NeoCon: We’ve Got ‘No Right’ to War Weariness

Rodney McKeithan is a 20-year Navy veteran who retired in 2007 to open up a barbershop in the military community of Norfolk, Virginia, home of the Atlantic Fleet. When asked by reporters recently what his clients, mostly military, say about a pending war in Syria, he says, "We’ve got to look out for our guys. We’re stretched here."

According to Professor Eliot Cohen, head of the Strategic Studies Program at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, McKeithan should zip it, along with the war weary veterans gathered at the local VFW Tidewater Post 4809, one of whom told The Washington Post, "we’ve had enough of war. I’m tired of it."

Eliot Cohen
Eliot Cohen

Keep it to yourself grandpa, Cohen would say – if his Friday op-ed in the Post is any guide. Cohen, a neoconservative who has spent the last 12 years promoting the Forever War from his Ivory Tower perch in Dupont Circle – one of the Beltway Bubble’s toniest zip codes – says that unless you’ve served in combat you have not "earned" the right to be tired of the war, and if you have served, then it would be "shameful" to say so out loud.

Furthermore, President Obama "has no business confessing to war-weariness" and "fails in his duty if he tells his subordinates, his people and the world that he is weary of the burden that he assiduously sought." Cohen here is no doubt referring to remarks made by President Obama on Aug. 30, when he said, "I assure you nobody ends up being more war-weary than me.” But let’s be honest, Obama never said he was tired of his duties as Commander-in-Chief. He has instead acknowledged that the rest of the country is weary, which we are – two-thirds say we should be reluctant to use military force again overseas, while 63 percent are explicitly against strikes in Syria (a recent Military Times poll says active duty troops are 3-to-1 against it, too).

In his speech promoting intervention in Syria on Sept. 10, Obama recognized that the nation is "sick and tired of war." Quite different than being personally not up to the task. It seems Obama has been very willing and capable of bombing other countries and sending troops into harms way over the last seven years. That’s the problem.

"I have seen Americans die first hand, their legs and arms ripped off of them, and I have seen hundreds of Iraqis slaughtered in their sectarian civil war.  If my President was not war weary I would worry about him," said Army Col. Gian Gentile, who recently published Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency, when asked him to comment.

"Those who condemn my President for saying he is war weary and then suggest that he has no business saying so are nothing more than militarists who want an American president to act as a cheerleader for every possible future American military crusade in the Middle East," Gentile added.

The polls don’t lie – war is unpopular. And the Republicans in Congress – always-faithful proxies of the neoconservative military agenda – aren’t responding to the usual whistles this time, either. This has transformed usually cool cats like Eliot Cohen into backyard scrappers, taking swipes at nearly everyone. Good. True colors aren’t a bad thing. Kevin Drum calls it "one of the most offensive columns I’ve read in a long time." Let’s allow Cohen’s words speak for themselves:

… for the great mass of the American public, for their leaders and the elites who shape public opinion, "war-weariness" is unearned cant, unworthy of a serious nation and dangerous in a violent world.

The average American has not served in the armed forces, as a diplomat or intelligence agent in a war zone. Neither have his or her children. No one has raised our taxes to pay for war…

Service members or public servants who have served in combat, and had enough of it, have every right to be war-weary. They also have a right to resign their commissions or appointments — and should, because they are probably well on the way to becoming ineffective.

I have known fighters from crack outfits, including the 10th Mountain Division, 7th Marines and the Joint Special Operations Command, who are visibly war-weary. Almost all would consider it shameful to say so.

Cohen was sure to let us know in 2005 that his own son was an Army infantry officer deploying for Iraq at the height of an insurgency Cohen himself never anticipated. Maybe he thought that would insulate him when he hurled this sanctimonious invective against the Bush Administration (which he worked for, under Paul Wolfowitz) for not running the war in Iraq more effectively. In it, he says he has "an occasional flare of anger at empty pieties and lame excuses, at flip answers and a lack of urgency, at a failure to hold those at the top to the standards of accountability that the military system rightly imposes on subalterns."

What about accountability for those who spent the better part of 2001 and 2002 convincing us that Iraq was a critical front in World War IV?

"Professor Cohen is clinging to the carcass of a dead policy: endless wars waged by American and British forces designed to replace the governments and supporting societies of the Middle East with ones subservient to the United States, and presumably, Israel," said (Ret) Col. Doug Macgregor, when asked him about Cohen’s latest treatise. "It’s a policy that failed repeatedly in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.  Americans won’t support it because they’ve learned it won’t safeguard American interests or Israel’s security."

But c’mon Macgregor, what did the war actually "cost" the rest of us civilian ne’er-do-wells anyway?

Try three trillion dollars. And likely more. No, the Bush Administration did not raise our taxes. But they might as well have. In fact, it might’ve been better if they had. Smart economic analysts like Joseph Stiglitz and Linda J. Bilmes say that the war, at least in part, can be blamed for the economic crash that sent the employment and housing markets into a disastrous tailspin – from which many of us have yet to recover. From Stiglitz and Bilmes in 2010:

The global financial crisis was due, at least in part, to the war. Higher oil prices meant that money spent buying oil abroad was money not being spent at home…. Paying foreign contractors working in Iraq was neither an effective short-term stimulus (not compared with spending on education, infrastructure or technology) nor a basis for long-term growth.

Instead, loose monetary policy and lax regulations kept the economy going – right up until the housing bubble burst, bringing on the economic freefall.

… Perhaps the crisis would have happened in any case. But almost surely, with more spending at home, and without the need for such low interest rates and such soft regulation to keep the economy going in its absence, the bubble would have been smaller, and the consequences of its breaking therefore less severe. To put it more bluntly: The war contributed indirectly to disastrous monetary policy and regulations.

