The War Democrats

A recent op ed piece by Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Penn.), a former admiral, is typical of the Bushian "logic" which continues to dominate the making of American foreign policy in the age of Obama. The style is different – gone are the preening neocon Napoleons – but, given American’s war-weariness, Sestak’s "reluctant warrior" routine is subtly insidious:

"I understand the concerns about sending more troops to Afghanistan. No one wants to put more of our service members in harm’s way. No one wants to be spending more of our resources abroad when there is so much to be done at home."

I would add: no one wants to kill thousands of Afghans for no good reason except the Obama administration’s goal of proving its virility in the realm of national security, but a) Sestak seems not to give a flying [expletive deleted] about the lives of non-Americans, since he didn’t see fit to mention it, and b) he has been critical of the Obama stimulus plan, complaining that it hasn’t shown enough results quickly enough, but perhaps he thinks a good shot of military Keynesianism is what’s required. After all, as he acknowledged in an interview with, about 20 percent of a typical congressional representative’s district – presumably he was speaking about local conditions – is economically dependent on the armaments industry. Thanks to John Murtha and his confreres in the state’s Democratic congressional delegation, Pennsylvania has an outsized share of the "defense" industry’s government subsidies, and this undoubtedly plays a big role in Sestak’s primary bid to unseat newly-converted Democratic Senator Arlen Specter – who opposes the Afghan escalation.

Sestak is going after Specter on this issue, appealing to conservative Democrats, the sort who voted for Hillary Clinton in the primaries and are prone to go Republican. Unable to garner the White House’s endorsement – Obama is going along with the party leadership in supporting Specter – the spurned Sestak is nevertheless holding high the banner of Obama-ism in echoing the same tired arguments trotted out by the Dear Leader in his let’s-escalate speech. Yes, "after eight years and significant missteps, concern is justified," Sestak avers. "But the American people should be assured of three things:

"This mission is necessary: If we were to leave now, Afghanistan would return to the conditions that allowed us to be struck on 9/11. More importantly, a failed Afghanistan would critically destabilize Pakistan, which currently faces an existential threat from al Qaeda and allied extremists."

"The conditions that allowed us to be struck on 9/11" existed not in Afghanistan, but right here in the US. Those conditions had nothing to do with Afghanistan’s lack of a central government, and everything to do with the laxness of our security measures here at home. The Taliban may have been in the drivers’ seat in Kabul, but what really enabled al-Qaeda wasn’t Mullah Omar but rather the ease [.pdf] with which our immigration laws allowed al-Qaeda to enter the country – and the complete cluelessness of and lack of coordination between the various intelligence-gathering and law enforcement agencies upon whom billions had been lavished to prevent just such a catastrophe.

Sure, the plans for the attacks may have been conceived, in part, in the general environs of Afghanistan, by the leaders of al-Qaeda – although, given the chronology of the attacks, and Osama bin Laden’s hegira from Africa to Central Asia, it’s more likely the first plans were made while al-Qaeda was resident in Sudan. In any case, this matter of the temporary location of those who originally inspired the 9/11 attacks is a rather thin reed on which to build a case for occupying Afghanistan – and branching out into Pakistan – for the next five or so years.

I have to agree with Arianna Huffington (unfortunately!) that Obama’s war-apologists sound exactly like the Bush crowd, although Sestak’s scare-mongering is just a bit more imaginative:

"If Pakistan collapses, we will face an unthinkable situation: a nuclear-armed failed state overrun by the most powerful and most radical jihadist groups in the world. Al Qaeda may organize elsewhere, but there is nowhere on the face of the planet more advantageous to it and more dangerous for the world than where it is right now."

Ah yes, the "unthinkable": how often the Bushies invoked the specter of a radioactive America glowing in the dark on account of Saddam’s perfect perfidy! Well, the "unthinkable" is back again, this time in the guise of a threat to (or, perhaps, emanating from) Pakistan – and yet the real threat is driven, not by some indigenous Pakistani group that is about to topple the government in Islamabad, but by the US, which is driving the Taliban and its allies into its neighbors’ tribal region, and destabilizing the Pakistani state.

Like Afghanistan, Pakistan is saddled with a notoriously corrupt government – the current president, Asif Ali Zardari, isn’t known as "President Ten Percent" for nothing. Lacking moral authority, and considerably weakened by his growing identification with the United States, Zardari is the husband of the slain Benazir Bhutto, the former President who succeeded the military dictator Musharraf. Many believe she was killed by a faction of the Pakistani military and intelligence establishment, although in that region of the world the list of suspects is too long to even list here.

