Advocating the Next War Means Forgetting History

by , August 28, 2014

ISIS is awful. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a frightening band of marauding, violent theocrats. This seems obvious. But pointing out the awfulness of ISIS is something that people who advocate against intervention are going to have to do a lot for the foreseeable future. Pro-interventionists control the narrative so much so that every anti-interventionist will find themselves assuring skeptical people that no, they are not for dictator A, or terrorist group B. They simply would rather leave that snakepit alone.

Since they control the narrative – and indeed, control the simple fact of whether mass slaughter is acceptable – the pro-war crowd also gets to ignore the fact that it is they who forget the badness of old enemies more than any peacenik does. In June, former Ambassador to the UN John Bolton blithely accused the libertarian hosts of Fox Business’ The Independents of defending Saddam Hussein. For a brief, pre-ISIS period, repenting of your support for the Iraq war was all the rage. Now, it’s all about condemning Obama for pulling troops out too early.

But never mind Saddam’s badness, there’s a worse enemy out there. We must forget all about 2003 and any and all errors involved in the choice to invade Iraq. ISIS is REALLY extra bad. They are actually evil – "apocalyptically" so. It’s different this time. It always is with interventionists. It’s always the last guy who was the high-water mark in terms of malevolent dictators, or terrorist cells, but whether he or it was overthrown, or killed, or not, this new threat is really where the danger lurks.

The shameless cynicism about which villains the US can ally with today, then call the devil tomorrow, is more or less the story of US foreign policy for the past century. The Soviet Union was a terror, except when it was a vital part in beating Hitler. Neither treating his own soldiers like cannon fodder, not taking over and oppressing half of Europe makes that alliance an embarrassment in the sepia-toned history of the good war. One could perhaps argue that the alliance was necessary that one time because of the unique horror that was Hitler. And that argument might have more weight if every fresh dictator wasn’t Hitler, and every international crisis wasn’t Munich, 1938.

National Review’s Jonah Goldberg accused anyone too timid to dub ISIS evil of being a moral relativist. Part of that skittishness comes from folks who haven’t conveniently forgotten the Bush administration’s "axis of evil" crusade, nor its messy real world result being CIA black sites, Gitmo, and a destroyed Iraq. There are others reasons to shy away from inarguable words like evil, though – not just because this week’s villain might be next month’s necessary ally. Over at The Federalist, political science professor Michael J. Boyle has a pragmatic, not necessarily antiwar, defense of limiting such language. "Evil" is not an argument on how to win a war, or how substantial of one to engage in (Boyle also manages to note the foolishness of the 2003 war). "Evil" is not cool-headed, or nuanced, even if it is tempting when people are being beheaded left and right (something US allies the Saudis also do frequently). The Golbergs of the world should read Boyle’s piece, and then maybe lay off the clash of the titans talk. On the other hand, this road takes Boyle towards the other interventionist trap – the one that says of course the end result of this war can be quantified, charted, and then made real. How could anything be less complicated than changing a culture, or making alliances by military force?

Nothing ever is too complicated to the confident interventionist. Neither blowback as motivation, nor mistakes in previous wars, nor indeed are previous villains now allies a consideration. Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle recently mused on her show The Five that Vladimir Putin – the rogue hankering to restart the Cold War – is the kind of go-getter who might be able to take care of this little ISIS problem the US has. (Pointedly, Guilfoyle also believes that Benjamin Netanyahu would also get the job done. Hmm. Interesting comparison.) Guilfoyle, as part of this plan, professes to not care about the civil liberties of terrorists – or rather, something that Republicans in particular seem to fail to grasp, the rights of suspected terrorists. She also wants more boots on the ground. It’s often 2003 over at Fox News. The War Powers Act, and the legality of Obama starting a conflict without Congressional permission, is seemingly not a concern. We just need a tough leader now, the way Democrats want Obama to be on domestic issues.

So, blackhearted retro-tyrant Putin is suddenly the least of our problems. Worse still, Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s strongman, is now a potential ally to some – though the US has declined to take that path. Assad and Putin are not nice men. Nor does ISIS contain any. But doesn’t it seem like someone gung-ho for intervention should remember and at least acknowledge how uncomfortable it is that this week’s public enemy number one might be a potential friend the next? Saddam Hussein was a friend to the US when Iran was the enemy. Osama Bin Laden and the Mujahideen were the freedom fighters going up against the Soviet empire. Stalin had as much blood on his hands as did Hitler, but the US needed the former to beat the latter. If there had been someone worse than Hitler, the US would have allied with him had it served their interests.

Would-be pragmatists say this is how foreign affairs work in the real world. But, shouldn’t the shining city on a hill that is America have more concerns than who is "the lesser evil?" Interventionists like to have it both ways; the individualist ideals of America and the alleged good intentions behind intervention somehow negate the bloodshed caused by their wars. From the Philippines in the 1890s to the Iraq war in 2003, what matters is if we say we meant well and if our people at home are relatively free. Yet, the pure opportunism of our shifting alliances, and the amnesiac declarations of who is the baddest guy in town this week suggest that this purity only applies when interventionists need it to.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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