evaporates. The odds of some terrorist organization getting a nuke, or at least the materials for a dirty bomb, will skyrocket.

    None of these things is certain. All of them are entirely plausible, and at least some of them are far more likely than not.

    Pretty significant consequences for running from a war that so far, and in total, has cost us fewer U.S. deaths than occurred during the three-day Battle of Gettysburg just on the Union side, or less than half as many who died taking a eight-square-mile Iwo Jima in World World II.

    Happy Memorial Day.

  16. Anderson says:

    Is this a cause/effect relationship, or a test/proof relationship?

    I think the technical logical term is “non sequitur,” actually.