This Guy Is Every Man's Liberal
ISIS makes liberals rediscover the necessity of hard power.
By: Bret Stephens, WSJ Opinion, August 25, 2014
So now liberals want the U.S. to bomb Iraq, and maybe Syria as well, to stop and defeat ISIS, the vilest terror group of all time. Where, one might ask, were these neo-neocons a couple of years ago, when stopping ISIS in its infancy might have spared us the current catastrophe?
Oh, right, they were dining at the table of establishment respectability, drinking from the fountain of opportunistic punditry, hissing at the sound of the names Wolfowitz, Cheney, Libby and Perle.
And, always, rhapsodizing to the music of Barack Obama.
Not because he is the most egregious offender, but only because he's so utterly the type, it's worth turning to the work of George Packer, a writer for the New Yorker. Over the years Mr. Packer has been of this or that mind about Iraq. Yet he has always managed to remain at the dead center of conventional wisdom. Think of him as the bubble, intellectually speaking, in the spirit level of American opinion journalism.
Thus Mr. Packer was for the war when it began in 2003, although "just barely," as he later explained himself. In April 2005 he wrote that the "Iraq war was always winnable" and "still is"—a judgment that would have seemed prescient in the wake of the surge. But by then he had already disavowed his own foresight, saying, when he was in full mea culpa mode, that the line was "the single most doubtful" thing he had written in his acclaimed book "The Assassins' Gate."
Then the surge began to work, a reality the newly empowered Democrats in Congress were keen to dismiss. (Remember Hillary Clinton lecturing David Petraeus that his progress report required "a willing suspension of disbelief"?) "The inadequacy of the surge is already clear, if one honestly assesses the daily lives of Iraqis," wrote Mr. Packer in September 2007. The title of his essay was "Planning for Defeat."
Next, Mr. Packer pronounced himself bored with it all. "By the fall of 2007, my last remaining Iraqi friend in Baghdad had left," he wrote a few years later. "Once he was gone, my connection to the country and the war began to thin, even as the terror diminished. I missed the improvement that came with the surge, and so, in my nervous system, I never quite registered it." This was Mr. Packer in Robert Graves mode, bidding Good-Bye to All That.
And then came Mr. Obama. Was ever a political love more pure than what Mr. Packer expressed for the commander in chief? Mr. Obama, he wrote in 2012, was "more like J.F.K. than any other president." Or was T.R. the better comparison? "On foreign policy, Obama has talked softly and carried a big stick." He had "devastated the top ranks of Al Qaeda." On Iran, he had done a "masterful job." On Syria, "the Administration was too slow in isolating Assad, but no one has made a case for intervention that has a plausibly good outcome."
As for Iraq, Mr. Obama withdrew "after eight years of war in a way that left the U.S. with almost no influence—but he could have tried to force matters with the Iraqis and left behind far more bitterness."
Elsewhere, Mr. Packer has written that "American wars in Muslim countries created some extremists and inflamed many more, while producing a security vacuum that allowed them to wreak mayhem." This is the idea, central to the Obama administration's vision of the world, that wisdom often lies in inaction, that U.S. intervention only makes whatever we're intervening in worse.
It's a deep—a very deep—thought. And then along came ISIS.
In the current issue of the New Yorker, Mr. Packer has an essay titled "The Common Enemy," which paints ISIS in especially terrifying colors: The Islamic State's project is "totalitarian." Its ideology is "expansionist as well as eliminationist." It has "many hundreds of fighters holding European or American passports [who] will eventually return home with training, skills, and the arrogance of battlefield victory." It threatened a religious minority with "imminent genocide." Its ambitions will not "remain confined to the boundaries of the Tigris and the Euphrates." The administration's usual counterterrorism tool, the drone strike, is "barely relevant against the Islamic State's thousands of ground troops."
"Pay attention to other people's nightmares," he concludes, "because they might be contagious."
Correcto-mundo. Which brings us back to the questions confronting the Bush administration on Sept. 12, 2001. Are we going to fight terrorists over there—or are we going to wait for them to come here? Do we choose to confront terrorism by means of war—or as a criminal justice issue? Can we assume the cancer in the Middle East won't spread so we can "pivot" to Asia and do some more "nation-building at home"? Can we win with a light-footprint approach against a heavy-footprint enemy?
Say what you will about George W. Bush: He got every one of these questions right while Mr. Obama got every one of them wrong. It's a truth that may at last be dawning on the likes of Mr. Packer and the other neo-neocons, not that I expect them ever to admit it.