Monday, August 30, 2004

The war that can't be won

John McCain gave a lackluster if sincere speech tonight at the Republican National Convention, calling for President Bush to be re-elected. He got his biggest applause by bashing Michael Moore, which I found odd--I'm a bit surprised that McCain felt the need to acknowledge the liberal filmmaker's attacks on the president. It was a tacit acknowledgement that Moore's film "Fahrenheit 911" has been effective, which I personally doubt. Plus, considering Moore was in attendance--I believe he's providing a liberal perspective on the convention for USA Today--it probably made his week.

McCain's speech included a tired and cliched defense of the Iraq war and a paean to American ideals. He pointedly avoided criticizing the Democrats and said he believed they are sincere in their desire to vanquish terrorism.

I wonder if McCain was aware that Bush believes we may not be able to win the war on terror.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michael Moore is the new "Ted Kennedy" or "Hillary Clinton" -- simply red meat to toss at the rabid base to get a reaction. All he had to do was utter "Michael Moore" and the partisans in the Garden would bark. It was nothing more or less than that -- and McCain's concern that Michael Moore's stupid conspiracy theories are what's substituting for a real debate on foreign policy within the Democrat party.

Of course Moore simply preaches to the choir with his fact-challenged movies, just as Rush Limbaugh preaches to his flock with his fact-challenged daily diatribes. The difference in this election, unfortunately, is that Kerry is unwilling to debate Bush head-on about the war (largely because his own record is so, ahem, discursive on the subject of the military, Iraq, whatever), allowing the election to boil down to a contest of personalities.

So Bush is branded as tough, quick-to-action, resolved, etc., etc., etc. And Kerry is a war hero from Vietnam, a complex braniac brahmin.

The problem is that this branding strategy is subject to debunking by 527s and other groups with focused messages. So Kerry's four months in the jungle doesn't seem to impressive once his entire officer corps and chain of command bolts on him. And Bush's post-9/11 record doesn't look so great when reminded that WMDs weren't in Iraq, Bin Laden is still alive and the country's infrastructure still isn't very safe from attack.

The problem, of course, is that neither "brand" of candidate looks capable of filling in the other's faults.

Yes, Kerry is a navel-gazing, self-righteous bumbler with an undistinguished Senate record and a nutty potty-mouthed wife. Thank you Iowa. Yes, Bush is a self-righteous, arrogant scion of monied interests, bought and sold by corporate fat cats and given to half-baked adventurism (although I defend the end of Saddam Hussein's Iraq and wish it had been done in 1998, when pre-Monica Clinton could've mobilized worldwide support to crush the Baathists).

Let's assume how, and when, America uses its military power is the key issue in this election. It boils down to this:

Bush will kill terrorists. He will attack dictatorships that pose a threat, longterm or imminent, to America and our allies. He has the means, motives and men to make it so, and let's hope he does, all while revamping the military.

Kerry sees the global war on political Islamic facism as a worldwide police action. While this would likely help us make good with noisome former allies (France, Germany), would it really make us safer from attack?

Kerry doesn't get it, and I wish he did because I don't want to vote for Bush. He doesn't see that international goodwill is easily given, and worth as much as the effort. So what if Le Monde said everyone was an American on Sept. 12, 2001? The gesture cost them nothing, certainly not nearly so much blood paid by the American military and anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

Iraq was a festering sore on the international polity. It was a facist country that sought to invade every one of its neighbors (except Turkey), that "disappeared" tens of thousands of minorities and dissidents every year, that used Oil-for-Food dollars to build rape rooms, torture chambers and castles to the honor the glory of Saddam Hussein.

Bush certainly bungled the post-war period in Iraq, but his radical interventionist policy might prove, in the end, to be the best thing for Iraq and its neighbors. Certainly it has paid dividends in Libya and Syria. Next step, attack the cancer that is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, working with the EU and Israel's regional friends and foes to force the Palestinians to the negotiating table.

I think Bush can do that. I'm not sure Kerry can.

10:52 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I agree that this year's election doesn't afford us wonderful choices. But I can't stomach many of Bush's domestic policies--mainly the way his administration is held captive by the religious right--and I don't particularly trust his foreign policy.

History will pass the final judgment on Iraq. Right now, it appears to have been an unnecessary war that has provided more fodder for terrorists

11:43 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an addendum, it is odd to see you take such an anti-Iraq War perspective. I can't imagine a blogger who doubles as a PR administrator at a private university in Pennsylvania being asked to serve in Iraq. Nor is it likely you even know anyone in uniform there, so it is an oblique exercise for you.

You have your opinion, and you give it, which is admirable. I applaud it. But sometimes I wonder how informed it is.

The irony of the Iraq conflict is that polls of military members (although not necessarily their families) show that front line combat troops consistently back the president on this war. It becomes a strange thing to see Democrat activists and protesting hordes outside the RNC so stridently seeking to "protect" or "bring home" the boys, when the boys don't want to go home.

Perhaps, if nothing else, this shows the profound disconnect between the modern Democrat party's hierarchy and the military. The brutal reality is that Republicans are more likely to have served in the post-Vietnam, all volunteer military. With the exception of some key Democrats such as Al Gore, there isn't much intellectual weight on contemporary military issues among Democrats outside of the Brookings think tank.

The reality is that must of the modern military's officer corps is, and has been for decades, profoundly Republican, and John F. Kerry is hardly going to change that. If nothing else, a Kerry election would expand the divide between the military leadership and the White House.

Polls of military members and veterans also consistently show that they're not impressed by Kerry's four months of service in Vietnam, although his base -- a Democrat polity that mainly never served in uniform --is greatly impressed with his short service.

It's not that the U.S. military leadership loves the draft-dodging Bush. The modern volunteers respect a commander in chief who dares to use them as an instrument of foreign policy, and they realize they'll be moth-balled by a Commander in Chief from the other party who is afraid to fight wars that must be fought, but won't mind using the fruits of Bush's radical international policy as long as he can get away with it.

You posit that the war in Iraq wasn't required. But what foreign policy gesture in the heart of the Middle East would have strengthened moderate, pro-Democracy foes of political Islam? These are the same people who are isolated now by regimes we propped up for years, from Wilson to Clinton.

Maybe it was time for a radical remaking of the Middle East's power equation. If Iraq proves to be even a tenth the democracy Israel is, or Qatar is becoming, then it was a success. If the nascent Iraqi government serves as a bulwark against Iranian power and kills Islamo-Facist Sunni terrorists, then it's a success. If it lives in peace without waging war against its neighbors and killing its minorities, then it's a success.

The bar isn't too high in the Middle East for this. So far, despite the security problems in the country, most Iraqis seem happier for the liberation from Saddam Hussein (notable exceptions -- former Baathists, Wahhabi insurgents and death-cult Shiites allied with Sadr), they just want the U.S. to leave so they can take over.

11:52 AM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

So because I am not likely to fight in a war, or know anyone who is, I'm not entitled to my opinion? I hate to say it, but that sounds a lot like the Michael Moore position.

I never said I was against the war because it put soldiers in harm's way, but I also believe in civilian control over the military, so I don't think the opinion of soldiers in the field should carry any more weight than the opinion of the average American voter when it comes to whether the war was justified in the first place. Certainly, I don't advocate a withdrawl; that would make the situation worse, not better. Nor do I think Saddam Hussein was a nice guy--but there are a lot thugs in the world, and we better have a good reason to go after them unprovoked.

I agree that we need to stop coddling undemocratic regimes. Saudi Arabia would be a good start. Pakistan as well, which is giving us just enough help in the war on terror for us to turn a blind eye to the fact that their military government is delaying promised democratic reforms. But it's not an either/or question--either we remove unsavory regimes or we allow them to thrive.

12:16 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Quite the opposite. I applauded you for voicing your opinion. Bully for the First Amendment, and all that (which seems to apply to everyone in America except the vast majority of Kerry's fellow officers, who have voiced their opinion in a 527 group, and are told they are illegally doing so by the Kerry campaign).

Rather than castigate the opinion-maker, I have chosen to question the opinions, and the basis upon which they are made.

Issues of war are weighty ones. As little as three decades ago, questions of American military projection could be debated freely by a saavy population because universal conscription meant that nearly every able-bodied man served at least two years of his young adult life in uniform.

