The Easy Way Out

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"The Easy Way Out"

I guess I’m a little bit agnostic on the Drum versus Black dispute about the utility of canvassing one’s support or lack thereof for past wars as a guide to foreign policy wisdom. It seems to me that this has some value, but I agree with Atrios that its value tends to be overstated. My biggest problem with this way of looking at the world, however, is that it winds up discounting people’s views on wars that didn’t happen. Since 2001, for example, various Weekly Standard articles I’ve read have advocated that the US send more troops to Afghanistan, that we send more troops to Iraq, that we go to war with Sudan over Darfur, that we go to war with Syria, that we go to war with Iran, and that we go to war with North Korea.

I’m not sure whether or not any individual Standard writer or editor actually thought each and every one of those things, but, clearly, to have done them all would have been a disaster, if only because we couldn’t, in practice, have done all that stuff. Similarly, various post-9/11 New Republic articles have called for more troops in Afghanistan, more in Iraq, and interventions in Haiti, Liberia, and Sudan along with a “ruthlessly serious” Iran policy. Again, it’s not clear to me that any individual — as opposed to an institution publishing a diverse array of hawkish authors — advocated all of those things, but as an approach to the world this is clearly unsound.

Writers, simply put, get to advocate war on the cheap. Even in the relatively war-friendly Clinton-Bush era, in the overwhelming majority of instances where some bloc of opinion wanted a war, we haven’t gotten one. This is because presidents — even highly militaristic, seriously unwise ones — need to take account of the fact that if they back a war, the war will actually happen, and they may pay the consequences for problems. Actual governing responsibility makes even the comically irresponsible George W. Bush at least a little risk-averse. Pundits, by contrast, get to say war is the answer more-or-less for free, especially in instances where they can be reasonably sure the war won’t actually happen and then just run around asserting that the war would have been fine. And if the war does happen, and doesn’t go well, you’re always free to blame implementation for the problems.

It really is, for that reason, a good idea to try to ask something somewhat deeper than “which past wars do you approve of?” A similarly rough-and-ready heuristic that, I think, would shed some more light might be something like “do you worry more that in the future the United States will be likely to launch unwise wars, or likely to fail to launch wise ones?” I think that even the new-model Iraq-was-bad Peter Beinart worries more that the USA will be too dovish or too isolationist, while I worry more than we’ll be too militaristic and prone to adventurism.

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