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.

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