Bluster is on the loose. With ISIS, an al-Qaida offshoot, proclaiming a caliphate in parts of Iraq and Syria, Russia facing off with Ukraine, Libya descending into a civil chaos, the Taliban striking in Afghanistan, pundits and politicians are raising a drumbeat of demands for muscular action, condemning President Obama for his caution and supposed passivity. But the bluster is providing more heat than light.
Remember, we had a president who shot first and thought later, who roused Americans with the threat of weapons of mass destruction, and dispatched American forces into a war of choice halfway around the world. The result was the Iraq debacle, source of much of the troubles we face today. We were told it would be easy, and that it wouldn’t cost much. We were told — by ever-macho Sen. John McCain — that setting up a new government wouldn’t be a problem, that there wasn’t really much enmity between Sunni and Shiite. The administration’s hawks — led by Rumsfeld and Cheney — didn’t even think it necessary to plan for the aftermath. Shock and awe and then democracy would break out.
The result was certainly the worst foreign-policy calamity since Vietnam. The war will end up costing an estimated $3 trillion, along with tens of thousands of American soldiers dead and wounded. The invasion helped to destabilize the entire Middle East, unleashing a Sunni-Shiite civil war that continues to this day.
Now we hear the same kind of macho posturing from the same people who drove us so recklessly into Iraq. We should have sent arms to supposed “moderates” in Syria, they crow, arms that surely would be in the hands of ISIS by now. We should have bombed Assad in Syria, they bluster, although Assad is, at this point, the strongest opponent of the ISIS terrorists. We should ratchet up the pressure on Iran — “Everyone wants to go to Baghdad, was a favorite quip in the Bush White House, “real men want to go to Tehran” — but don’t say what that would entail. We should have done more in Libya, they argue, as that country descends into a civil chaos, but no one wants “boots on the ground.” We need to face off with the Russians in Ukraine, they suggest, arguing Obama isn’t tough enough, while suggesting nothing beyond what he is already doing. We should be bombing ISIS and organizing a coalition against it, which again the president is already doing.
Macho bluster is good for locker rooms; it plays well in TV studios. It is dangerous in foreign policy. We need a president who thinks it through before he acts it out. We want a president who is thoughtful and prudent, not one with an itchy trigger finger.
One way to bring more sense to this debate would be to do what other nations would have already done. Let’s hear far less from those who drove us into Iraq. Let’s hear more from those who voted against the Iraq war, who doubted the supposed threat of weapons of mass destruction, who were skeptical about the claims of an easy victory that wouldn’t cost much. It is hard to understand why the networks keep featuring the same crowd that got it so wrong on Iraq at such great cost to American lives and fortune.
President Obama should be praised, not censored, for refusing to be rushed into war, for taking time to organize allies and to consider whether our own security is threatened. From Afghanistan across the region to Libya, civil wars, sectarian conflicts, tribal and regional rivalries are generating complicated, tangled conflicts. No president of either party would put troops back into that cauldron.
The armchair warriors should be, but are not chastened by, the calamity that they have helped to create. They may not be able to stop talking tough, but surely neither the president nor the rest of us need listen to them.