Publisher's Note — October 23, 2014, 4:12 pm

A purposeless, symbolic war

“Since World War II, very little that could be called genuinely humanitarian has resulted from American military intervention—not in Korea, certainly not in Vietnam, and not in Panama, Afghanistan, or the two Iraq wars and Libya.”

This column originally ran in the Providence Journal on October 23, 2014.

What is Barack Obama doing in his “war” against the Islamic State?

I’ve tried to see the president’s policy in humanitarian terms. After all, preventing beheadings—of American journalists, British charity workers, or Arab civilians caught in sectarian crossfire—sounds like a very good thing to do. But the rationale doesn’t stand up when viewed in historical context.

Since World War II, very little that could be called genuinely humanitarian has resulted from American military intervention—not in Korea, certainly not in Vietnam, and not in Panama, Afghanistan, or the two Iraq wars and Libya. The only wars of rescue that might have been conceived on moral grounds—Grenada and Kosovo—were so badly tainted by U.S. deception that the liberal interventionists don’t even talk about them anymore. The American medical students in Grenada were in no real danger after the communist coup, and the Serbs weren’t committing “genocide” against the Albanians in Kosovo.

Since 1945, the United States has more often than not broken the laws of morality when it has gone to war. Its supposedly humanitarian efforts have been driven by emotions, ideas, and goals that have little to do with altruism.

Anti-communism and anti-authoritarianism are certainly worthy convictions, given how communist and non-communist dictators have oppressed the people they have ruled since 1917. But Harry Truman and Douglas MacArthur weren’t altruistic in Korea any more than the Bushes, father and son, were altruistic about Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Barack Obama, for his part, denounces the savagery of the Islamic State, but he meanwhile launches drones that savagely decapitate civilians, including children, in the name of defending civilization.

What about self-defense? Well, the domino theory appears, against all logical evidence, to be alive and well. In the early 1980s, after the Vietnam War showed how wrongheaded it was to fear that communists were inexorably spreading their domination from China to India (in fact, Vietnamese communists were nationalists who hated China), Ronald Reagan nearly launched a full-scale war against Nicaragua on the same specious premise.

My visit to Managua and Leon in 1983 was enough for me to see the absurdity of the Reagan rhetoric. The semi-communist Sandinistas, more theatrical bluff than hard-core Marxists, could barely feed their own people or suppress the rebellious Miskito Indians. And yet wild talk abounded about the Sandinista army being only a two-days’ drive from the Texas border.

“Central America … [has] become the stage for a bold attempt by the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Nicaragua to install communism by force throughout the hemisphere,” declared Reagan in a 1984 speech. “We Americans must … come to grips with the fact that the Sandinistas are not content to brutalize their own land. They seek to export their terror to every other country in the region.” Despite what he called his attempts “to show friendship,” Reagan claimed the Sandinistas had “kept on exporting terrorism.”

Sound familiar? The worldwide communist conspiracy against America has morphed into the worldwide conspiracy to create an Islamic caliphate that would govern Nevada and Nebraska. Never mind that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, is really only interested in converting his Sunni brethren to his extreme version of the already extremist Muslim sect of Wahhabism, or that the Wahhabi movement was inspired and is still funded by some of our “moderate” Arab allies, including the duplicitous Saudi royal family. Forget that Americans, among whom communism never achieved more than minor cult status, are unlikely to adopt religious principles that would close down Las Vegas and dictate the amputation of limbs to punish convenience-store robbers. Yet Mr. Obama would have us think that the Islamic executioners will soon be lying in wait outside casinos and strip clubs, knives drawn.

I’ve been consistent in my criticism of the president since even before he was first elected. But I don’t think that he’s ignorant, or even a fantasist like Reagan. Mr. Obama surely knows that America cannot defeat a religious ideology with missiles or soldiers, any more than we could defeat the Vietcong and Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnamese troops with massive aerial bombing and more than 500,000 ground troops.

I think he’s merely a true believer in conventional wisdom. And some conventional political tactician is telling him that the worst possible scenario before Election Day, Nov. 4, would be images of American diplomats being evacuated by helicopter from the roof of their fortress embassy in Baghdad. It wouldn’t just be Saigon redux; it would also reverberate back to 1949 and the anti-communist war cry of “Who lost China?”

It doesn’t matter that Iraq was lost long ago, or that it was never ours to win. All that matters to Mr. Obama and his advisers is preventing John McCain and Lindsay Graham from ever shouting, “Who lost Iraq?” So we have a largely symbolic war with hardly any purpose other than to save the Democratic majority in the Senate.

The trouble is, the conventional wisdom is wrong. America’s beleaguered working and middle classes have lost their illusions about American goodness and virtue in the world. They just want a raise, and Mr. Obama and the Democrats didn’t deliver it.

Share
Single Page

More from John R. MacArthur:

From the January 2018 issue

The Human Factor

How I learned the real meaning of dissent

Publisher's Note December 13, 2017, 7:25 pm

McCain’s War

“Although McCain participated in a morally unpardonable war in which the United Sates killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, one can’t help sympathizing with him in his reduced state.”

Publisher's Note November 10, 2017, 5:29 pm

Industrial Tourism

NAFTA is an investment contract that protects American and Canadian goods and interests against Mexican expropriation, regulation, and pestering by local authorities.

