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“Wars of choice” and cheap partisan rhetoric

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In my Sunday Examiner column, I looked at Barack Obama’s apparent change of heart on Afghanistan. I took aim at his characterization, made as recently as August 17, of Afghanistan as a “war of necessity,” as compared to Iraq, which he and other Democrats have long characterized as a “war of choice.” A false distinction, I argued; all out wars have been, in one way or another, wars of choice. Recognizing that the case is hardest to make for World War II, since after all we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, I wrote:
Franklin Roosevelt could have avoided provoking Nazi Germany and imperial Japan; eminences like Joseph P. Kennedy and Charles Lindbergh were arguing that we could survive, perhaps uncomfortably, in a Nazi-dominated world. But Roosevelt chose to risk war in order to rid the world of evildoers.
That’s a very short version of an argument I’ve made at greater length elsewhere, and which Conrad Black makes very persuasively in his excellent biography of Roosevelt, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom—the best one-volume (though a long one-volume!) biography of Roosevelt in my opinion. Black writes that Roosevelt, from some time in 1938, was determined to destroy Hitler, and that his policies of aiding Britain and cutting off oil supplies to Japan were attempts to provoke the Axis into attacking the United States, as Japan finally did on December 7, 1941. Before Pearl Harbor, most Americans did not want us to fight; Roosevelt, in Black’s view and mine, did. So World War II was, in my view, very much a “war of choice.” We could have sat it out, as Kennedy and Lindbergh and many other isolationists advocated.
“War of necessity” versus “war of choice” was a meme you heard a lot from Democrats when George W. Bush was president, and one you’re not likely to hear if Obama decides not to fight the “war of necessity” in the way the general he carefully selected says is necessary. Another meme we often heard was that we should rely more on military help from our allies. The argument was that Bush had so antagonized our allies that we were not getting from them military assistance which could have reduced the number of American military personnel in Iraq or Afghanistan.
This meme never made much sense. We had more than 30 allies providing military assistance in Iraq at some time or another, and the operations in Afghanistan have long been a NATO rather than just an American exercise. The problem is that not many of our allies can provide very much, quantitatively, in military assistance. Britain and France have significant out-of-area military forces, and other nations have provided very effective troops—Poland and Australia, Italy and Canada come to mind. But not in huge numbers. My guesstimate is that the United States has something like 50 or 60 percent of the out-of-area military capacity in the world, depending on what aspects of military force you are talking about. Moreover, some nations impose very restrictive rules of engagement on their militaries, as Germany has in Afghanistan for instance. It’s great to have the support of other nations, but there are limits on what they can do. Britain has been a stalwart ally in Afghanistan, and despite problems there its Foreign Secretary David Milliband is calling for more troops there. But Canada will be withdrawing its troops.
So it’s been interesting to see that in the debate over what should be done in Afghanistan, none of the Democrats opposed to sending more U.S. troops seem to be saying we should be getting troops from our allies instead. With George W. Bush gone, with the limits of what other nations can do painfully apparent, with the realization (the latest lesson was delivered at Copenhagen by the International Olympic Committee) that the charm of Barack Obama does not overwhelm all other considerations in other nations’ decisions, the cry of “more help from the allies” is no longer heard. Like the distinction between “wars of choice” and “wars of necessity,” it was never a serious argument but just an example of cheap partisan rhetoric.

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