Several reporters called me this week, asking for comment on the Afghanistan war’s latest milestone: The total American war deaths in that conflict have surpassed one thousand.
My initial reaction was to wonder why anyone would think the issue sufficiently noteworthy to merit a story. It struck me as one of those situations where journalists grab a random factoid and try to endow it with significance, recruiting people (like me) to unearth its hitherto unappreciated meaning.
The real story—which just about no one seems to have noticed—is this: In Washington, the bipartisan consensus in favor of open-ended global war has been restored. As far as national security policy is concerned, this may well stand as the Obama administration’s principal accomplishment to date.
Recall, please, the immediate aftermath of 9/11. President Bush and his lieutenants wasted no time in committing the United States to a global war. America’s purpose was to eliminate terror—perhaps even evil itself—and to spread democracy around the world. Bush and others in his inner circle were quite candid in declaring that this enterprise was likely to require decades if not generations before achieving complete success.
In Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike responded with applause, with blank-check authorizations, and with massive appropriations of money. Few voices were raised to wonder if open-ended war might not be such a good thing. Bring 'em on: That was the order of the day.
Only when Bush decided to go after Saddam Hussein—innocent of very little, but uninvolved in the 9/11 attacks—did cracks begin to show in this consensus. When Operation Iraqi Freedom produced not victory, but a shipwreck, consensus all but collapsed. Democrats turned (belatedly) against the war. From out of nowhere, Barack Obama—who, unlike Senator Hillary Clinton, had not voted in favor of invading Iraq (he hadn’t yet been elected to the Senate)—emerged as the anti-war/peace presidential candidate. Obama promised to change the way Washington worked. Surely that implied a rejection of Bush’s recipe for endless war.
Well, no, as it turns out. Once elected and after due deliberation, Obama decided that endless war remains an imperative. The new president just wanted to focus on Afghanistan and “AfPak” rather than on Iraq and the Persian Gulf. So he hired his own version of General David Petraeus and announced his own version of the surge. In Congress, Republicans and Democrats alike responded with applause, with blank-check authorizations, and with massive appropriations of money.
Which leaves us pretty much back where we were after 9/11—except that no one any longer believes that the concerted use of military power will enable the United States to eliminate terror—much less evil itself—or to spread democracy around the world. The fighting continues. The bills mount. To what end?
Helluva job, Mr. President.