Kennedy Was a Lion,
but War Remains King

Nearly seven years ago this month a lion roared, attempting, however unavailingly, to compete with the Iraq war drums that had begun immediately after 9/11.

Sen. Edward Kennedy said the following on Sept. 27, 2002, at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies:

"Let me say it plainly: I not only concede, but I am convinced that President Bush believes genuinely in the course he urges upon us. And let me say with the same plainness: Those who agree with that course have an equal obligation – to resist any temptation to convert patriotism into politics. It is possible to love America while concluding that is not now wise to go to war. The standard that should guide us is especially clear when lives are on the line: We must ask what is right for country and not party.

"That is the true spirit of September 11th – not unthinking unanimity, but a clear-minded unity in our determination to defeat terrorism – to defend our values and the value of life itself. …

"Now, on Iraq, let us build international support, try the United Nations, and pursue disarmament before we turn to armed conflict."

In the end, President George W. Bush told the UN to shove it when the Security Council wouldn’t agree to a resolution of force against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Despite what Kennedy had called the best vote cast in his 47-year Senate career – against military action – Bush invaded Iraq anyway in March 2003. Kennedy’s soaring oratory – and the exceptional political prowess we’ve heard so much about since his passing Aug. 25 – proved futile.

Then two years later on Sept. 28, 2004, the lion let it rip again, calling out Bush during his reelection campaign against Kennedy’s fellow Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, from the Senate floor: "I’d like to speak today about the war in Iraq."

"The president’s handling of the war has been a toxic mix of ignorance, arrogance, and stubborn ideology. No amount of presidential rhetoric or preposterous campaign spin can conceal the truth about the steady downward spiral in our national security since President Bush made the decision to go to war in Iraq. If this election is decided on the question of whether America is safer because of President George Bush, John Kerry will win in a landslide.

"Enough time has now passed to make us sure of that verdict, beyond any reasonable doubt."

But the "preposterous campaign spin" and effective smearing of Kerry’s character indeed generated enough "reasonable doubt" among voters, and Bush won 50 to 48 percent. The U.S. military immediately entered the bloodiest months of the occupation.

In 2007, Bush wanted to "surge" tens of thousands of U.S. troops into Baghdad for triage. Again, Kennedy opposed the move, and he even introduced legislation to restrict the funding for it.

Kennedy roared, but Bush always returned with the last laugh. The other son of a political dynasty, Bush sat poised with a crown Kennedy would never obtain, balanced on the shoulders of a mighty political war apparatus and scores of courtiers, neoconservative consiglieri, and confidants, who were making sure the war pressed on – the King of the Forest indeed.

So it is only with wariness that one can view the recent grumblings and numbly politic handwringing over the direction of the ongoing occupation and counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, now a Democrat’s war. Washington is certainly anxious over the expected military request for more U.S. troops for the fight. The public is markedly down in the dumps over the rising death toll for U.S. and NATO troops, with a solid majority of Americans calling the whole thing a mistake. Even one lone senator, Democratic liberal Russ Feingold, has taken up the banner and is calling for a (flexible) timetable for withdrawal.

"After eight years, I am not convinced that simply pouring more and more troops into Afghanistan is a well thought out strategy. … I think showing the people there and here that we have a sense about when it’s time to leave is going to be one of the best things we can do to succeed in Afghanistan. … So I want a conversation in this country to begin."

A conversation you might very well have, Mr. Feingold, but satisfaction? Highly doubtful.

The Washington foreign policy establishment, like a woolgathering old uncle snapped back to reality from time to time by mounting casualties, torture scandals, and of course, presidential elections, has launched varying "discussions" of our Iraq and Afghanistan adventures over the last eight years. While one wouldn’t know it, public opinion polls have been consistently disapproving of the wars since the Iraq invasion. This has not in the least prevented the more hawkish impulses in the Bush and now Obama administrations from ultimately pressing forward with more military force as a solution, despite the rhetoric of "resetting" policy, "exit strategies," benchmarks, and the like.

"We’re certainly hearing the rumblings of a debate," says Erik Leaver of Foreign Policy in Focus, in an interview with However, as for "public outrage and an outcry" from pols when McChrystal’s request for more troops arrives C.O.D., "I don’t think it’s going to happen."

"A Rising Sense of Queasiness"

After months of election-driven euphoria over the prospect of taking Gen. David Petraeus’ supposedly crash-tested COIN (counterinsurgency) doctrine from Iraq to the still-unfinished Ring Road from Kabul to Kandahar and on to Helmand, the party poopers arrived sometime mid-summer.

"Perhaps it is my imagination (or just wishful thinking) but it sure seems like over the past week or so there has been a rising sense of queasiness about the current U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Not a moment too soon it would seem since Gen. McChrystal now seems poised to ask for an additional 10,000 troops for the fight."

So says New America’s Michael Cohen in one of several "Afghanistan Mission Creep Watch" installments on the Democracy Arsenal blog, published by the National Security Network. He’s right, the tone has shifted, particularly among COIN-centric blogs and writers who just weeks before had been replaying the surge heroics of Petraeus and Gen. Raymond Odierno like a homily. When Gen. David McKiernan got the ax and was replaced by COIN-friendly McChrystal, there was all but a declaration that Surge II would deify Petraeus. But all that seemed to hit the dreaded "jump the shark" moment on Aug. 12 at the swanky St. Regis Hotel in Washington.

