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Why Pro-War Pundits Are Always Wrong

There is no shortage of men and women – but mostly men, typically white – willing to write 800- to 1,000-word editorials on the need for Decisive Action or Continued Resolve in Whereverthehellistan. Some of these people are historians, some are journalists, but all have attained material success in the field of arguing about war without ever once having to go through the trouble of being right. It is a full-time profession where it undeniably pays to be wrong and speak to power only what power wants to hear, with American advocates of mass killing from El Salvador to Iraq some of the last in their homeland to earn a living wage.

Damning the individuals is good, wholesome fun, but the problem is the systemic reward. Those with all the money and power by and large support and profit from America being in a constant state of war, which one of the country’s most decorated Marines, Major General Smedley Butler, long ago recognized as a “racket” that enriches a select few – arms makers, those who monopolize control over natural resources, and those who lend them all money – at the expense of poor at home and abroad.

There’s no need for a behind-the-scenes conspiracy to personally promote those who defend these polices for those who personally promote them are quite capable of seeing for themselves which road leads to Op-Ed page celebrity and think-tank riches. There are capitalists who don’t directly profit from militarism, but the maintenance of capitalism as a system requires that foreign markets be forcibly opened and maintained by imperialism – call it “Western hegemony” or “American power projection” if that word offends – and in 21st century America most institutions capable of funding a would-be intellectual’s lifestyle continue to be owned by capitalists. There are of course exceptions, and even the Council on Foreign Relations pays a dove or two, but the rule is plain to see. And for each brilliant peacenik with a platform, there a hundred replaceable pro-war dumbies vomiting hundreds of words about Adolf Hitler’s latest successor.

That being the case, when the Council on Foreign Relations calls a man with the name Max Boot “one of America’s leading military historians and foreign-policy analysts,” one can rest assured: that means he’s been wrong about a lot of things. A “senior fellow for national security studies” at the council, whose staff directory could very well be entered as evidence in a war crimes tribunal, Boot is an unreconstructed neoconservative: a man with a stupid name who reliably advocates US military intervention wherever, whenever, for seemingly whatever reason. If ever there’s someone arguing we should be bombing something that we’re not, he will be that someone. Air strikes for democracy? Love it! Funneling arms to overthrow a democratic government? Oh hell yeah. War, direct or by proxy, is always the answer – for democracy or against it – and so long as some elite conception of a national interest can be said to have been satisfied, military intervention will always be said to have worked, fidelity to the imperial narrative requiring a flexible definition of “working.”

There’s no reason to believe Boot isn’t sincere, though it’s not to say he’s dishonest to point out he has a financial incentive to believe what he does. And what he believe, well: because the system of punditry generally rewards pro-war buffoonery, it can lead to the curious situation of the editorial page buffoon out-militarizing the actual militarists.

The man whose yes-it’s-real name has prompted no conservative calls to see his birth certificate – white privilege privileges again – is currently upset at the CIA, which has gone all soft by admitting in a classified review that covertly training and arming insurgents “rarely works,” according to a report in The New York Times. Commissioned amid a debate on whether the US should further intervene in the Syria conflict, the report found that past efforts to aid insurgencies “had a minimal impact on the long-term outcome of a conflict.”

Putting aside the morality of aiding death squads, as the Reagan administration did throughout Central America, the report analyzed US efforts on strictly amoral grounds and found that, by and large, funding and arming the sort of people the US generally funds and arms – right-wingers with little to no popular support – isn’t a terribly reliable way to bring about lasting social change that US policymakers see as a positive.

Boot, writing in the far-right magazine, Commentary, is willing to defend the CIA even when the CIA isn’t. “Talk about politicized intelligence,” he writes, conflating the agency’s admission of imperfection with the run-up to the war Boot advocated in Iraq, when the CIA’s top officials cherry-picked raw intelligence to bolster the Bush administration’s decision to go to war. “As a historian, I’m all for studying history,” Boot says, but the report, “which needless to say I have not seen,” fails to note all the CIA’s great victories.

At this point, Boot achieves greatness. Sure, there have been failures, he concedes, “But there have also been notable successes such as the US support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s.” That support empowered those who would go on to form the Taliban – and al-Qaeda – but Boot writes that development off as “a lack of follow-up.” The CIA’s efforts helped replace a Soviet client state with a repressive, fundamentalist regime, with terrible results for the people who lived there, but using the amoral metrics of geopolitical politics: Success! At least for a year or two. It didn’t have to end horribly for everyone but the butchers we empowered, Boot effectively is saying in its defense. In fact, things worked out pretty darn well in the alternate history I just hastily imagined for this blog.

“The CIA’s support for the contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s was also successful, contrary to the CIA report,” Boot asserts, “because even though the contras didn’t seize power at gunpoint, they pressured the Sandinistas into holding elections, which they lost.” Here it is revealed just how little concern there for foreign human life the pro-war-everywhere pundit possesses; they never even figure in to calculations of whether an intervention is “successful” or not.