Get access to 167 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2018

The Bodies in The Forest

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Minds of Others

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Modern Despots

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Before the Deluge

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Notes to Self

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within Reach

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Pushing the Limit·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the early Eighties, Andy King, the coach of the Seawolves, a swim club in Danville, California, instructed Debra Denithorne, aged twelve, to do doubles — to practice in the morning and the afternoon. King told Denithorne’s parents that he saw in her the potential to receive a college scholarship, and even to compete in the Olympics. Tall swimmers have an advantage in the water, and by the time Denithorne turned thirteen, she was five foot eight. She dropped soccer and a religious group to spend more time at the pool.

Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Minds of Others·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Progress is impossible without change,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in 1944, “and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.” But progress through persuasion has never seemed harder to achieve. Political segregation has made many Americans inaccessible, even unimaginable, to those on the other side of the partisan divide. On the rare occasions when we do come face-to-face, it is not clear what we could say to change each other’s minds or reach a worthwhile compromise. Psychological research has shown that humans often fail to process facts that conflict with our preexisting worldviews. The stakes are simply too high: our self-worth and identity are entangled with our beliefs — and with those who share them. The weakness of logic as a tool of persuasion, combined with the urgency of the political moment, can be paralyzing.

Yet we know that people do change their minds. We are constantly molded by our environment and our culture, by the events of the world, by the gossip we hear and the books we read. In the essays that follow, seven writers explore the ways that persuasion operates in our lives, from the intimate to the far-reaching. Some consider the ethics and mechanics of persuasion itself — in religion, politics, and foreign policy — and others turn their attention to the channels through which it acts, such as music, protest, and technology. How, they ask, can we persuade others to join our cause or see things the way we do? And when it comes to our own openness to change, how do we decide when to compromise and when to resist?

Illustration (detail) by Lincoln Agnew
Article
Within Reach·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

On a balmy day last spring, Connor Chase sat on a red couch in the waiting room of a medical clinic in Columbus, Ohio, and watched the traffic on the street. His bleached-blond hair fell into his eyes as he scrolled through his phone to distract himself. Waiting to see Mimi Rivard, a nurse practitioner, was making Chase nervous: it would be the first time he would tell a medical professional that he was transgender.

By the time he arrived at the Equitas Health clinic, Chase was eighteen, and had long since come to dread doctors and hospitals. As a child, he’d had asthma, migraines, two surgeries for a tumor that had caused deafness in one ear, and gangrene from an infected bug bite. Doctors had always assumed he was a girl. After puberty, Chase said, he avoided looking in the mirror because his chest and hips “didn’t feel like my body.” He liked it when strangers saw him as male, but his voice was high-pitched, so he rarely spoke in public. Then, when Chase was fourteen, he watched a video on YouTube in which a twentysomething trans man described taking testosterone to lower his voice and appear more masculine. Suddenly, Chase had an explanation for how he felt — and what he wanted.

Illustration by Taylor Callery
Article
Before the Deluge·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In the summer of 2016, when Congress installed a financial control board to address Puerto Rico’s crippling debt, I traveled to San Juan, the capital. The island owed some $120 billion, and Wall Street was demanding action. On the news, President Obama announced his appointments to the Junta de Supervisión y Administración Financiera. “The task ahead for Puerto Rico is not an easy one,” he said. “But I am confident Puerto Rico is up to the challenge of stabilizing the fiscal situation, restoring growth, and building a better future for all Puerto Ricans.” Among locals, however, the control board was widely viewed as a transparent effort to satisfy mainland creditors — just the latest tool of colonialist plundering that went back generations.

Photograph from Puerto Rico by Christopher Gregory
Article
Monumental Error·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1899, the art critic Layton Crippen complained in the New York Times that private donors and committees had been permitted to run amok, erecting all across the city a large number of “painfully ugly monuments.” The very worst statues had been dumped in Central Park. “The sculptures go as far toward spoiling the Park as it is possible to spoil it,” he wrote. Even worse, he lamented, no organization had “power of removal” to correct the damage that was being done.

Illustration by Steve Brodner

Percentage of Republicans who said they prioritized gun control over gun rights in 1999:

53

The kangaroo’s tail is a fifth leg.

Trump tweeted that he had created “jobs, jobs, jobs” since becoming president, and it was reported that Trump plans to bolster job creation by loosening regulations on the global sale of US-made artillery, warships, fighter jets, and drones.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Report — From the June 2013 issue

How to Make Your Own AR-15

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

"Gun owners have long been the hypochondriacs of American politics. Over the past twenty years, the gun-rights movement has won just about every battle it has fought; states have passed at least a hundred laws loosening gun restrictions since President Obama took office. Yet the National Rifle Association has continued to insist that government confiscation of privately owned firearms is nigh. The NRA’s alarmism helped maintain an active membership, but the strategy was risky: sooner or later, gun guys might have realized that they’d been had. Then came the shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, followed swiftly by the nightmare the NRA had been promising for decades: a dedicated push at every level of government for new gun laws. The gun-rights movement was now that most insufferable of species: a hypochondriac taken suddenly, seriously ill."

Subscribe Today