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:

Publisher's Note December 20, 2018, 5:05 pm

The Yellow Fault Line

The crisis in France is gnawing away at what’s left of the lower classes’ pride and possessions

Publisher's Note December 10, 2018, 3:23 pm

A New Day?

“The Democratic Party is best understood as an assemblage of baronies, the three most important of which—California, New York, and Illinois—dole out the most patronage and political favors in return for filling the party’s coffers and guaranteeing the reelection of its most cherished adherents.”

Publisher's Note November 3, 2018, 12:02 am

All Bets Are Off

“I recommend neither the assertions of journalists and pollsters nor big headlines about terror attacks, murders, or caravans of desperate people as a basis for predicting the outcome of the midterm elections.”

Get access to 168 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2019

Without a Trace

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

What China Threat?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Going to Extremes

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Tell Me How This Ends”

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What China Threat?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Within about fifteen years, China’s economy will surpass America’s and become the largest in the world. As this moment approaches, meanwhile, a consensus has formed in Washington that China poses a significant threat to American interests and well-­being. General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), has said that “China probably poses the greatest threat to our nation by about 2025.” The summary of America’s 2018 National Defense Strategy claims that China and Russia are “revisionist powers” seeking to “shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model—gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions.” Christopher Wray, the FBI director, has said, “One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-­of-­government threat, but a whole-­of-­society threat . . . and I think it’s going to take a whole-­of-­society response by us.” So widespread is this notion that when Donald Trump launched his trade war against China, in January 2018, he received support even from moderate figures such as Democratic senator Chuck Schumer.

Shanghai Broadcasting Building, by Cui Jie (detail) © The artist. Courtesy private collection
Article
Without a Trace·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In December 2015, a twenty-­two-year-­old man named Masood Hotak left his home in Kabul, Afghanistan, and set out for Europe. For several weeks, he made his way through the mountains of Iran and the rolling plateaus of Turkey. When he reached the city of Izmir, on the Turkish coast, Masood sent a text message to his elder brother Javed, saying he was preparing to board a boat to Greece. Since the start of the journey, Javed, who was living in England, had been keeping tabs on his younger brother’s progress. As Masood got closer to the sea, Javed had felt increasingly anxious. Winter weather on the Aegean was unpredictable, and the ramshackle crafts used by the smugglers often sank. Javed had even suggested Masood take the longer, overland route, through Bulgaria, but his brother had dismissed the plan as excessively cautious.

Finally, on January 3, 2016, to Javed’s immense relief, Masood sent a series of celebratory Facebook messages announcing his arrival in Europe. “I reached Greece bro,” he wrote. “Safe. Even my shoes didn’t get wet.” Masood reported that his boat had come ashore on the island of Samos. In a few days, he planned to take a ferry to the Greek mainland, after which he would proceed across the European continent to Germany.

But then, silence. Masood stopped writing. At first, Javed was unworried. His brother, he assumed, was in the island’s detention facility, waiting to be sent to Athens with hundreds of other migrants. Days turned into weeks. Every time Javed tried Masood’s phone, the call went straight to voicemail. After a month passed with no word, it dawned on Javed that his brother was missing.

A screenshot of a December 2015 Facebook post by Masood Hotak (left), in Istanbul
Article
Going to Extremes·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

When Philip Benight awoke on January 26, 2017, he saw a bright glow. “Son of a bitch, there is a light,” he thought. He hoped it meant he had died. His mind turned to his wife, Becky: “Where are you?” he thought. “We have to go to the light.” He hoped Becky had died, too. Then he lost consciousness. When he opened his eyes again, Philip realized he wasn’t seeing heaven but overhead fluorescents at Lancaster General Hospital. He was on a hospital bed, with his arms restrained and a tube down his throat, surrounded by staff telling him to relax. He passed out again. The next time he came to, his arms and legs were free, but a drugged heaviness made it hard to move. A nurse told him that his wife was at another hospital—“for her safety”—even though she was also at Lancaster General. Soon after, two police officers arrived. They wanted to know why Becky was in a coma.

Three days earlier, Philip, who was sixty, tall and lanky, with owlish glasses and mustache, had picked up his wife from an HCR ­ManorCare nursing home. Becky had been admitted to the facility recently at the age of seventy-­two after yet another series of strokes. They drove to Darrenkamp’s grocery store and Philip bought their dinner, a special turkey sandwich for Becky, with the meat shaved extra thin. They ate in the car. Then, like every other night, they got ice cream from Burger King and drove to their home in Conestoga, a sparse hamlet in southern Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Philip parked in the driveway, and they sat in the car looking out at the fields that roll down to the Susquehanna River.

They listened to the radio until there was nothing more to do. Philip went into the house and retrieved a container of Kraft vanilla pudding, which he’d mixed with all the drugs he could find in the house—Valium, Klonopin, Percocet, and so on. He opened the passenger-­side door and knelt beside Becky. He held a spoon, and she guided it to her mouth. When Becky had eaten all the pudding, he got back into the driver’s seat and swallowed a handful of pills. Philip asked her how the pudding tasted. “Like freedom,” she said. As they lost consciousness, the winter chill seeped into their clothes and skin.

Illustration by Leigh Wells (detail)
Article
“Tell Me How This Ends”·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

America in the Middle East: learning curves are for pussies.
—Jon Stewart, The Daily Show, June 2, 2015

In January 2017, following Donald Trump’s inauguration, his national security staffers entered their White House offices for the first time. One told me that when he searched for the previous administration’s Middle East policy files, the cupboard was bare. “There wasn’t an overarching strategy document for anywhere in the Middle East,” the senior official, who insisted on anonymity, told me in a coffee shop near the White House. “Not even on the ISIS campaign, so there wasn’t a cross-governmental game plan.”

Syrian Arab Red Crescent vehicles in eastern Ghouta, March 24, 2018 (detail) © Anas Alkharboutli/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Ratio of the size of an Amazonian “paradoxical frog” to that of its tadpole:

1:3

Storybooks for Chinese children emphasize purpose, while American storybooks emphasize happiness.

The Transportation Security Administration, which held a “fast-track” hiring event at the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Airport over the weekend, reported that 10 percent of its agents, who have not been paid for the past 33 days, have called out sick.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Illustration by Stan Fellows

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today