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The Charge of the Neo-Conservative Light Brigade

Bill Kristol cries Obama Retreat! yet again.

Kiev is ablaze. Syria is a killing field. The Iranian mullahs aren’t giving up their nuclear weapons capability, and other regimes in the Middle East are preparing to acquire their own. Al Qaeda is making gains and is probably stronger than ever. China and Russia throw their weight around, while our allies shudder and squabble.

Ah yes, Bill Kristol has taken another look at the world and found it messy. But his messiness is messy. Kiev is ablaze because Russia can’t really throw its weight around anymore. Iran is engaged in serious nuclear negotiations for the first time and has taken verifiable steps to get rid of its weapons-grade uranium. Al Qaeda is no longer the centralized threat it once was, thanks to the Obama Administration’s use of drones and special operations forces. China’s stability is heavily dependent on the long-term success of the United States. Putin’s blowhard Russia is a paper tiger. And for once, in Syria, we have forced Assad to get rid of his chemical weapons without attacking yet another Islamic country (even if the President’s steps toward that goal were, shall we say, shaky and unconvincing).

The neo-conservative world view was already out-of-date in 2001, when George W. Bush adopted it. Dick Cheney, who is still raging in the darkness, thought the radical Islamist threat came from nation-states like Iraq. It didn’t. Cheney was the CEO of Halliburton and saw the world in an oily way: the threat to American national security was from hostile control of hydrocarbons. It wasn’t. These days, actual nation-states–like Iran, for instance–have far too much at stake to go to war, given the lethality of the weaponry. (Iran, having taken 1 million casualties–an estimated 10% from chemical wmds– in its disastrously stupid war against Iraq in the 1980s, has a better sense than most countries of the brutality of modern warfare.)

It seems abundantly clear now that the most appropriate response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks would have been a limited, special operations effort to clear Afghanistan (and Pakistan) of Al Qaeda’s central leadership, then to remain vigilant against bad actors–as the Obama Administration has done. Obama’s policy in the region has not been retreat. It has been sanity and, in its use of drones and special forces, far more effective than Bush’s extravagantly wasteful war effort. The idea that the United States is “responsible” for keeping the peace in a region of maps misdrawn by colonial powers is staggeringly arrogant. It is up to the modern-day Babylonians to decide what their country will be–and up to the Kurds to decide whether they’ll have a country of their own. The “Who Lost Iraq” argument even more foolish than “Who Lost China?” was 65 years ago. It is a neo-colonial hangover. It is time for the people in the region–with our diplomatic and humanitarian assistance, if requested–to decide what the actual countries are. Such things are never easy and, sadly, they are often bloody. But they are also inevitable. (This is also true for that other British colonial mapmaking disaster: South Asia, including Afghanistan.)

And yet Kristol and Charles Krauthammer–dubbed the “Bomber Boys” by George W. Bush–and dinosaurs like Cheney and John McCain insist on seeing the future of warfare in the now-distant past. There are national security threats, to be sure. Cyberwarfare is a real threat. Terrorism remains a real threat, which is why a sensibly modified version of the NSA’s data-mining operation is a necessity. There is the need for a nuclear deterrent. But it sometimes seems as if the neo-conservative minority still wants to arm itself against the possibility of tank battles on the plains of central Europe and fleet-sized sea battles in the South China Sea. This sort of view is dangerously myopic, reactionary in the truest sense of the word.

The future of warfare–and with it, the future of diplomacy–is changing at warp speed, along with the future of everything else. We should be doing everything we can to remain ahead of that curve, even it means spending a lot of money. Protecting the nation’s security remains the government’s top priority. But the time for spending money on tanks and vast divisions of infantry has passed as surely as the need to raise catapults and horse-cavalry. Kristol’s “retreat” argument is disingenuous–he is, as ever, the ultra-conservative tactician, trying to score political points without engaging in the substantive argument about national security necessary at this hinge of history. It will be interesting to see if his persistent illogic will remain dominant in the increasingly isolationist Republican Party.

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