Re-tethering War to the Public
Watching some of the testimony of Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General David Petraeus to the Senate this morning--and trying to swallow my disgust at this show having been scheduled for September 10-11--I was reminded again of how far most of us are from the real effects of this war. We're saddened by its toll and outraged by how it's been mismanaged, but it's still a theoretical exercise for the overwhelming majority of Americans.
As I've written here before, one reason this is so that it's just way too easy for this country to go to war. Presidents can commit forces with very little short-term political risk, and while the bill comes due eventually--as it did for the Republicans last November--by then it's difficult to disengage, even if you don't have an ill-informed narcissistic sociopath at the controls. From this premise, I've reluctantly come to the opinion, in the last two years, that we need to reimpose some kind of political check on decisionmakers' tendencies to start wars and commit forces.
This could take the form a draft, of course; Charlie Rangel among others has advanced this argument. And it's fairly compelling; no question that the prospect of sending everyday people to fight and die would seriously raise the bar for military intervention. But the objections of the professional military to reinstituting a draft--mostly that it would dilute the quality--are legitimate too.
So maybe there should be another mechanism--some kind of tax that goes into effect whenever a military commitment lasts longer than six months. At the least, this would require the public to pay for its wars rather than put them on the credit card, as we've done in this instance. And it would speed the day of political reckoning.
I don't think this would mean that the country could never act; the Afghanistan War enjoyed overwhelming support at the time, and probably still has majority support. I have little doubt that majorities would have sustained that support despite a tax surcharge. At least initially, the same might have held true for Iraq.
The larger point is that some structural change that would involve the whole country in any war effort would be very good for our democracy. It is proper that the Republicans paid a heavy political price for the war last year, and might do so again next year. But with a draft, or a war tax, or something that required fuller public engagement, the president would have had to do what McCain and others always wanted him to do: talk to the public honestly about the war, and make a persuasive case that our involvement is justified.
This notion of selling the public on a set of policies has disappeared under Bush. There's a great piece in this past Sunday's New York Times magazine about Jack Goldsmith, a conservative who resigned from the Bush Justice Department in 2004 over administration policy regarding torture, wiretapping, and related measures. He agreed with Bush, Cheney and the rest about the threat of terrorism and the need for "strong measures"; his issue mostly was that they attempted to get what they want through unilateral decisionmaking.
The story includes a line I found resonant: "the power of the presidency is the power to persuade." This was the key to the successful presidencies of, among others, Lincoln, FDR, Reagan, and Clinton: they could bring the country around to their views, and their policies enjoyed popular legitimacy.
This war in Iraq hasn't enjoyed popular legitimacy at least since 2004, and that lack arguably has been as damaging as the debt we've incurred and the human losses we've suffered.