By Dr. Arthur Garrison, Assistant Professor, Criminal Justice at Kutztown University
One of the first lessons in studying policy making is that a single event can change everything. Vice-president Cheney and others in the Bush Administration wanted regime change in Iraq before they came to power but did not have the political means (opportunity) to implement that policy. September 11, 2001 created those means.
Thirteen years later, with the single event of two American journalists suffering a violent, senseless and publicized beheading at the hand of ISIL, an army of Islamists who want to form a caliphate reminiscent of a time shortly after the fall of Rome, President Obama now has the public and political support to authorize a wholesale air bombardment in Iraq and Syria to constrain and defeat them that he did not have three weeks before. Like the second Gulf War, serious debate on whether the U.S. should use force is not open for serious discussion. Fox, MSNBC, CNN and the national media are now on script supporting the need to attack ISIL. The debate now is about whether the plan described by President Obama on Wednesday night will be supported by the Washington politicians and the national news media.
But that aside, I find it interesting how easy it is for Americans today to decide that war is necessary. In the 1967 episode of Star Trek, A Taste of Armageddon, Captain Kirk has to deal with two planets, that have been at war for 500 years and have been able to do so because they fight with computers. To the two planets and this was the point of the episode, the realities of war had been removed from conflict. The war had no practical consequences that would require the end of the war. Kirk said of war, “death, destruction, disease, horror, that’s what war is all about. . . . That’s what makes it a thing to be avoided.”
Recent polls have shifted and now they show that more than 60% of Americans support bombing ISIL in Iraq and Syria and close to 35% supports the use of air and ground forces to address ISIL. But less than 0.5% of the total population of America serves in the military. America as a whole has no real contact or personal connection with those who bear the weight of actually carrying out the realities of war. It’s easy to say America is under threat and “lets” do what is necessary to fight ISIL when the great majority of Americans have no financial, social or personal connection to the realities and harshness of war.
When Americans as a whole, and on an individual level, have no connection to the “death, destruction, disease, horror” of war, empty slogans and partisan politics are mistaken for leadership, courage and conviction. Vice-President Cheney, who drove the U.S. into the second Iraq War on intelligence that was wrong and supported the Wilsonian idea that a democracy can be established in Iraq with nothing more than American say so, is now held up by many as a foreign policy expert. This can happen when the 4,400 servicemen and women killed and the more than 32,000 injured in the Iraq War are a tiny minority of the total U.S. population.
It doesn’t take leadership, courage and conviction to say it’s time to send the less than 0.5% to war when the nation has been convinced to be afraid and horrified by murder and violence in a religious and sectarian civil war in the Middle East by sides that hate each other only slightly more than their unified hate for America and the West. Leadership would require a different approach.
In the 1985 movie, The American President, a staffer argues with the President that his opponents are casting him as unpatriotic and that saying nothing only allows the public to follow the opposition. He decried, “People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. There’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”
The President, amazed and resigned to a political truth, looks at his impassioned staffer and replies, “we’ve had presidents who were beloved, who couldn’t find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”