Desperate times call for desperate measures, and so the other day I read Rachel Maddow’s new book. It is called Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, and it is an anthropologically useful document of the new American disaffection with American force. Written in the same perky self-adoring voice that makes her show so excruciating, it offers some correct observations about certain lamentable trends in the American military— its reliance on contractors, its exploitation of reservists, its surfeit of nuclear weapons; but its righteous aim is to make the use of force itself seem absurd. (Maddow is an absurdity artist, who thinks that all you have to do to refute something is to make fun of it.) What offends her is “the artificial primacy of defense among our national priorities.” She champions “the disincentives to war deliberately built into our American system of government,” which were established by the Founders “not to disadvantage us against any future enemies, but to disincline us toward war as a general matter. Their great advice was that we should structure ourselves as a country in a way that deliberately raised the price of admission to any war.” Maddow adverts to the Founders a lot, proving again that originalism is just the search for a convenient past, a political sport played with key words. She cites Jefferson, in 1792: “One of my favorite ideas is, never to keep an unnecessary soldier.” This, of course, raises the question of how “necessary” shall be defined; and it is worth noting that the subject of Jefferson’s unmilitaristic remark was the sleepy condition of our border with Canada. She cites Jefferson’s sixth presidential message, in 1806: “Were armies to be raised whenever a speck of war is visible in our horizon ... our resources would have been exhausted on dangers which never happened, instead of being reserved for what is really to take place,” but omits his subsequent report of various military preparations that he organized to “maintain the public interests while a more permanent force shall be in course of preparation.” “Much will depend,” he urgently added, “on the promptitude with which these means can be brought into activity.” But forget the footnotes. Maddow is one of those better people who believe that nobody who supports a war can possibly understand what a war is. The other day, in one of his only-adult-in-the-room moments, Obama asserted that “we have not launched a war” against Iran’s nuclear installations because “this is not a game. There’s nothing casual about it.” Who says it’s a game? Obama is still running against Bush and Cheney, to whom Maddow owes a similar debt. About Syria, the president taught that “the notion that the way to solve every one of these problems is to deploy our military, that hasn’t been true in the past and it won’t be true now. We’ve got to think through what we do.”
SO LET US think it through. Before he went to meet with Bashar al Assad, Kofi Annan said (according to a report in a Turkish weekly) that “I believe any further militarization will make this situation worse. We have to be careful that we don’t introduce a medicine that’s worse than the disease,” and that he aimed to reach a political settlement through dialogue. Dialogue! Buber’s, or Bakhtin’s? Annan’s mission promptly failed, and Assad promptly began the assault on Idlib. In Washington the usual excuses, familiar from Bosnia to Libya, were offered: the global isolation of the perpetrators (which is incorrect, since they always have Russia); the terrifying might of the Syrian army; the obscurity, or the disunity, of the opposition; the hidden hand of Islamists and terrorists; and so on. Meanwhile the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff blurted out to Congress that “we can do anything,” thereby vitiating the plaintive appeal to the limitations of American competence. There are Arab states agitating for action to stop the slaughter, and arming the Free Syrian Army, whose ranks are growing. But Obama refuses to consider any direct or indirect application of force. “What’s happening in Syria is heartbreaking and outrageous,” he said, bearing witness again, as in 2009, when witness was all he was prepared to bear for the democratic rebellion in Iran. “The world community has said so in a more or less unified voice.” But Assad is strangely unseduced by its voice. “We are going to continue to work on this project with other countries.” Pipelines have been announced with more passion. “And it is my belief that, ultimately, this dictator will fall, as dictators in the past have fallen.” But not without mountains of corpses, sir. Are we really to rely on the good offices of fate? All this is what Maddow would call bullpucky. I would prefer that our leaders were more candid and simply said that they can live with the murder of innocents and the destruction of democratic aspirations and the regional influence of the mullah and the madman in Tehran because immediate and effective action against these circumstances would contradict their conception of American power. As for Iran: there is indeed too much talk of war, and also too much talk of Auschwitz. The sanctions are unexpectedly harsh and unprecedentedly crippling, and they are about to get still more severe. There is still time, though only a few people know how much. A change of government in Tehran would be the best solution, but the democracy click is ticking more slowly than the nuclear clock. (“TICK FUCKING TOCK,” as ACT UP used to say.) Yet there can be no certainty that the sanctions will depose the regime or persuade it to abandon its nuclear aspirations. Such an eventuality must be faced. For this reason, there is nothing Strangelovian about the discussion of force. A military strike may be a bad idea—the results may be insufficient, the costs may be too high; but the contemplation of it is not war fever.
TRASHING FORCE may win you a lot of friends, but it is stupid. There is nothing “artificial” about the primacy of defense because there is nothing artificial about threats and conflicts and atrocities. The American political system’s “disinclination” to war must not be promoted into a disinclination to history. We are not the country we were in the eighteenth century, as every liberal insists about every other dimension of American policy. Anyway, this is what President Jefferson said in 1806: “Our duty is, therefore, to act upon things as they are, and to make a reasonable provision for whatever they may be.”
Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 issue of the magazine.