Blogs: Paul Pillar

Don't Take Sides in Other People's Quarrels

U.S. Intelligence Ought to Target Israel

Get Over It: Iran Will Have Missiles

Fantasies of a Liberal Interventionist

Paul Pillar

Cohen has an inconsistent way of weighing the lives of Americans and non-Americans, depending on what argument he is trying to make. In some places he takes off his international humanitarian hat and seems to place a much higher value on American lives, as when he notes that “no Americans died in the Libyan bombing campaign” while saying nothing about the deadly post-intervention chaos. Or when he writes, with Syria particularly and unrealistically in mind, of the need to intervene to “at little or no cost to us in American lives.” But elsewhere in the same columns he seems to put that hat back on and not give any preferred consideration to American lives. He knocks Mr. Obama for the estimates the president gave in a recent meeting with journalists about likely American casualties that would result from expanded ground operations in the Middle East. He even knocks the president for talking about his visits at Walter Reed Hospital with maimed veterans who have lost limbs and of how the prospect of ordering troops into battle and leading to more such casualties has to weigh heavily on the decisions of any incumbent president. Cohen's comment about this is, “Life presents mean choices. Limbs were lost in Paris, too.”

That last comment suggests a comparison between casualties from international terrorism and those from military operations that have been conducted in the name of combating terrorism, although if Cohen did the math he might not like the result. (Then again, maybe he wouldn't care, given how his recent writing on Syria has been as narrowly focused on combating the Assad regime, to the exclusion of any concern with ISIS or terrorism, as the most narrow-minded Sunni Gulf Arab.) Even the death toll of the granddaddy of all international terrorist incidents, 9/11, was surpassed by American deaths in the Iraq War, which post-9/11 public alarm about terrorism had made politically possible.

One last observation about the Iraq War and Cohen. Despite his striving to distinguish himself from neocons, and despite his distancing-himself reference to “George W. Bush's Iraq war,” Cohen clearly has not learned lessons from that war. Cohen supported the invasion of Iraq. Later after the war went sour, he like many others who had supported the invasion used an "if only I had known" excuse to try to explain away that support. But like many of those others, including many Congressional Democrats who had voted in favor of the war resolution, getting bamboozled by the Bush administration's public rationale for the war was not the reason they supported it. In Cohen's case, he explicitly recognized before the war how flimsy that rationale was, but nonetheless still supported launching the war. His pre-war position directly contradicted his later effort to make excuses. In a column shortly before the invasion in March 2003, Cohen wrote, “I grant you that in the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked Hussein with al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that's not the case.” And yet, said Cohen, war was necessary because “sometimes peace is no better.”

Underlying this position was one of the worst attributes of liberal interventionism, which is a compulsion to make big gestures, including very costly and destructive gestures, basically because while seeing bad things going on in the world it gives one a warm feeling in the tummy to make such gestures against the bad things, regardless of how sound or unsound is the logical case for doing so and regardless of how costly or ineffective the results may be. To the extent Barack Obama is receiving brickbats from the likes of Richard Cohen for not falling into this line of thinking, or rather of emoting, he is serving the country well.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to The National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense.

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Iran and the Misdirected New Visa Rules

Paul Pillar

Cohen has an inconsistent way of weighing the lives of Americans and non-Americans, depending on what argument he is trying to make. In some places he takes off his international humanitarian hat and seems to place a much higher value on American lives, as when he notes that “no Americans died in the Libyan bombing campaign” while saying nothing about the deadly post-intervention chaos. Or when he writes, with Syria particularly and unrealistically in mind, of the need to intervene to “at little or no cost to us in American lives.” But elsewhere in the same columns he seems to put that hat back on and not give any preferred consideration to American lives. He knocks Mr. Obama for the estimates the president gave in a recent meeting with journalists about likely American casualties that would result from expanded ground operations in the Middle East. He even knocks the president for talking about his visits at Walter Reed Hospital with maimed veterans who have lost limbs and of how the prospect of ordering troops into battle and leading to more such casualties has to weigh heavily on the decisions of any incumbent president. Cohen's comment about this is, “Life presents mean choices. Limbs were lost in Paris, too.”

That last comment suggests a comparison between casualties from international terrorism and those from military operations that have been conducted in the name of combating terrorism, although if Cohen did the math he might not like the result. (Then again, maybe he wouldn't care, given how his recent writing on Syria has been as narrowly focused on combating the Assad regime, to the exclusion of any concern with ISIS or terrorism, as the most narrow-minded Sunni Gulf Arab.) Even the death toll of the granddaddy of all international terrorist incidents, 9/11, was surpassed by American deaths in the Iraq War, which post-9/11 public alarm about terrorism had made politically possible.

One last observation about the Iraq War and Cohen. Despite his striving to distinguish himself from neocons, and despite his distancing-himself reference to “George W. Bush's Iraq war,” Cohen clearly has not learned lessons from that war. Cohen supported the invasion of Iraq. Later after the war went sour, he like many others who had supported the invasion used an "if only I had known" excuse to try to explain away that support. But like many of those others, including many Congressional Democrats who had voted in favor of the war resolution, getting bamboozled by the Bush administration's public rationale for the war was not the reason they supported it. In Cohen's case, he explicitly recognized before the war how flimsy that rationale was, but nonetheless still supported launching the war. His pre-war position directly contradicted his later effort to make excuses. In a column shortly before the invasion in March 2003, Cohen wrote, “I grant you that in the run-up to this war, the Bush administration has slipped, stumbled and fallen on its face. It has advanced untenable, unproven arguments. It has oscillated from disarmament to regime change to bringing democracy to the Arab world. It has linked Hussein with al Qaeda when no such link has been established. It has warned of an imminent Iraqi nuclear program when, it seems, that's not the case.” And yet, said Cohen, war was necessary because “sometimes peace is no better.”

Underlying this position was one of the worst attributes of liberal interventionism, which is a compulsion to make big gestures, including very costly and destructive gestures, basically because while seeing bad things going on in the world it gives one a warm feeling in the tummy to make such gestures against the bad things, regardless of how sound or unsound is the logical case for doing so and regardless of how costly or ineffective the results may be. To the extent Barack Obama is receiving brickbats from the likes of Richard Cohen for not falling into this line of thinking, or rather of emoting, he is serving the country well.

Paul R. Pillar is a contributing editor to The National Interest. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense.

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