Democracies Get the Wars They Deserve

Democracies Get the Wars They Deserve

America is stuck in a pattern of accepting faulty concepts during wars as common knowledge. Remember the domino theory?

Despite the heavy costs of the war in Afghanistan and the major problem it has become for the Obama administration, the war is playing little role, as Albert Hunt notes, in the midterm Congressional election campaign. Hunt attributes this disconnect partly to “the dominance of the economic concerns facing many Americans.” He also sees it as “a matter of political convenience: Democrats with reservations about the war do not want to criticize an already beleaguered president, and Republicans want to appear muscular and tough without providing any plan or specifics.”

Hunt's observations are valid, but the politics of the war in Afghanistan constitute only the latest example of a recurring pattern involving America's wars. The pattern is not necessarily one of inattention to the war of the moment; some past wars, after all, have become major issues in American politics. Rather, the pattern is the more subtle one of collective obeisance to concepts that become accepted as common knowledge and are politically hazardous to challenge. In the case of Afghanistan, it is the concept that the fight in Afghanistan is about keeping America safe from Al Qaeda terrorism. The Vietnam War involved the concepts of successive countries falling to communism like dominoes and of grave damage to the standing and credibility of the United States if it backed away from an existing commitment (the latter concept also being heard today regarding Afghanistan). The launching of the other currently ongoing war—the one in Iraq—was different from these other two in that the driving concepts were not previously existing strands of public opinion but instead were manufactured through a tremendous sales campaign by the war-makers in the Bush administration. That campaign was so effective in getting Americans to think of an invasion of Iraq as part of a “war on terror” (and even leading, through a rhetorical drumbeat more than specific allegations, a majority of Americans to believe that Saddam Hussein had been personally involved in 9/11) that, manufactured or not, the effect was comparable to the common knowledge associated with those other wars.

Exactly how this type of stifling received wisdom plays out politically varies, depending on the other circumstances surrounding each war. As Hunt's observation suggests, the salience of economic or other issues seizing the electorate's attention is a pertinent variable, as is the political standing of the president of the day. Conscription, which spreads the pain of war more widely than an all-volunteer force, accounts for much of the difference in how the American public has reacted to the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan. If we still had the draft, we would be hearing far more about the current war in the election campaign than we have so far.

Even without conscription, we are entitled to hear much more than we have from Congressional candidates on issues of war and peace, especially in light of the role played by Congressional actions in past wars. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution of 1964, ostensibly a response to a murky naval incident, was used by the administration of Lyndon Johnson as authorization for the entire Vietnam War. The Bush administration got a resolution passed by Congress in the fall of 2002 that it similarly used as a sanction for the Iraq War. The war in Afghanistan has never gotten its own resolution but is one of a wide variety of measures, associated in varying degrees with counterterrorism, that still gets hung on a resolution that Congress passed following 9/11.

Political convenience has led most members of Congress to devote scant attention to these resolutions, notwithstanding the huge consequences of what they supposedly were authorizing. The Gulf of Tonkin resolution was rushed through with only cursory hearings. The main political challenge Johnson was facing at the time was from the right (as represented by Barry Goldwater, the Republican presidential candidate whom Johnson would defeat three months later), and Democrats were happy to vote for a measure that made them appear resolute in standing up to communism. The Iraq War resolution got even less attention, getting passed without any committee hearings at all. Republicans fell in line with the wishes of the Republican president, and Democrats wanted to get the vote over with as quickly as possible so they could get back to campaigning on issues they thought gave them more of an advantage. Very few members of either party scrutinized the case the administration used to sell the war, much less the likely consequences of occupying Iraq.

Autocracies have their own characteristic weaknesses, of course, regarding decisions of war and peace. They tend to be even more prone than most democracies to having their foreign and security policies warped by the idiosyncrasies and weaknesses of individual leaders. But the destructive effects of broadly shared but possibly invalid common knowledge are at least as likely to show up in competitive political systems. Even in such systems, the destructive effects are only a possibility, not a necessary consequence. Some democracies have been more prone to this sort of thing than others. The United States seems to be one that is more prone. The erroneous but very influential view about credibility being severely damaged by backing away from a losing effort is probably most apt to be found in a superpower, especially one with the exceptionalist attitudes that characterize American public opinion. And the intense partisanship that increasingly has infected the making of foreign as well as domestic policy in the United States amplifies the tendency of our legislators to follow politically convenient paths rather than critically examining the received wisdom and thinking harder about what really is or is not in the national interest.