Stop the Knee Jerking Already

Whenever there is talk of war in the air, public opinion responds to the previous war, whatever it was.

So, until the attack on Pearl Harbor, many Americans opposed getting involved in what became World War II because they saw it as a replay of World War I. Which it really wasn’t, if you look at the details. Much of my parents’ generation, who fought World War II, supported military action in Vietnam because they saw a parallel between the Tonkin Gulf and Pearl Harbor. Seriously. And, anyway, Communists.

In the buildup to the Gulf War of 1990-91, plenty of us Boomers warned of another Vietnam. I don’t remember that I did, but I remember a few people tried to organize 1968-style street protests (not many showed up), and I remember listening to some self-styled military expert on NPR warn that Saddam’s elite troops would keep us bogged down for years, like the Vietcong. Well, whether you supported it or not, the Gulf War was possibly the least Vietnam-like foreign war the U.S. ever fought.

Before the invasion of Iraq, some of us did see something like another Vietnam, an un-winnable war that would sap us for years until we got smart enough to walk away from it. And in that case, we were right. But I think most of the public imagined the earlier Gulf War over again, and assumed it would be a relatively painless (for us) operation. The Bush Administration seems to have assumed the same thing.

Now the White House and some allies are considering some kind of limited strike on Syria because of chemical weapons use. “Regime change” has been ruled out, much to Grandpa John’s dismay. No one is talking about invasion or ground troops. Like many of us, I seriously doubt bombing Syria would accomplish anything, but my sense of things is that what’s being discussed doesn’t even rise to the level of what was done in Kosovo in 1998 and 1999. And it may be all the talk is just saber rattling. Sometimes saber rattling does the job, in fact, but it only works if everyone thinks you mean it.

But, predictably, already people are seeing a replay of the Bushies’ yellowcake scary cylinders mushroom cloud talk used to rush us into Iraq. They are certain the information about chemical attacks is just being made up to justify President Obama’s alleged commitment to “a state of ongoing war,” and we know Obama is lying because we remember Tonkin and babies pulled out of incubators and weapons of mass destruction.

But, y’know, governments don’t always lie. There really were atrocities in Kosovo. Hitler really was a nasty piece of work who would have attacked the U.S. eventually. Khrushchev really was sending nuclear missiles to Cuba. Sometimes awful stuff does happen that requires a response, even if it’s just threats.

Whether something has happened in Syria that requires a response I do not know. I think for President Obama, doing something is politically riskier than doing nothing, which is why I don’t think the chemical weapons stories can be dismissed out of hand. Getting our military bogged down in another prolonged action would get in the way of the President’s domestic policy goals, I would think. But I assume nothing. I just wish everyone else would assume nothing, too.

BTW, of all people, George Will is outraged that the President is “talking the nation into war.”

Barack Obama’s foreign policy dream — cordial relations with a Middle East tranquilized by “smart diplomacy” — is in a death grapple with reality. His rhetorical writhings illustrate the perils of loquacity. He has a glutton’s, rather than a gourmet’s, appetite for his own rhetorical cuisine, and he has talked America to the precipice of a fourth military intervention in the crescent that extends from Libya to Afghanistan.

I’d say Will’s rhetorical writhings are in a death grapple with a thesaurus. And the thesaurus is winning.

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