Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Press and Foreign Wars

Damon Linker ponders why there is so little attention being paid to what he considers the five wars the US is fighting now: in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Somalia.
Republicans have an incentive to avoid a conversation about our multiple wars because the GOP finds it more politically advantageous to portray Barack Obama as a feckless commander in chief who has made the country less safe through grandiloquent displays of spinelessness. To put our wars on the table for discussion and debate would expose the actual truth, which is that Obama has very much governed as a hawk (albeit one who, unlike Republicans, prefers not to brag about it).

Democrats, on the other hand, have several reasons of their own to avoid a conversation about our multiple wars. First, because they quite understandably fear that the American people might object if they realized the Democratic administration was meddling militarily in so many places. Second, because the results of and strategic goals at stake in these interventions are so consistently muddled. Third, because it would reveal that Democrats are closely following the foreign policy vision of their nemesis George W. Bush.

Members of Congress, meanwhile, prefer to avoid making a fuss about our extensive military adventures — all of which are apparently covered by the comically broad Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists passed just after the 9/11 attacks — because their silence shields them from having to take partial responsibility for the consequences of the president's actions. Better to shirk Congress' constitutional obligations than risk having to take part of the blame if something goes wrong.

And finally and most troublingly, the press has an incentive to avoid a discussion of our actions in places like Somalia and Yemen because the details are extraordinarily complicated — and journalists have no faith in their own ability to explain the necessary historical and geopolitical background to each conflict in a way that will keep an audience engaged, or faith in the American people to process and evaluate that information in a responsible way.
It is a little disturbing how much in the way of war the president can wage without anyone in America much caring.


pithom said...

"It is a little disturbing how much in the way of war the president can wage without anyone in America much caring."

-Vote Trump. The creatures in the Swamp will start caring again.

G. Verloren said...


"Creatures in the Swamp"? Where in the world do you get this stuff?


You frame the situation as the president being the one to wage the wars, but really these are the pet projects of the military brass and the Pentagon. If they didn't want to be involved in these conflicts at the highest levels, they (and we) absolutely wouldn't be.

And while our involvement is undeniably substantial, in all our major conflicts we're actually not committing very much in the way of our own military forces at all - we're relying incredibly heavily on proxies.

You can be absolutely certain that if we stepped in and personally took on the military investments of these conflicts, much of the public would immediately object. It's the very fact that we're so indirectly shaping these conflicts that allows them to go so undiscussed and uncared about.

These are old lessons, learned a long time ago by the world's most influential nations. The Rennaisance was full of proxy wars, for example - particularly in Italy proper. Just look at the Venetians, the Genoans, the Milanese, the Papal State, et cetera. There's a reason condotierri ruled the age, after all.

And speaking of Italy, even the Ancient Romans were happy to frequently delegate their complicated, unglamorous, inglorious dirty work to local powers whom they quietly backed. Why officially fight a war which will be viewed poorly by your citizens when you can just fight it unofficially instead and avoid much of the outcry - particularly if the war might very well end in defeat? Why send the proud and revered Legions into an ugly situation that may not have a happy ending possible, when you could instead just send money, food, weapons, generals, and spies to achieve nearly the same effect?

It's a hideous, nasty business to be sure. But it's a predictable one, in many ways. No matter who you are, you always need your populace to not object to your military adventures (or perhaps misadventures). Some countries manage to avoid that problem by controlling information, employing propaganda, limiting freedoms, and trying to directly manipulate public opinion (with the underlying threat of consequences for not going along with the desires of one's "great leader"). Other countries, like America, must instead rely on downplaying the conflicts we involve ourselves in, and take care to only be "officially" involved in causes that will prove popular (or at least tolerable).

John said...

Sometimes that's how it works. Certainly the military pressured Obama to commit more men to Afghanistan. But the invasion of Iraq was pushed by civilians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, Addington, Wolfowitz, etc.) over the objections of many in the military. And the main people pushing for the Libya intervention were also civilians, notably "liberal interventionists" like Hillary and Susan Rice. I see the problem as not localized to the military but rather a widespread "we have to do something" mentality that lots of powerful Americans share.

Unknown said...

My impression is likewise that in several important cases the military has been a force for restraint. The military brass has consistently advised against war against Iran, for example, even when the civilian Bushites made it clear that that was not what they wanted to hear.

What the military does do, as John remarks, is push for increase in forces once they are put into a fight. But part of the reason for that is that the civilian leadership consistently tries to sell their interventionist projects on the basis that these can be done with "minimal force" (remember when Rumsfeld, Feith, and Wolfowitz thought we could invade Iraq with 30,000 men and then be out of there in three months?).