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May 6, 2013 10:27 pm
The dogs of war are barking again in Washington, 11 years after they last howled, but this time it is different. They are no longer prowling the corridors of power unleashed, but holed up in external covens and salons. There is a very different president in office and the country is no longer in total thrall to the cataclysm of the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001, inclined to believe anything its government tells it.
Still, the comparisons between 2002, as the administration of George W. Bush set out on its inexorable path to war in Iraq, and today, as President Barack Obama decides what to do, or not to do, about Syria, must be made. We may even learn something from them.
Most striking is that the cast of characters is very similar. The neoconservative brigade, which never met a war it did not like, still features Bush administration hawks Paul Wolfowitz and John Bolton. They fulminate on opinion pages and Fox TV about Mr Obama’s “weakness” in foreign policy. The Washington Post editorial pages often have a neocon bent, which might cause Katharine Graham, the newspaper’s publisher during the Watergate investigation, to turn in her grave. They are supplemented by the usual pundits, such as William Kristol and Charles Krauthammer. Their trope is that a craven president cannot even bring himself to use the word “terror” in the event of something horrible, such as the Boston bombings.
The “do something” regiment in Congress is once again led by John McCain and Lindsey Graham, the inseparable Republican senators. Their remedies are the same, too – no-fly zones, arm the rebels – though it often seems they propose them so as to be able to criticise Mr Obama if he ever puts them into action.
They also have their allies across the political aisle, though perhaps not the cast of “intellectuals” that bayed for war – Christopher Hitchens (now dead), Michael Ignatieff, Andrew Sullivan and so on. Their support had many causes, including humanitarianism, fear of Islam and allegiance to Israel. But it was mostly motivated by the belief, not dishonourable, that the US could not abdicate global leadership just because the tasks were hard.
Thomas Friedman of The New York Times was an influential advocate of going to war to topple Saddam Hussein. He used to write that if the seeds of democracy could be planted in Iraq, the Arab world would become a land of milk and honey. It hasn’t happened that way. There was an “Arab spring”, but it was ignited by a self-immolation in a Tunisian street market not by the fine words of Thomas Jefferson (or Mr Obama, come to that).
This time round, Mr Friedman writes less about the Middle East. But his approach – that the US must lead – has been taken up most notably by Vali Nasr, a disciple of the late Richard Holbrooke, in his new book, The Dispensable Nation. To Holbrooke, Mr Obama’s special adviser for “Af-Pak”, intervention (preferably diplomatic) was second nature and all foreign policy a glorious adventure. Mr Nasr’s book might have been titled Holbrooke’s Revenge – on the Obama administration that froze him out.
Somewhere in the middle of the commentariat are the old hands. Richard Haass, chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, has a new volume out arguing that the US is underperforming at home and overextended abroad. Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East diplomat, cautiously advises “stand-off” intervention, such as a no-fly zone over Syria. Ryan Crocker, ambassador in Baghdad in the Bush era, wrote a column recently saying that the US should re-engage with Iraq to stop it following Syria’s path to sectarian destruction.
The truth is that there are no good options facing the president – and he knows it. He also knows there is no public appetite for a third military excursion into the Middle East in little more than a decade, no matter how noble the cause. More than that, he understands that the Iraq war was a disaster of biblical proportions – for the US, its reputation and its economy, for Iraq itself and for the region. It is worth remembering he was saying as much when he first ran for the Senate back in 2004.
Eleven years ago, in the prime of Dick Cheney, vice-president to Mr Bush, it was obvious that the US was proceeding towards war. It might end up that way again but it will not be for want of trying alternative solutions – and that, at least, is something. Wars of choice tend to have bad outcomes and unintended consequences.
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