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Of Rhetoric and Reality

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  • Eric Alterman
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The rhetoric of the moral warrior often packs an emotional wallop that can be difficult to counter with mere logic= This is particularly true when it flows from those who have seized the standards of a given discourse and defined the parameters of debate in the public imagination. This is the problem liberals often face when discussing war and peace. But the historical record demonstrates how little justification the conservative's assumptions enjoy in reality.

The American military has been involved in six major operations since the end of the Cold War – Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq – and of the six, a Democratic White House launched three, and was forced to fight a fourth. The Clinton White House inherited the mess in Somalia from George Bush senior, after he sent 25,000 troops into the country a month after he was rejected by the electorate.

The stench of our quick pullout in Somalia has stuck with Clinton, and liberals in general, ever since, allowing conservatives to paint the left as weak-kneed when it comes to staying and fighting when the situation gets messy. Clinton was savaged by conservatives after the "Black Hawk Down" incident in which 18 U.S. Army Rangers were killed, and he was equally beaten up when he pulled our troops out soon after. His other military excursions in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo were widely attacked by conservative critics as not in the national interest and foolhardy moralistic adventures doomed to failure. Consider a Time magazine article from March 1999 entitled, "The Clinton Doctrine." In it, the neoconservative warrior takes Clinton to task for his willingness to use the American military to oppose ethnic cleansing and the killing of innocent civilians. "The problem with this doctrine," according to author Charles Krauthammer, "for all the ringing moral satisfaction it gives, is that it is impossibly moralistic and universal." He goes on to say that "highfalutin moral principles are impossible guides to foreign policy. At worst, they reflect hypocrisy; at best, extreme naiveté."

But lo and behold, when a conservative Republican president justifies a far more costly war on the same grounds, Krauthammer is happy to march behind him. In May 2003, Krauthammer suddenly changed his mind about the value of "highfalutin moral principles," and argued, "We are embarking on [the reconstruction or Iraq] out of the same enlightened altruism that inspired the rebuilding of Germany and Japan – trusting that economic and political success in Iraq will have a stabilizing and modernizing effect on the entire region. But our self-interest does not detract from the truth that what we are doing in Iraq is morally different from what we did after World War II. In Iraq, we are engaged in rescue rather than the undoing of our own destruction." He would go on in other articles to wax poetic of the "moral purpose of the entire enterprise" and to ask, "Is our purpose in Iraq morally sound? Of course it is."

For many conservatives, the allegedly squishy moral reasoning of which Clinton was guilty became the casus belli for action in Iraq – but only after the failure to find WMD and/or any link to al Qaeda necessitated new arguments. John Kerry is now being tagged with the label of a "cut and run" liberal who will pull our troops out of Iraq before the job is done, thereby endangering our national security. But if we are going to have a national referendum of the potential failures of a liberal administration, we first need to take a look back at how conservatives have actually handled military action in recent years. Let us not forget the conservative 1980s, when cutting and running seemed to be what we did when presented with a problem. President Reagan let quite a bit slide during the decade, beginning in April 1983, when he essentially ignored a Hezbollah suicide bomb attack on the American embassy in Beirut that killed sixty-three employees, among them the Middle East CIA director. Just six months later, in October, another Hezbollah suicide bomber attacked the American barracks in Beirut, killing 241 U.S. Marines and wounding another 81. His response? Pulling the Marines out of Lebanon. But this wasn't all. As Reagan-booster Norman Podhoretz helpfully points out in the new issue of Commentary: "Having cut and run in Lebanon in October, Reagan again remained passive in December, when the American embassy in Kuwait was bombed. Nor did he hit back when, hard upon the withdrawal of the American Marines from Beirut, the CIA station chief there…. "

And how does the current administration fare by this standard? Not well, alas. Although the press has been loathe to admit as much, the American military has in essence given up on several strategic objectives in Iraq, pulling troops out of what may have been a winnable fight. Take the siege of Falluja by 1,200 Marines in April. After fighting street by street with insurgents for about two weeks (at the cost of 36 American lives) the United States halted the siege on the condition that the militants hand over their heavy weapons – which they failed to do. The Marines waited outside the city for another two weeks before pulling out, handing a victory to the insurgents and leaving the city in the hands of religious extremists.

The battle for Najaf seems to be heading in the same direction. Moqtada al-Sadr, whom we have been fighting since early April, and to whom we have repeatedly capitulated, has managed to drag out the siege of Najaf for several weeks now, continuously changing his mind as to whether he is willing to negotiate or not. But where is the outrage from the right over our inaction? Shouldn't they be up in arms, calling for these terrorists' heads? Isn't this exactly what they accuse liberals of trying to do – cut and run, or negotiate and wait? As Peter Beinart recently admitted in the pro-war New Republic, "By ignoring the Bush administration's repeated capitulations in the face of Islamist terrorism in Iraq, conservatives can preserve their cherished partisan categories: Kerry lacks spine; Bush doesn't blink in the face of evil…Because the Bush administration arrogantly refused to do what was necessary to secure – and thus rebuild – postwar Iraq, most Iraqis have turned against us. And now, America's political weakness has produced military weakness. At the end of the day, if you don't listen and you don't plan and you don't adapt, you lose your capacity to be tough." This view is supported by a marine helicopter pilot, who told a New York Times reporter, "Falluja, in fact, was very close to becoming a city our forces could have controlled, and then given new schools and sewers and hospitals, before we pulled back in the spring. Now, essentially ignored, it has become a Taliban-like state of Islamic extremism, a terrorist safe haven." Oh, well.

Najaf and Falluja are the direct result of the administration's complete failure to listen to its military brass in planning for the war and its aftermath – a fact that should blow holes in the conservative case. The fighting since April has done little to nothing to effectively eliminate al-Sadr's forces, and has left Iraq's other heavily armed militias wholly intact. As former CPA advisor Larry Diamond points out in the current Foreign Affairs, together with invading Iraq undermanned and without an exit plan, the failed fighting strategy is a symptom of the administration's "hubris and ideology." Nearly a thousand Americans have so far lost their lives due to just this miscalculation. And yet somehow, the media treats the conservative ideologues who caused this disaster as the 'realist' party when it comes to matters of war and peace.

The mind reels…

Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the author of six books, including the just-published When Presidents Lie: A History of Official Deception and Its Consequences. Paul McLeary is a New York writer.

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