In an appearance at the annual Veterans of Foreign Wars convention on Tuesday, President Obama mused publicly about the knee-jerk instinct of some to use force, in front of an audience that has seen first-hand the price of doing so:
“For too long, there had been a mindset where the first instinct when facing a challenge in the world was to send in our military — and we have the greatest military in human history. But we learned, painfully, where that kind of thinking can lead — that rushing into war without thinking through the consequences, and going it alone without broad international support, getting drawn into unnecessary conflicts and spreading our military too thin actually too often would play into the hands of our enemies. That’s what they wanted us to do.”
And who paid the price? Our men and women in uniform. Our wounded warriors. Our fallen heroes who never come home. Their families, who carry that loss forever.
That’s an important point. We’ve seen the consequences of our heedless, unprovoked invasion of Iraq in the great gains that it has given neighboring Iran. Iraq, once an important counterweight to Iranian influence in the region, has been converted to an Iranian ally if not puppet-state. Our invasion and subsequent incompetent occupation also created a power vacuum that has allowed ISIS to rise.
What we don’t see quite so clearly is the price being paid here at home, by tens of thousands of American service personnel dealing daily with the physical, emotional and psychological aftermath of that war, a burden that many will carry for the rest of their lives. Those who advocated for that war from the sidelines continue to enjoy places of honor and prestige, while many of those who carried out those policies suffer the consequences. And for the most part, you don’t see the price they pay unless you happen to be personally close to someone trying to deal with all that baggage. The rare exception would be high-profile cases such as that of Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” fame, who was killed while trying to assist another Iraq veteran dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder.
And the question, I guess, is what we learn from such mistakes. Do we do the hard work beforehand of thinking through our options and assessing the possible consequences, or do we succumb to the “first instinct” to turn to our military, the most powerful on the planet, to try to solve problems? It is a perpetual question in the modern world, and is likely to play an important role in the 2016 presidential election. Already, we’ve got leading candidates for the 2016 Republican nomination debating not whether, but how quickly, we ought to renege on our deal with Iran and employ our military against its nuclear program.
In his VFW speech, Obama drew a stark contrast between the two approaches:
“In the debate over this deal, we’re hearing the echoes of some of the same policies and mindset that failed us in the past. Some of the same politicians and pundits that are so quick to reject the possibility of a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear program are the same folks who were so quick to go to war in Iraq, and said it would take a few months. And we know the consequences of that choice and what it cost us in blood and treasure.
So I believe there’s a smarter, more responsible way to protect our national security, and that is what we are doing. Instead of dismissing the rest of the world and going it alone, we’ve done the hard and patient work of uniting the international community to meet a common threat. Instead of chest-beating that rejects even the idea of talking to our adversaries — which sometimes sounds good in sound bites, but accomplishes nothing — we’re seeing that strong and principled diplomacy can give hope of actually resolving a problem peacefully.
Instead of rushing into another conflict, I believe that sending our sons and daughters into harm’s way must always be a last resort, and that before we put their lives on the line, we should exhaust every alternative. That’s what we owe our troops. That is strength and that is American leadership.”
There are no guarantees, of course. Diplomacy can fail, and it’s important to be prepared if it does. But I marvel at those who still argue that the military option somehow produces more reliable outcomes, because everything in American history over the past 70 years argues otherwise. War does not simplify things, it complicates things, and that is particularly true for those whom we ask to fight it.