In short, the more we intervene in Pakistan – and we are now conducting a full-scale "secret war" there, according to The Nation‘s Jeremy Scahill and other sources – the more we weaken the government we are trying to prop up. The Obama administration seems to understand this, to some degree, which is why the dirty work has been contracted out to the clandestine services and various mercenary outfits, but why they fail to apply this same lesson to Afghanistan is rather a mystery. There’s no accounting for the actions of the US government in this instance, but never mind, because Joe Sestak assures us that:

"Success is attainable: In Afghanistan, our goal is not ideal democracy but simply conditions that will be inhospitable to al Qaeda after we depart. The Taliban we face there are not the 250,000-man insurrection that defeated the Soviet Union. The Taliban’s Afghan forces number only about 20,000, and most of those are mercenaries.

"Those fighting for a wage or because of political alliances can be brought in from the battlefield. Those ideologically committed – roughly 6,000 in Afghanistan – can be defeated.

What "conditions" will render Afghanistan "inhospitable to al-Qaeda after we depart"? The mass conversion of the Afghans to Ethical Culture? Sestak assures us he doesn’t aim to build an "ideal democracy" – that’s a relief! – but what this lack of hospitality will otherwise consist of is not at all clear. Also not clear is how this former Rear Admiral is measuring the size and scope of the Afghan insurgency – which is not, as Matthew Hoh, pointed out [.pdf], primarily the Taliban, but local groups that oppose the US presence. The most optimistic assessment of our position in Afghanistan is that we do not yet face the 250,000-man insurrection that defeated the Soviet Union. But don’t you worry – the escalation Sestak so avidly supports will remedy that soon enough.

What’s interesting is that Sestak has been one of the more "progressive" members of the House Democratic caucus when it comes to economic issues, and he is going after Specter for his former party affiliation and alleged "conservative" tendencies. Brimming with the authority imparted by his former military status, and demanding that the former Republican toe the party line when it comes to the litany of liberal economic proposals so dear to the hearts of the Democratic base, here we have not only an ambitious man but a new species of Democrat: the War Democrat, who, from my perspective, is bad on everything – pro-big government at home, and pro-war on the foreign front. He is, in short, a Scoop Jackson-type Democrat, which is, not coincidentally, where the neoconservatives started out.

We are seeing the merger of the big government and pro-war agendas in the recent Democratic proposal for a "war surtax" – here is a fresh opportunity to tax the American people, and why should "progressives" like Sestak and his congressional confreres pass it up? As he puts it:

"The cost is significant but justified… This cost should be paid for by reductions in programs elsewhere, closing tax loopholes (such as the $79 billion loophole for fossil fuel industries) and/or by revenues [i.e. taxes]. Unlike the previous administration, we will bring this cost into the budget process and pay for it without adding to the debt."

War means higher taxes, bigger government, and ex-military men like Sestak whose ambitions are not to be contained: after all, here he is going up against a sitting Senator, over the opposition of the party leaders and the President of the United States. If he wins, it will be a rather large feather in the War Party’s cap. Which is why Daniel Larison’s endorsement of Sestak’s position on the blog of The American Conservative – a magazine that is generally hostile to Democrats, and even less inclined to support interventionists of Sestak’s ilk – seems so odd.

Larison, whose claim to fame is the many links Andrew Sullivan bestows on him, is supposed to be a "paleoconservative" expert on foreign affairs, and yet if his latest postings are any indication, he’s gone over to the Dark Side. (I guess this explains that interview with The Economist, which has never before shown such interest in the foreign policy views of a small and nearly invisible sector of the American Right).

In a blog post published a few days ago, he support’s Sestak’s position, and in other postings he has argued we can’t leave Afghanistan until the region is "stable" – the very same argument that has been used to keep us in Iraq for all these long years. Of course, when we are the source of the instability, it’s absurd to make such an argument: and, correct me if I’m wrong, but Larison, in seems to me, has made this argument himself. So I’m not at all clear what’s behind this inconsistency, and sudden turnaround: wrapped up in his rather, uh, Byzantine style of argumentation, is the theme that anti-interventionist criticism of Obama (from both the left and the right) got the President wrong, because he is not really opposed to intervention in principle. Well, fair enough, but then Larison goes on to endorse the Obama-ite policy, mumbling about "stability" and saying that the President’s strategy is the only way we are realistically going to leave Afghanistan.

Again, this is the very same argument Bush made about our occupation of Iraq, one that could still be made today – and indeed is being made by various and sundry neocons. That Larison is now joining Bill Kristol and various Kagans to make an identical argument when it comes to Afghanistan shouldn’t bother someone apparently so skilled at talking out of both sides of his mouth.

What is particularly annoying is Larison’s vaunted dedication to "non-interventionism," and his pedantic critiques of the lack of purity embodied in growing Republican opposition to Obama’s wars, on the one hand, and, on the other, his own endorsement of the Afghan occupation as "correct" and "legitimate." Such ideological ambidexterity is useful in a politician, but confusing when it comes to a pundit and/or theorist, except insofar as it imparts a "thoughtful" thumb-sucking air. But I guess that’s all you need to get interviewed by The Economist and awarded the mantle of "expertise."

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].