I can’t find online my letter published in the Daily Local News a week or so ago. So let’s put it in the blog.
This letter builds on my thinking in “Responsibility in the country, responsibility in the world” (August 10, 2014), beginning: “How is President Obama like the United States? Answer: both get blamed whatever they do.”
In my view, if one has to be blamed, it is better to be blamed for not killing people than for killing them.
Of course I’m not in favor of ISIS killing people either, destroying whole societies, breaking up historical works of art, and terrorizing the Middle East. The question is: who is going to deal with them?
You could say: the U.S. should, because by invading Iraq and trying to recreate it on a Western model we created the power vacuum and religious strife into which ISIS emerged. Or, you could say: Britain and France should, because after World War I those two colonial powers carved up the Middle East to suit themselves, and there has been trouble there ever since. Or, you could say: the United Nations should deal with it, and I agree in principle, but unfortunately its odd power structure (with one country on the Security Council being able to thwart all action) renders it no more effective than the U.S. Senate right now.
So, how about the neighboring countries who are next in line to be invaded by ISIS–most of them our ostensible allies–taking on the anti-ISIS assignment? Saudi Arabia did send out some bombers the other day, fine, that’s their business. Well they might make some use of their own military against ISIS, because ISIS’s
… real potential for destruction lies … in the implosion of Saudi Arabia as a foundation stone of the modern Middle East. We should understand that there is really almost nothing that the West can now do about it but sit and watch.
That’s according to Alastair Crooke, “Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia,” The World Post, 9/2/14. And they can likely find recruits on site for the plan, at least judging by Bin Laden’s success in lining up 15 Saudis among the 19 9/11 hijackers.
And the Saudis surely have the wherewithal to take there turn at being the Middle East’s policeman; their 2013 military expenses were 4th in the world (see chart below).
With all this in mind, here is my actual letter:
Ruth Marcus’s column “War authority both sides dislike” (Daily Local, Feb. 16) puzzles me, especially coming from a columnist who usually tries to be prudent and reasonable.
The “both sides” of the title isn’t Marcus’s; the title in her home paper, The Washington Post, is “Congress’s war duty.” But she does bring the argument down to two sides: those who think the president can hunt down ISIS on his own, and those who think Congress should be part of it (as in that creaky old constitution of ours, art. I, sect.8).
Her discussion is all about authority, domestic politics, and separation of powers. But wouldn’t we want to know first for what the authority, whoever has it, would be used?
In short, what’s the goal of any “war authority”? We didn’t know what our goal was when we invaded Iraq or Afghanistan, and how has that been working out for us? And for that whole part of the world?
Is it an American responsibility to stamp out evil everywhere we see it on the globe? Or should we expect some help from our friends (if any)?
Why don’t we put it the other way around: how much help should our friends (if any) expect from us?
Don’t the countries of the Middle East, northern Africa, and western Europe, whose citizens are the ones being attacked these days, have armies and air forces and military budgets (often partly financed by ourselves)?
How many Americans should we be prepared to lose, once more, in a distant war? And how many billions of dollars are we prepared to spend, when our schools and hospitals are desperate for funding?
How will we know when (if ever) we have reached our goal, whatever it is?
Ruth Marcus ought to ask what we want to do and why before she tries to figure out who should authorize it.
And there is a third side: those of us who would rather that American troops and treasure stay out of this one.
Finally: are we Americans making our share of sacrifices to keep the world in order (if that’s what you think our military is for)? Yes, more than our share. Here, from the International Institute for Strategic Studies, are the figures for the 2013 calendar year: