Conservatives are in a bind. They want to support some sort
of action against the Islamic State (IS), criticize
President Obama for his lack of strategy, and differentiate themselves from
George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq -- all while avoiding the label of
isolationism. The result is a mess.
Take Mollie Hemmingway, senior editor of The Federalist, an excellent conservative
web magazine. I envy Hemmingway because she writes wittily on politics,
culture, and religion -- pretty much any topic of interest to a normally
educated and inquisitive adult. Nine times out of 10, I learn something from
When Obama started bombing Iraq a few weeks back, Hemmingway
that the goal of war is peace and wondered what our goal in Iraq was -- a good
and appropriate question. Simply bombing bad guys is not a foreign policy; it
is a tactic that should be employed in the pursuit of some overarching goal. As
the old adage goes, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat (usually
attributed to Sun Tzu by those who have never read him).
So far, so good. But Hemmingway also opposes
"nation building" and "occupation" and "meddling in
others affairs." Aside from her mischaracterization of what advocates for
a broader intervention mean, the obvious question is: what if those are the
only tools that can build a just and lasting peace? What's more important:
pursuing peace, or the purity of your non-interventionist ideology?
The maddening thing is that in the same breath Hemmingway
argues that building peace in Iraq would "require so much more from us
than we currently do." Quite true. So much more, like investing in Iraq's
political stability. "It would mean, first off, actually fighting wars,"
like we presumably tried from 2003 to 2011. "It would mean our statesmen
would have to be clear about our expectations regarding peace,"-does
Hemmingway think the problem is a lack of
clarity?-"and that we would be willing to back those expectations up,"-but
only, apparently, with bombs; not with any diplomacy, reconstruction
assistance, coercive bargaining, stability operations, peace building,
political warfare, or anything that might approach the dreaded "nation
building." "It would mean not meddling in others' affairs,"-what
in her last three sentences isn't "meddling
in others' affairs"?
Hemmingway, like many a conservative pundit, wants it both
ways. She wants the United States to pursue a just and lasting peace in Iraq while
simultaneously pretending not to "meddle in others' affairs." She
wants the right goal but she wants to avoid any hint of the very tools
necessary to do so.
Hemmingway makes these arguments in a piece complaining
about the mischaracterization of Rand Paul as an "isolationist." Yet
she proves more than able to mischaracterize Paul's opponents. No one stands up
says "I stand for a meddlesome foreign policy," or, "We should
nation-build the world." Rather, we argue that reconstruction and
stabilization operations (as they are properly called) can sometimes be the
right tool to foster the lasting peace Hemmingway rightly calls for.
Some critics argue that the United States should not
undertake stability operations because they are simply impossible and always
fail. This is a classic example of exaggerating the lessons of the recent past
and extrapolating a general lesson from a single data point: Iraq failed,
therefore all stability operations will always fail. A look at the broader
history (self-promotion alert) suggests there are more nuanced lessons we
Hemmingway exemplifies the difficulty conservatives are
having in interpreting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and applying their
lessons to the future. If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because
we invaded under false pretenses," then you are likely to argue for
extreme caution and careful examination of our motives before undertaking any
intervention in the future, much like many liberals currently do.
If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because we
tried to do nation-building, which is impossible and wrong-headed and foolish
to even try," then you are likely to gravitate to a sort of
paleo-conservatism (since Hemmingway doesn't like the label of isolationism) and
the belief that the military should only be used to blow things up, which is
sufficient for keeping America safe.
I find the liberals' explanation morally simplistic and not
backed up by the facts. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan were manifold
and came from many, many problems. Reading it like a morality play in which the
gods of war punished American hubris for invading without sufficient cause
neglects the problems in the planning, management, and oversight of the wars;
the drift in American military doctrine since Vietnam; the problems of
coalition counterinsurgency; and the dilemmas inherent in coercive peace
The paleo-conservative reading (like Hemmingway's) is no
better. It will not build the lasting peace Hemmingway calls for. Killing lots
of people and going home isn't war; it is murder, and it is the way to
replicate the failures of Versailles after World War I. The statesmen of 1919
famously failed to achieve any sort of political settlement to resolve the
underlying causes of the Great War and succeeded only in sowing the seeds for
the next one. The difference in World War II was partly in the
comprehensiveness of Germany's defeat, yes, but also in the massive and
expensive forced democratization mounted afterwards.
So, similarly, we are virtually guaranteed to continue our
Thirty Years' War in Iraq and our Hundred Year War with jihadists until,
somehow, achieving a resolution to the underlying political causes of them. If "not
meddling" means not investing in the political and economic conditions
required for lasting peace, then "not meddling" is a recipe for
forever war --which is, of course, the worst and most expensive form of
My reading of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we nearly got
there in Iraq until President Obama abandoned efforts to secure a lasting U.S.
troop presence and pulled out all troops in 2011. A residual U.S. troops
presence would not have solved Iraq's political problems but would have given
us leverage for continued bargaining and almost certainly would have blunted
IS's growth and prevented the current emergency. The failings of 2003 to 2007
were failings of planning, management, oversight, and coordination, which the United
States painfully and slowly improved at the cost of thousands of lives.
In other words, we tried the right thing, but the United
States is far less capable of doing the right thing than is widely appreciated
-- not because our military isn't capable, but because it isn't useful for the kinds of things we need
to accomplish. For that, we need different tools -- the tools of
reconstruction, stabilization, coercion, political pressure, diplomacy, the
whole package. This is an emotionally unsatisfying explanation because it is
complicated and doesn't come wrapped in a tidy Tweetable moralistic bow (like "Bush
lied, people died!" or "nation building is hubris!").
But it is true. If you want to see the next four
presidential administrations lob bombs at Iraq and Mali and Somalia and
Pakistan with no end in sight, then our military is well equipped to do the
job, and we will live in a world of forever war. If you want a just and lasting
peace among nations, our military cannot build it alone. Some sort of broader,
messy, and complicated intervention -- by the United States, the U.N., NATO,
the Arab League, the African Union, someone
-- will have to be part of it. "Not meddling" isn't a foreign policy.
HAIDAR HAMDANI/AFP/Getty Images