In a recent blog post, political scientist Brendan Nyhan writes:
My research suggests that the structural conditions are strongly favorable for a major media scandal to emerge.
Indeed, former Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee recently made news by predicting the events of Lybia would lead to Obama’s impeachment. A sitting Republican Senator, too, raised the possibility. James Inhofe — who calls the idea of global warming the “greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on the American people — referred on a talk radio show to what he called the “I” word.
Nyhan reports a key factor making scandal possible is strong opposition to the President on the part of his political opponents. We can confidently check this box.
But do the scandals signal events that actually matter? Liberal journalists like Lizza (“Peak Scandal?”), Cassidy (“Where is the scandal?”), and Elizabeth Drew (“Why Obama is not Nixon”) have written strong counter-narratives suggesting the current scandals’ staying-power is overhyped. We will wait to see which socialized knowledge comes and goes.
In the meantime, it is worth noting that Inhofe was a member of the Senate in the run up to the Iraq War. It is worth noting that Inhofe voted to authorize the Iraq war. (In all, 77 Senators voted to authorize.) And, it is worth noting that (a) Inhofe has never publicly admitted he was wrong to authorize this war, and (b) that he never raised the spectre of impeaching former President Bush over the war’s many documentable failures.
We are led to believe, then, that Sen Inhofe finds Benghazi to be a bigger foreign-policy disaster than Iraq.
I do apologize, because this kind of a critique of Inhofe is a waste of time. Inhofe’s opinions on Iraq, Benghazi, and global warming are not intended to be objective, fair, or correct. He is a political actor, first and only. Asking Inhofe to have a nuanced position on US foreign policy is asking too much, and mistaking what it is that drives a guy like Inhofe. The Senator sees a chance to pounce on a competitor and, at the same time, satisfy his audience’s predilections.
But yet, when political actors govern wrongly — and the Iraq War has so far proven to be spectacularly wrong, strategically and morally — enormous consequences can follow. In the US case, neither foreign policy nor domestic economic interests were furthered by the war, so the enormous cost stands unbalanced. Families lost sons and daughters, husbands and wives. But the war was always meant as strategy, not justice. And on this front, enemies seem to have gained more than we did. Iran’s nuclear ambitions, for example, are moving forward, while the price of energy and the explosion of debt at home has put a huge straitjacket on the economy.
In the face of this strategic failure, it is striking that decision-makers such as Inhofe — wrong on perhaps the most consequential issue of the last three decades — remain in positions to influence decisions and create knowledge. While the war is associated with negative outcomes for US society and spurred a renewed narrative of national “decline,” few of these consequences have been felt by the men and women who made the war happen. It is true that few Americans have anything good to say about the war. Yet: War crimes have not become known as war crimes. Strategic failure has not come to be known as strategic failure. And the moral corruption that made hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis appear as “liberation” has not come to be seen for the moral corruption it objectively is.
How one should deal with ‘having been wrong,’ with ‘having designed poor strategy,’ having ‘lost a war,’ and having ‘strategically killed’ is a set of sociological and moral questions US society in the post-Iraq years has yet to adequately explore. US political actors and journalists, instead, for the most part, spend their most intense energies on other matters.
* * *
There are cases of individuals who have come forward with admissions of having been wrong. One of my favorite examples is former NY Times executive editor (now columnist) Bill Keller’s reflection that one personal motivation for supporting the war was to present himself as something other than just another liberal “brie-eating surrender monkey.” It took honesty and courage for Keller to reveal this motivation.
Keller raises this possibility when discussing in general why pundits known as “liberal hawks” — Judt’s coinage was “Bush’s useful idiots” — might have supported the war.
These liberal hawks matter again. While calls for war in Iran have been temporarily suppressed by Obama’s victory, the talk of Syria as foreign-policy problem and human-rights imperative by both liberals and conservatives has intensified (examples here and here).
What I fear is that regarding military intervention, US society has not produced better knowledge as result of the Iraq debacle. If anything, US politics has since then grown less serious. The habits of men like Inhofe, profoundly biased and politically motivated, have, if anything, become even more systemically entrenched.
Are we any better positioned to trust our war leaders to design strategically-sound war efforts?
Are we any better positioned to trust our journalists to ask the right questions and demand higher intelligence?
For textual evidence, consider: Keller is back at it. In a May 2013 column titled “Syria is not Iraq,” he is found extolling his audience precisely not to apply the lessons of Iraq then to Syria now.
In the search for an American response to the civil war in Syria, the favorite guidebook seems to be our ill-fated adventure in Iraq. We have another brutal Middle East autocrat holding power on behalf of a sectarian minority. We have another dubious cast of opposition factions competing for foreign patronage. We hear some of the same hawks — John McCain, Paul Wolfowitz — exhorting us to intervene, countered by familiar warnings of “quagmire.” We even have murky intelligence claims that the regime has used weapons of mass destruction.
This time, though, we have a president who, having opposed the costly blunder of Iraq and been vindicated, is holding back.
. . . .
[I]n Syria, I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy.
Less surprisingly, Inhofe too supports greater crackdown on Syria.
It’s more important now than ever that President Obama step up and exhibit the leadership required of the commander in chief.
Doing nothing encourages bad actors to take larger gambles in an unstable region. Assad, and the rest of the world, must clearly understand that crossing an American red line has consequences.
Can we trust our journalists and political structure any better today, almost five years into the Obama administration? Obama to this point has ended or wound down two wars, and pushed back at least one new war. He should be celebrated on Iran alone. But I fear he has at best pushed war of some sort back, to the next Administration, which will not have the credibility necessary to resist. Obama has not yet killed the War on Terror. It looks at this point like he won’t by the time his term ends.