"It was supposed to be an event detailing how thoroughly the Obama administration was preparing to handle the non-military challenges of the Afghanistan war," wrote Spencer Ackerman for the Washington Independent Web site. "But to a large degree, Holbrooke’s interlocutors wanted to know about the wisdom of the entire eight-year war in Afghanistan – and President Obama’s definitions of success for a conflict he may decide to escalate."

It was John Podesta, one of President Obama’s closest aides and head of the prominent think-tank the Center for American Progress, who lobbed the first stink bomb, asking whether it would be acceptable to U.S. interests to reconcile with the Taliban leadership, focus instead on getting al-Qaeda, and leave Afghanistan, albeit as a "weak state."

"Would that be an acceptable end state?" he queried Holbrooke, who when asked what "success" would look like, retorted, "We’ll know it when we see it," setting off a wave of twittering and tut-tutting across the blogosphere for days. "Since President Obama has made accountability a pillar of his Afghanistan policy," wrote Cohen, "I’m hoping Holbrooke’s comment was just an attempt to be funny and nothing more than that."

The uneasiness over the Afghan strategy truly became apparent when McChrystal’s small coterie of advisers – including neoconservative husband-wife team Frederick and Kimberly Kagan, cheery COIN salesman Andrew Exum, and Washington policy establishment staples Anthony Cordesman and Stephen Biddle – came back with varying degrees of long faces from their field work in-country.

Their sour reports seemed to give blessing to a new wave of criticism from the milquetoast elite. Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haas, who penned a whole book about why he opposed the Iraq invasion but wouldn’t fall on his sword for his principles, recently wrote that Afghanistan was not a "war of necessity" but "a war of choice" and there "should be a limit to what the United States does in Afghanistan and how long it is prepared to do it." In his ilk’s typical fashion, however, he wants it both ways, insisting ultimately that American interests are "sufficient enough" and that "achieving limited success" looks doable.

Former congressman Lee Hamilton, whose report to Congress in 2006 was dissed and dismissed by the Bush administration in deference to Kagan’s surge plan, now offers up his humble opinion on Afghanistan, asking, "[I]s this type of war really the best use of American power and resources in today’s world?" Again, not to be seen as too illuminating, he doesn’t attempt to answer his own questions.

McChrystal’s long-awaited review, which was completed and handed over to NATO and Pentagon officials Monday, may strive to provide the answers. It remained confidential Monday night, but reports called it a "mixed bag" that would in essence call for an entire shift in strategy. Again.

"The situation in Afghanistan is serious, but success is achievable and demands a revised implementation strategy, commitment and resolve, and increased unity of effort," McChrystal said in a statement.

Meanwhile, the avalanche of demanding but hardly challenging mainstream headlines: Is Afghanistan really in our national interest? How important is it? And the perennial, is this Obama’s Vietnam? Senators who have recently returned from Afghanistan don’t even try to put a happy face on it.

There are even hints of a White House divide, with Vice President Joe Biden leading the skeptics. On NPR’s Diane Rehm Show Friday, mainstream scribe and consummate insider David Ignatius said he thought Biden "would like to bring down the level of troops, not increase it."

Why McChrystal Will Likely Get What He Wants

But what seems to be a healthy awakening to reality may in fact be a futile waltz further into the quagmire, say experts who have done this sweep around the parquet floor countless times before. Remember, in 2002, six months before the Iraq invasion, the Bush administration was losing its rapt establishment audience to the pre-escalation jitters, too.

From Salon, Sept., 12, 2002:

"Though lauded for its discipline and ability to stay on message and control the public debate, the Bush administration has done a surprisingly poor job of persuading the public, mainstream pundits, Congress, and foreign allies of the need to confront Hussein. …Today, there’s a whiff of desperation in the air, with the White House and its allies in the press realizing that the reasons they’ve been floating this year for going to war have not been embraced by most Americans."

Of course we all know what happened next. "The neocon hawks outside the administration, trying hard to influence decisions being made inside the Oval Office," as described then by writer Eric Boehlert, got their war, convincing the majority of Americans by February 2003 that Saddam was an imminent threat with chemical and biological weapons and that an attack with or without UN support was the right thing to do.

The hawks are still circling in September 2009, slightly mollified by the change in guard at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but just as restive, and this time around, they are all but daring Obama to ignore critics and spill more blood for the cause. Their allies are McChrystal’s aforementioned civilian advisers, who despite their uneasy reflections about progress on the ground, seem to accept or – in the case of the Kagans and Cordesman – overtly endorse the case for more troops.

In fact, it is in this small group that the mainstream brief for escalating COIN is gelling. In the words of Stephen Biddle in the latest issue of The American Interest, despite all of the pitfalls, the costs, and all of the reasonable arguments against it, "[The stakes] are important even though indirect: Failure could have grave consequences for the United States. … On balance, then, reinforcement is a better bet than withdrawal."

Such sobriety – combined with always effective neocon taunts about Obama’s stomach for the fight – will likely rein in the conventional establishment fence-sitters who ultimately prefer consensus, and despite any roars (squeaks?) offered up by Democrats in Congress, new COIN skeptics, and the limp and scattered antiwar Left, McChrystal will likely get what he wants. It’s a safe bet he will ask for a relatively small number – 20,000 according to most recent reports (which will hardly have a real effect on the ground, according to strategists) – and those squeaks will turn to whispers. Until the next contra dance.

Remember, the man in the Oval Office may have changed, but the war machine is the same, and the courtiers, consiglieri, and confidants all look lamentably familiar.

Kennedy died before seeing an end to perpetual war. That he – or any other powerful figure in Washington – was unable to accomplish that is a bitter pill that seems to go down reluctantly, but sadly easier, every time.

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.