The Buzz

A Decade of War, Forgotten

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Ross Douthat's latest column is about Speaker John Boehner, and it argues that Boehner deserves more credit than he has gotten for the way he has handled the many governmental crises of the past two years. One sentence in it that has nothing to do with Boehner or Congress, however, is the most revealing thing about the piece. In listing the factors that have led to Washington's recent recurring chaos, Douthat says:

First, there’s the grim economic and budgetary situation — a mix of slow growth and huge peacetime deficits that constrains policy makers in unprecedented ways.

The fact that Douthat uses the word "peacetime" here is simply amazing. Consider the following facts: The United States is at war in Afghanistan, with roughly sixty-eight thousand troops present there. It has been at war in Afghanistan for over eleven years. During that time, Washington also launched a costly and deeply misguided eight-year war in Iraq, which led to roughly 4,500 U.S. and over a hundred thousand Iraqi deaths. Further, the United States used armed force to help remove Muammar el-Qaddafi's regime from power in Libya in 2011 (an act of war by any reasonable standard, even if the White House would not call it one). Not to mention the broader "long war" and its attendant drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.

Douthat is not the first person to make this mistake. For example, Mitt Romney did the same in April 2011, when he blasted President Obama in an op-ed for engaging in "one of the biggest peacetime spending binges in American history." Romney later walked back his statement as a function of poor word choice, and it seems likely that something similar was behind Douthat's error. Nevertheless, this is worth highlighting for two reasons. First, calling them "peacetime deficits" obscures the fact that defense spending (taking into account both "core" Pentagon spending and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan) has indeed grown significantly over the past decade. It's not the only or even principal cause of the country's debt, but it's certainly a contributing factor.

Second, and more important, these episodes only serve to further highlight the extent to which America's governing class has become divorced from the military and the costs of the country's wars. As Chris Hayes put it well in his recent book Twilight of the Elites, and as others have observed, the "social distance" between those who are making crucial decisions about war and peace and those who bear the consequences of those decisions is enormous. There's no easy and immediate answer for how to shrink this distance. But those who are in positions of power or have large platforms could at least start by demonstrating a basic awareness concerning the facts of when their country is or is not at war.