The Nicaraguan people dared overthrow a US-backed dictator and, in the name of democracy, the Reagan administration responded by funding and arming a right-wing insurgency that killed over 50,000 people – on a per capita basis, fewer people died in the US civil war. When that insurgency failed to seize power by force – again, in the name of democracy – the Reagan administration encouraged the conservative opposition to boycott the free and fair election Nicaragua did indeed have in 1984, seeing that as only way to harm the legitimacy of a popular government that would no doubt win the election (which it did, with 70 percent of the vote).

In 1990, after six more years of foreign-funded insurgency, the Sandinistas held another election and did in fact lose it, but that one was hardly free and fair: If the Sandinistas beat the US-funded opposition, the administration of George H.W. Bush had threatened to maintain a crippling economic embargo and support for the cocaine-funded contras. Given a choice between superpower-imposed suffering and a promise of a superpower-funded aid package, the Nicaraguan people chose the latter – and then after 16 years of successively more corrupt conservative governments, returned the Sandinistas to power in 2006. They’ve held on to it ever since.

Supporting an anti-democratic proxy army that sought to seize power by brute force in the name of democracy can only be said to have “worked” in that it temporarily eroded popular support for a democratically elected, center-left government that is now back in power. It “worked” in that it forced the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere to spend a decade diverting precious resources away from development and toward beating back an army of brutal mercenaries whose own mothers probably did not love them (in Syria, the US is once again abandoning those who are actually fighting for democracy in favor of its own, more controllable – that is, disreputable – proxy force). And there was a lesson imparted by those tens of thousands of killed for no good reason: Think twice, people of Earth, before replacing a right-wing US proxy with a left-wing government – though even Boot isn’t cynical enough to spell that out.

Boot also isn’t the only far-right intellectual desperate to claim a national interest served by what normal human beings would view as a senseless slaughter, like the 2003 invasion of Iraq ostensibly over ties to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. Somewhere between 500,000 and 1.5 million people – men, women and children; mother, fathers, daughters and sons – died as a direct result of that war, but over at the National Review, columnist and very serious fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University, Deroy Murdock, is set on proving one thing: “Bush Didn’t Lie.”

Bush didn’t lie, according to Murdock, but he did – for some reason, nobody with a brain stem knows why – cover up the evidence of Iraq’s WMDs. The evidence Murdock provides for that assertion is a recent report that the Pentagon has, in fact, been covering up the number of soldiers in Iraq who were exposed to chemical agents as they were decommissioning munitions they came across during the war, many of which had been buried underground and all of which were produced before the 1991 Gulf War, back when Iraq was still a US ally. Murdock takes this to mean: “The late dictator Saddam Hussein did have weapons of mass death, and the United States of America was correct to invade Iraq, find these toxins, and destroy them.”

Except, none of that. As The New York Times noted in its report on the cover-up, “The discoveries of these chemical weapons did not support the government’s invasion rationale,” which in 2002–03 the Times had itself credulously reported: that Saddam Hussein “was hiding an active weapons of mass destruction program.”

Indeed, rather than retroactively bolster the case for war, the findings demonstrate that the only WMDs Saddam Hussein ever had were WMDs the US government and its allies gave him. “In five of six incidents in which troops were wounded by chemical agents,” the Times reported, “the munitions appeared to have been designed in the United States, manufactured in Europe and filled in chemical agent production lines built in Iraq by Western companies.”

And rather than destroy these toxins, Murdock himself notes the US left many of them unprotected and, though most are so degraded they can no longer be reliably used as weapons, they are nonetheless in “the humane and prudent hands of the Islamic State.” And whose fault is that, Deroy?

But Murdock, writing for people he knows will never willingly read a New York newspaper that isn’t the Post, doesn’t mention any of that (he doesn’t even mention The New York Times). Instead, he bemoans a lost opportunity, arguing that if the Bush administration did lie – and it did, repeatedly, claiming to have solid evidence Iraq was actively developing and stockpiling chemical, biological and nuclear weapons – it was in claiming that it wasn’t wrong about WMDs. For reasons unknowable, “Bush’s political team” – conservative code for “suspected liberals” – “concealed proof that America’s chief casus belli actually existed. Instead, the howling hyenas of the Left were allowed to gnaw away at Bush’s political corpse.”

In this case, the corpse is a metaphor. Murdock, like others who write pro-war fiction, doesn’t mention the actual corpses: the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis who were killed so that American soldiers could be exposed to US-designed chemical weapons – weapons no one would have been exposed to otherwise – and then leave Iraqi society so broken that half the country is now in the hands of jihadists. These people, the millions murdered from Nicaragua to Iraq as a result of a foreign policy its chief propagandists speak of only in abstract terms of “interests” or “security” (for Americans), are never mentioned so they may as well not have existed. One thing’s for sure: they don’t anymore. And for all the lofty talk of liberation, their liberators are fine with that. The erasure of their existence from this planet served an interest – a national one, perhaps, as defined by those who run the nation, but for America’s militarists, at defense contractors and think thanks, a personal one for sure. As wrong as they were and as wrong as they are, Deroy Murdoch and Max Boot have never wondered how they’re going to come up with next month’s rent.

Charles Davis can be reached through his blog: Free Charles Davis.

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Charles Davis is a writer based in Ecuador whose work has been published by outlets such as Al Jazeera, The Nation and Salon. He can be reached at charles@freecharlesdavis.com.

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