When I first arrived at college, a professor used the phrase “begs the question.” I had not heard it before, and for a long time did not know exactly what it meant. It’s not the kind of thing you can look up in a dictionary. Then the internet came along, and you could find the meaning of phrases like that. “Beg the question” means to assume your argument or statement to be true, without evidence other than the argument or statement itself. The conclusion you reach inheres in the argument’s premise. Begging the question is a type of circular reasoning.
You can see this logical fault in critiques of President Obama’s foreign policy. Here’s an example: “Islamic State’s rise was made possible not merely because the U.S. wound down its military presence in Iraq but because Mr. Obama chose to eliminate that presence.” A power-vacuum argument doesn’t need outside evidence. You’ve seen the argument many places: the Middle East would not be in such a mess if Obama had not brought home the troops. The larger argument is that the world suffers because we don’t exercise strong leadership – leadership that in the past has relied on force, and the threat of force.
This argument begs the question because it ignores the role U. S. force had in spawning the current warfare in Iraq, in the broader Middle East, and in south Asia. For advocates of American military power, the world began in 2009, when President Obama took office. Their story of trouble begins with American withdrawal. It does not include the invasion of 2003, our forced insertion into other country’s affairs after 2001, and our worldwide campaign of torture and terror for a nearly a decade and a half. If the militarists’ story included these events – if their premises acknowledged that these actions have outcomes that we have to deal with now – we would not see so many Wall Street Journal editorials blame our foreign policy miseries on the Democratic Left.
Advocates for liberal deployment of U. S. military force to places where people are fighting, to wage ill-defined warfare on terror, are like arsonists with full cans of gasoline and plenty of dry matches. It’s easy to start a big fire, and extremely difficult to extinguish it before it causes damage far from its point of origin. When militarists criticize Obama for his reluctance to send our forces into war, or for his willingness to end occupations of other countries, they resemble arsonists who observe the whole city burned down because the fire department did not prevent it.
Readers of The Jeffersonian know I am no admirer of President Obama’s foreign policy. For a number of reasons, he does not exercise strong leadership, either in the United States or elsewhere. Foremost among those reasons is the president’s sad inability or unwillingness to dismantle or even resist the national security state. This problem afflicts every president, not only Obama. The last president who stood up to the national security state took a bullet to the head in Dallas over fifty years ago. The hip lingo in Washington comments sharply about whether certain people get certain memos. Every president has received the memo the national security state sent from Dallas.
The astonishing and frustrating thing is that the Wall Street Journal and others advocate more force, not less, to deal with wars the United States ignited so profligately. The fire department can show up with water trucks, or if it is from the Department of Defense, it might show up with gasoline tankers. In its way, gasoline can end a fire faster than water, because fire consumes everything faster when you use accelerants. If you want to destroy everything, people in particular, attack them with incendiary bombs. Emulate Curtis LeMay and Robert McNamara. When militarists say, “we ought to bomb them back to the Stone Age,” they are not using a figure of speech. They have done it before, and some want to do it again.
To resist the militarists’ call to never-ending war and occupation does not mean Americans ought to abdicate responsibility for peace. It does not mean the United States ought to walk away from leadership it has exercised so successfully from time to time. Above all, it does not mean thorough going isolation. It does mean that our engagement with the world ought to include means other than military force. Obama stands for diplomacy and negotiation, but people look at his mixed, inconsistent actions and don’t know what to think. The national security state does not trust him, and neither does anyone else.
Obama’s experience, and the actual results of both his foreign policy and his leadership, show that you cannot have it both ways in the area of national security. You either bomb the Bay of Pigs, or you don’t. The Bay of Pigs example illustrates the point well. Kennedy went along with the CIA’s invasion plans for Cuba, but made it clear he would not launch an all out attack – and war – with air power. The generals and the spooks looked at each other, underestimating their commander-in-chief, and predicted: “He’ll cave on the matter of air strikes.” The president did not cave.
The mission failed. Langley and the Pentagon did not get their fantastical war with Cuba. The national security state and president no longer trusted each other, and Kennedy decided he would not let the CIA and the Joint Chiefs trifle with him again. He actually gave the national security state some freedom – in Vietnam and Laos in particular – but he clearly opposed it in other respects. Only two years and ten months after he took office, the national security state fired him.
So here we are in 2015, facing an opponent who beheads people on camera, and posts the grisly executions around the world. The Islamic State practices war no more ruthlessly than countless armies before it, but distributing execution videos worldwide for propaganda value, shortly after the killings occur – that is novel. We are not sure how to deal with that. It is among the many innovations and atrocities militarists did not foresee when they launched air attacks on Baghdad in 2003. Their vision was that the United States would extend its writ to the heart of the Levant. The militarists are empire builders, and like their Roman predecessors, they are willing to leave occupying garrisons in place for as long as the empire requires it. If you want to prevent unrest in the provinces, you have to have forces in place to perform that mission.
That is what you read when the Wall Street Journal, and other militarist organs, plead their case. They believe that with the proper application of force, Iraq could have been a client state, and we let it slip away. In particular, Barack Obama let it slip away. According to this view, blame for the current war and Islamic State’s success lies with President Obama. If you want to build an empire, you don’t just bring your troops home. You show up with all the people and weapons required to “pacify” the people you have conquered.
The militarists cannot talk that plainly, however, so they ignore their actions in 2003, and the motives they had when they undertook them. That is why they appear to beg the question now, when they criticize a president who withdrew the national security state’s forces from Iraq, just as the prize seemed to be won. They have never doubted their initial assumption, that the invasion of Iraq was necessary and good. If they believed themselves right in 2003, when they launched a criminal war, they certainly will not confess their crimes and say they were wrong in 2015. Like arsonists with matches and gas cans, they will blame bad outcomes on someone else.