The Iraq war didn’t just contribute to the severity of the financial crisis, though; it also kept us from responding to it effectively. Increased indebtedness meant that the government had far less room to maneuver than it otherwise would have had.

As for the cost of debt, which is all of ours, as federal taxpayers and citizens:

This was the first time in American history that the government cut taxes as it went to war. The result: a war completely funded by borrowing. US debt soared from $6.4 trillion in March 2003 to $10 trillion in 2008 (before the financial crisis); at least a quarter of that increase is directly attributable to the war. And that doesn’t include future health care and disability payments for veterans, which will add another half-trillion dollars to the debt. …

The fact is, we don’t know how much the war will end up costing the US taxpayer and our communities. After Stiglitz and Bilmes wrote that piece, 1,047 US servicemembers died in Afghanistan and an untold number were wounded. Bilmes has already amended their estimates (upwards of $6 trillion), taking into account that the veterans’ disability and health care costs (which taxpayers pay for) are much higher than anticipated.

Meanwhile, much of the talk about federal budget cuts as a result of the aforementioned financial crisis has centered around the effect on "military readiness," but Americans know that the real costs have been foisted upon those too weak to lobby for their causes on Capitol Hill. Over the last two years, cuts have impacted low-income people the most: Head Start and Early Head Start programs, federal education grants, the nation’s public defenders, community health centers and job training programs which help people get back to work, to name just a few.

And yet, warhawks like Cohen, who have no need for these assistance programs, have continued to support more war, and more spending for war, down the line. A member of candidate Mitt Romney’s national security advisory team, Cohen admonished the president for "dithering" ahead of the bombing campaign (and regime change) in Libya. He’s doing the same on Syria. But he’s like the rest of the neoconservative regime in Washington – he’ll push, push, push for intervention but distance himself from the aftermath, often blaming policy makers and leadership for mucking it up. Once the war in Iraq took a turn for the worst, Cohen blamed the Bush Administration for making too many strategic and tactical mistakes, including the use of WMDs as an excuse to go to war. This, from the guy who wrote in November 2001, when the nation was still bleeding and raw from 9/11, that Iraq "not only helped al Qaeda, but attacked Americans directly (including an assassination attempt against the first President Bush) and developed weapons of mass destruction."

Not only that, but he said Iran should be the other "obvious" front in "World War IV," calling militant Islamists "the real-world equivalents of J. K. Rowling’s Lord Voldemort, Tolkien’s Sauron or C. S. Lewis’s White Witch."

"The overthrow of the first theocratic revolutionary Muslim state (of Iran) and its replacement by a moderate or secular government …. would be no less important a victory in this war than the annihilation of bin Laden," Cohen declared.

Imagine if Washington had actually took that part of Cohen’s advice. But Cohen, like many others of his ilk, careen forward, bypassing the detritus of their sorry prognostications and pontifications as though a simple Google search doesn’t exist.

When Obama took office in 2009, Cohen chided the new president for not fully articulating his counterinsurgency strategy when the president was clearly doing what the COIN in-crowd wanted: he sacked Gen. David McKiernan, and put David Petraeus’s pal Stanley McChrystal in charge of the war. When McChrystal was forced to resign for "for saying things that are true" but not "diplomatically," Cohen told a most sympathetic American Interest that he was satisfied savior-General Petraeus was chosen as his replacement. Petraeus was "flameproof," he said, and "tilted the civil-military balance in Petraeus’s direction."

Yet when doling out the blame for the failures of the war, Petraeus – who relinquished command and retired in July 2011 after only a year on the job – always escapes Cohen’s ire. As for his premise that Petraeus would be "flameproof," well, Obama didn’t need to fire anybody. He quit. And then he got forced out of the CIA for having an extramarital affair with a woman who was writing his hagiography. Nuts.

But Cohen, 57, who was too young to serve in Vietnam, but served safely as an intelligence officer in the reserves, probably believes Petraeus to be a martyr to the obdurate, cowardly politics of a democratic administration that just doesn’t "get" the military or worse, doesn’t defer enough to it. Not unlike Petraeus’s fellow "crusaders," who believe the Vietnam War could have been won if a proper counterinsurgency strategy was given time to work, Cohen has expressed disdain for the psychic overhang of that war, with its horrors and senseless waste shading every discussion of prospective military intervention over the last four decades.

If anything that is the only thing Cohen likes about Obama, that he is not a classic boomer. "The passing of the Vietnam generation is a good thing in this respect," he told The American Interest. "And I sometimes think that the faster it leaves the American political stage, the better off we’ll be."

You mean the better off you and your interventionist compatriotsBill Kristol (never served), Charles Krauthammer (never served), Joe Lieberman (never served), et al – will be.

Cohen doesn’t reserve all his professorial castigation for us do-nothing civilians. He obviously takes special umbrage with active duty and retired officers who’ve been cautioning against military intervention in Syria too. In an earlier Washington Post op-ed, he called Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey’s caution on strikes, "a breach of proper civil-military relations." Cohen didn’t even afford Dempsey his own name, just referring to him as "the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff." Cohen was even more coy when he said in his latest op-ed that "the surest way for a president to negotiate credibly, and thus avoid war, is to have at his side a growling mastiff on the leash – not a tired bloodhound that looks as though it has had, for the moment, enough tussles with the other canines."


The important point here: stay clear of the neoconservatives’ agenda for muscular interventionist policy unless you’re prepared to get scratched and torn in the next day’s papers. No one has the right to be weary of war, especially if you’ve never served in combat, or have no relation to someone who has. Even then, if you’ve got a problem with going to war, just keep it to yourself.

The horns of desperation are clearly sounding along with the drums of war. But if public opinion is any indication, no one appears to be listening – this time.

Follow Vlahos on Twitter @KelleyBVlahos

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.