Who hasn’t found themselves tongue tied in a surcharged debate, especially when defending an unconventional opinion while everyone else postures on the side of conventional wisdom. There’s no room in the debate, nor is there sufficient time, to reframe the issue; the operative premises (presumed and expressed) work against your position; you are rushed and interrupted when you do try to speak up; and you are outnumbered. Only afterwards, when the debate is lost and long over, do you think of a brilliant reply.
It happens to the best of us. Maybe that is why so few of us care to express a dissenting opinion even though we are convinced that the war on terrorism is wrong headed.
War critic and retired Army Colonel Andrew Bacevich recently took the hit and lived to report it.
As Bacevich tells the story, he fell down the rabbit hole into a world of insanity “in which a veneer of rationality distracts attention from the madness lurking just below the surface.” It happened when he appeared on the PBS News Hour, along with three other guests: Leon Panetta (former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director), Michelle Flournoy (former Undersecretary of Defense), and General Anthony Zinni (former head of the US Central Command).
The guests were asked to comment on the President’s decision to send 450 more military advisors to Iraq in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State. Panetta approved the President’s initiative, saying that this kind of support is needed to keep Iraq from becoming a base from which terrorists could attack the American homeland. Flournoy agreed, adding that such support will need to be escalated in order to keep the Islamic State from becoming a global terrorist network with transnational objectives. Zinni differed only in that he believed an overwhelming force of US troops should be sent to Iraq to put a quick end to the threat posed by the Islamic State.
These three “pillars of the Washington establishment” disagreed with one another only on specifics. They concurred on the underlying logic that only the US could bring order out of the chaos of Iraq. Their “collective amnesia” overlooked a number of inconvenient facts, such as (1) the vacuum the Islamic State is now filling was created when the US invaded and broke Iraq; (2) the US occupation of Iraq from 2003 to 2011, rather than a victory, was a costly operation that worked just well enough to allow for a withdrawal of US troops; (3) a decade-long effort by the US to create an Iraqi government that governs and an Iraqi army that fights has failed abysmally.
By Bacevich’s own account, his contribution to the debate was “modest and ineffectual.” He even fouled off a “fat pitch that [he] should have hit out of the park.” Only after the program was over, beyond the heat of the moment, did he think of how to address the premise that US militarism is indispensable. “What I should have said was this: leadership ought to mean something other than repeating and compounding past mistakes. It should require more than clinging to policies that have manifestly failed. To remain willfully blind to those failures is not leadership, it’s madness.”
Bacevich concludes that we are heading back down Alice’s rabbit hole. Perhaps more to the point, we have yet to emerge from it.