This led to a widespread notion of what was just and appropriate with military action, and what wasn't. There were spirited debates about Korea and Vietnam because most Americans either served once or had children, brothers, fathers or friends poised to be called up.

Today it is very different. Now you have the irony of a modern, all-volunteer, career military largely devoid from the lives of the people they serve. The vast majority of the public officials who direct their lives have no military roots themselves.

This is particularly apparent in the Baby Boom generation, the people currently currently running the country. Let's take a look at the movers and shakers in this demographic of men over the past, say, 10 years. Clinton and Gingrich avoided the draft and never served, yet one was the Commander in Chief for eight years and the other helped to direct Congressional procurement and oversight of the Department of Defense.

Cheney, former head of the Department of Defense during a time of war, famously avoided the draft at all costs. George Bush, the current Commander in Chief, spent several years in the Air National Guard, and avoided combat, much like Dan Quayle and other prominent Republicans and Democrats of the establishment did with relative ease.

In the Senate, at least you had informed leaders such as Al Gore (Vietnam) on hand to do the hard wonkish work on DOD issues. And now, in the State Department, you have Colin Powell.

Kerry, of course, served very briefly in the navy, most of the time out of Vietnam, in very junior positions. Upon leaving the service, he dedicated himself to denigrating many of its combatants. In his spare time, he decided to forgo the rigor of actually studying the military as an institution or serving in leadership posts that would build defense credentials. Now he wants us to believe that he's a better candidate for Commander in Chief than Bush.

Ironically, had Al Gore won the election, this wouldn't be worth debating because not only had Gore served admirably in Vietnam, he also was a respected expert in the Senate on the American military. He could have revamped the Pentagon, fought the Taliban in Afghanistan and, in my opinion, prosecuted the war in Iraq well.

And, yes, I believe he would have taken the U.S. into a war with Iraq, much as Clinton once would have done, in the months after 9-11. He just would have succeeded winning the peace.

As a nation, we could afford the luxury of suffering a generation of national defense nitwits because we had the "Greatest Generation" of leaders still in public service, men such as Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye, et al, who not only had served but went on to hold important posts in the Cold War system of military and diplomatic institutions.

These men have retired now, and we are left with a curiously smart, effective, driven military institution which requires a civilian oversight by the Constitution. but few people on hand who understand it, and that includes our Commander in Chief, most of the RNC delegates and nearly every delegate at the DNC, including their nominee.

Thinking of the various media, an agglomerated institution also guaranteed with Constitutional rights and responsibilities, I'm forced to conclude that they, too, are inept at interpreting the military for the general reader, listener or viewer.

Nationally, I can think of several very prominent reporters who routinely cover the military that are themselves either veterans or at least hard-earned experts in their fields. Bob Woodward is one (Vietnam), Dan Rather another.

Yes, that Rather.

Locally, I can only think of Jack Kelly at the Post-Gazette as a man with impeccable credentials to cover his beat, which is the modern American military.

His opinion of Kerry isn't very good (

The Tribune-Review also has someone with military experience, but I don't know much about him. Anyway, the only person who routinely reports on national security issues in this large media market is Jack.

Thirty years ago, it's hard to imagine any major newspaper that would not devote large swaths of local coverage to the military.

It's not too late for you to start boning up on national security issues, if that's the direction you wish to take this blog. Locally, there's the RAND Corporation, Soldiers & Sailors, the VFW, American Legion -- a vast resource of interesting voices who are not being exploited by the various media here.

This blog can give them a voice and truly carry on a conversation about the largest issue of the day.

Or you can talk about golf.

6:47 PM

Blogger Jonathan Potts said...

I hate golf. But you may have gathered that.

It's late, so I may cede the field to you. I'm not sure I favor a return to conscription, but I do think you make a valid point, which I believe was taken up a few years ago by a major magazine,--The Atlantic Monthly, I think: there has been for years a widening gulf between civilian and military cultures, with potentially dangerous consequences that, as you say, we already are experiencing.

Your condescending remarks aside, it's always a pleasure jousting with you.

11:39 PM


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