Recently, the Democrats, who enjoy but cannot wield majorities in both houses of Congress, relented and voted to continue funding the war in Iraq. Those who look upon the fighting as senseless and unrelated to the war on terror are keenly disappointed if not dismayed. Another funding bill will come up in the fall, but there is little reason to expect a different outcome. The Democrats evidently are subject to many of the pressures from think tanks, lobby groups, campaign contributors, and popular notions of war that brought about and continue the present course.
Despite the urgency on international matters, presidential candidates with the most experience on foreign policy are, paradoxically, lagging very badly in the polls. It is crucial, then, that pressures be placed on the candidates to abstain from the clichés, sound bites, and ambiguous phrasings that have thus far marked the sweepstakes, early though it is. Their campaigns must present strategies that are so clearly stated as to make it impossible to change them. The times demand it; our soldiers deserve it.
Clearly stated positions on each of the following would get us away from the cleverly indistinct wordings of consultants and begin an intelligent discussion of the war and our security.
1. Is the war in Iraq being won?
2. If not, what strategies and tactics can be adopted so as to make it winnable? If there are none, should we look upon Iraq as a failed campaign in a larger conflict that can still be won, as Gallipoli was to the British in the First World War, as Corregidor and Wake Island were to the US in the Second World War.
3. Is the overall war on terror proceeding favorably or are Islamist terror organizations spreading into North Africa, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia? If it is not proceeding well, it may well be worsening our national security, and specific changes in strategies and tactics must be set forth.
4. What are the sources of Islamist terror directed against the United States? Surely the slogan about hating our way of life has been made inoperative by a number of investigations.
5. Are we losing the support of long-standing European allies whom even the sole superpower could one day need?
The recent record of the American political system to present clear thinking on crucial matters has not been such as to inspire confidence. Indeed, it has been through a long series of misadventures, embarked upon by both parties, that we find ourselves where we are in the Middle East. The word “statesman” is vanishing from the American vocabulary, and not only because of its gender bias. We have no Walter Lippmans or George Kennans anymore and we are much the poorer for it. Whatever depth the media once had disappeared quite a while ago. The academy is too partisan and doctrinaire to be of much help. Our active duty and retired generals with only a few notable exceptions are no more capable of sound analysis of world affairs than were Brezhnev’s tractable and medal-festooned marshals. Accordingly, outside agencies might be required to divert our poor players from another quadrennial strut and fret on the political stage.
A promising source of an informed reappraisal might not stand out on the horizon to many, but a bi-partisan investigation led by members of the Senate such as Chuck Hagel (R-Neb) and James Webb (D-Va) should be considered–preferably outside the hollow and confining halls of Congress. Each has demonstrated independence from his party apparatus. Each has experience in foreign policy, on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee or as Secretary of the Navy. Each is a veteran of the Vietnam War, an experience that imparted suspicion of political cant and concern for the lives of young soldiers, though exceptions there certainly are. And each has demonstrated an ability and preference for plain speaking.
Open discussion of the above questions and others will force candidates into more thoughtful and forthright forms of discourse, which we have been taught from our youths to expect from our political system but which we only catch fleeting glimpses of, usually from marginal candidates dismissed by frontrunners and media experts. If we fail to produce this discussion, we are likely to see nominally antiwar candidates molded by think tanks, lobby groups, campaign contributors, and popular notions of war. The war will go on–and others will come.
BRIAN M. DOWNING is a veteran of the Vietnam War and author of several works of political and military history, including The Military Revolution and Political Change and The Paths of Glory: War and Social Change in America from the Great War to Vietnam. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
© BRIAN M. DOWNING