With recent military victories by the self-proclaimed Islamic State, President Barack Obama’s critics are once again ratcheting up their rhetoric, blaming him for the spreading violence in the Middle East. Beginning his campaign for the GOP presidential nomination, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) chimed in:
“If you fought in Iraq, it worked. It’s not your fault it’s going to hell. It’s Obama’s fault,” he said.
That’s been more or less the tack taken by all the declared and potential candidates in the Republican presidential field: Pretend that George W. Bush’s invasion had nothing to do with the disastrous escalation of war and terror from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. Blame it all on Obama. Play to a public nervous about the gruesome videos of Islamic State jihadists beheading their captives.
But here’s the one thing that you’re unlikely to hear from those armchair hawks: a plan to put large numbers of U.S. forces on the ground. The graves that are being spruced up for Memorial Day are too fresh, the memories of our Iraqi misadventure too raw.
Then again, GOP politicians still want to pummel the president for allegedly pulling troops out of Iraq too soon. Speaking to a crowd in New Hampshire recently — and trying to recover from a dumb defense of his brother’s invasion — Jeb Bush accused Obama of following public opinion rather than sound military advice.
“That’s what the president did when he abandoned, when he left Iraq. And I think it was wrong,” he said.
That’s a glib answer from a man whose children don’t serve under fire, whose friends and fat-cat donors keep their kids far away from the duties and demands of the U.S. armed forces. And that’s true for the vast majority of the GOP field. Graham was a military lawyer who never saw combat, but at least he served. Most of them did not.
Indeed, the drumbeat for war depends on the service of a relatively small percentage of Americans. Fewer than 1 percent of our citizens currently serve in the armed forces, and they are disproportionately drawn from working-class and lower-middle-class households.
As a rule, members of the 1 percent don’t go. (None of Mitt Romney’s five sons ever served.) For that matter, neither do the members of the top 10 percent.
And it’s especially irksome that those armchair hawks refuse to acknowledge that George W. Bush’s decision to depose Saddam Hussein set up the conditions for the current chaos in the Middle East. (Young Ivy Ziedrich, a college student, was right when she confronted Jeb Bush at a Reno, Nevada, event: “Your brother created ISIS,” she said.)
The Islamic State jihadists are largely Sunni; while they claim many grievances, they are chiefly waging war against their fellow Muslims who are Shi’a. Saddam was a Sunni who cruelly repressed Shiites and granted special favors to Sunnis, but his iron-fisted rule kept the peace.
Had the invasion of Iraq depended on a military draft, it’s unlikely Bush would have attempted it. It’s hard to imagine that the U.S. Senate would have given him the authority to go in. The news media, which were largely quiescent in the face of Bush’s warmongering, would probably have asked more questions.
After all, it was clear even then that members of the Bush administration — especially Dick Cheney, who received deferments to avoid service in Vietnam — were exaggerating or distorting intelligence claiming ties between al Qaeda and Saddam. And while most Republicans now claim that faulty intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction was to blame for the invasion, the fact is that should not have mattered. Even if Saddam had WMDs, they were no threat to us. A few months before 9/11, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell had said as much.
If we’ve learned anything (and it’s not clear that we have), it should be this: As brave and capable as they are, the men and women of the U.S. armed forces cannot calm every conflict, destroy every dictatorship or bend the world to our will. The best way to honor their service is to refrain from sending them recklessly to war.
(Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Photo: Peter Lee via Flickr