The Long War

August 25, 2010

According to Bret Stephens in the Wall Street Journal, the United States has been at war, essentially, for my entire life; according to Jennifer Rubin at Commentary, we’ve been at war since the Iranian hostage crisis (if not slightly earlier).  While I’m not at all displeased to see even the supporters of The Long War inching towards acknowledging it for what it really is, there’s a problem with this line of conversation.

First, let’s look at Stephens’ definition of “war by another name”:

“In that box, he killed tens of thousands of Iraqi Shiites, caused a humanitarian crisis among the Kurds, attempted to assassinate George H.W. Bush, profited from a sanctions regime that otherwise starved his own people, compelled a ‘no-fly zone’ that cost the U.S. $1 billion a year to police, defied more than a dozen U.N. sanctions, corrupted the U.N. Secretariat, evicted U.N. weapons inspectors and gave cash prizes to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers.”

The worst of these are crimes against humanity, and shouldn’t be trivialized.  The no-fly zone, yes, was an example of the growing role of the United States as the world’s police during the 1990s.  On the other hand, a billion a year compared to the $2 trillion price tag of invasion, occupation, and security seems like pocket change.

That price tag is indicative of something important running through the piece: a refusal to acknowledge a difference in kind by re-labeling what occurred during the 1990s.  This is revisionism.  Stephens pretends that there is no difference—in terms of human and capital cost, in terms of social change, in terms of government—between a “military effort designed to contain Saddam Hussein and a military effort designed to replace him.”  Enforcing no-fly zones and an invasion-turned-occupation that is in its eighth year are essentially different.  Perhaps we have been at war with and in Iraq for essentially my lifespan; but the “war” that ran through my elementary school years was nothing like the war that began shortly after I entered high school.

(That I feel it necessary to use scare-quotes around one use of the word “war” in the previous paragraph points toward something particularly sinister about, among other things, The Long War: its corruption of language.  How do we distinguish between the War in Iraq and the semi-militarized 1990s — which saw American troops in Iraq, the Arabian peninsula, the Balkans, Somalia, etc.?  It was “peacetime,” I suppose, but with something wholly other lurking at the horizon.)

Stephens’ commits himself to another such assumption in the piece: that there was, really, no choice in the matter when it came to the 2003 invasion.  This is already implied by the idea that there is no difference between 1992-2003 and 2003-present.  The way that it had to end was with a full-on invasion and replacement of Saddam Hussein.  This is patently false.  Consider Cuba and Fidel Castro—admittedly not a Saddam Hussein, but he has starved his own people, attempted to acquire WMD, and, at one point, was subjected to, essentially, a “no-sail zone” around his island.  Our policy since the Bay of Pigs, for better or worse, and in varying forms, has been one of containment, content to wait on the natural regime change of human mortality.  (Is that the best policy?  That’s not the question at the moment.)  But there is a choice – and that makes all the difference in the world when one attempts to assess the landscape and create future policy.  Only in a world where there was no true choice in 2003 could this paragraph be written, with one eye on Tehran:

“One thing is clear: The Twenty Years’ War lasted as long as it did because the first Bush administration failed to finish it when it could, and because the Clinton administration pretended it wasn’t happening.  Should we now draw the lesson that hesitation and delay are the best policy?  Or that wars are best fought swiftly to their necessary conclusion?  The former conclusion did not ultimately spare us the war.  The latter would have spared us one of 20 years.”

Stephens’ history, Rubin’s post, and their implications concerning Iran will be the subject of a near-future post.

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One Response to “The Long War”


  1. […] jumping and running with the same two fallacies I noted in Stephens’ article: that there is no difference in kind between US-Iran relations from […]


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