Timothy Egan - We owe Mother Jones, the magazine, a public service nod for a graphic tour last year of all the countries that John McCain has wanted to attack. Spanning the globe, the fist-first senator has called for violent regime change in more than half a dozen nations, ranging from all-out ground invasions to airstrikes to arming sides in endless sectarian conflicts.
The map of McCain’s wars is worth considering as a what-if had the would-be vice president Sarah Palin and her running mate in 2008 prevailed. McCain continues to play quick-draw commander in chief to this day. He said he’d send troops into Nigeria “in a New York minute,” to rescue the girls kidnapped by terrorists, even without permission of the sovereign country. And just after President Obama’s speech Wednesday at West Point, McCain lamented that America’s young men and women were not still in the Iraqi city of Falluja.
Yes, Falluja - where tribal militias loyal to one warped religious tenet or another continue to slaughter each other with abandon. It’s a hard truth for a country as prideful as the United States to accept, but most Americans have now concluded that the Iraq War was a catastrophic mistake. Obama, at least, has tried to learn something from it.
Al Qaeda was never in Falluja before the American invasion. They have a stronghold in Falluja now, for which McCain blames the withdrawal of United States troops. Think about that: it’s not our fault because we opened the doors to the factions of hell; it’s our fault because we withdrew from hell.
As Obama tries to pivot from foreign policy by bumper sticker, McCain and an intellectually bankrupt clutch of neocons are trying to present themselves as the alternative. Dick Cheney, the warrior with five draft deferments, is in this diminishing camp, calling Obama “certainly the weakest” president in his lifetime. But both McCain and Cheney are outliers, blustery relics with little backing in either party. Only seven percent of Americans expressed support for even considering a military option after Russia forced Crimea into its fold. That’s a sea change in sentiment from 2001, or even 2008.
The nation’s future military leaders embody this shift. The biggest response from the cadets at West Point came when Obama said, “you are the first class to graduate since 9/11 who may not be sent into combat in Iraq or Afghanistan.” They cheered.
But all of that is not to let Obama off the hook. His big foreign policy speech was flat and passionless, with no central vision. The fault may lie with this particular moment in world history. The Cold War was easy to frame. The War on Terror was as well, at least at first. Now, things are more muddled. How do we help the newly elected government of Ukraine? If we aggressively arm one side in Syria, what happens if they turn out to be religious extremists who want to put women back in the 9th century?
Obama didn’t specifically say so, but the guiding principle for this era of nuance and shadows may be no more complex than this: Stay out of wars of unintended consequence.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint,” said Obama, “but from our willingness to rush into military adventure - without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”
Is that weakness, or wisdom? Well, neither. But it’s a realistic reaction to the hard fact that the last 50 years have produced the three longest wars in American history. And it’s a pitch-perfect reflection of where most Americans are today.
Afghanistan was supposed to be a swift move to crush a regime that allowed terrorists to flourish - not 13 years, and counting, of nation-building. Vietnam was billed as a blow for freedom against global communism - not a 10-year military muddle in a civil war posing no threat to the United States. Iraq was going to be clean and quick - we’ll be greeted as liberators! - not eight years in one of the most ghastly places on earth, at a cost of more than $2 trillion and a loss of at least 190,000 lives on all sides.
Obama’s foreign policy is a lot like his economic policy. Give him credit for preventing something awful from happening. The financial collapse could have been truly catastrophic, save for the action the president and the Federal Reserve took in the first year following the meltdown. For that, history will be kind. The wars not fought by Obama are the alternative to John McCain’s map. For that, the verdict of the ages is less certain. After 50 years, what a war-weary nation does know is this: the doors into hell are many; the exits, fewer.–NY Times