Decline of The West
by George Szamuely

September 15, 2000

Dubya and the War Street Journal

Nobody supports the candidacy of George W. Bush as fervently as the Wall Street Journal editorial page. That it has some influence on his campaign helps explain why Dubya is heading for electoral debacle in November. In the Journal’s demented world-view, Uncle Sam is the proverbial 98-pound weakling, perpetually getting sand kicked in his face. Day after day, the Journal’s editorial writers foam and splutter with rage at the nerve of some country or other daring to defy the will of the United States. Any act of disobedience to Washington’s commands is invariably taken as yet another sign of the decadent condition of America. The Journal has yet to come across a "rogue state" that can be left safely unbombed; a US bombing mission that hurt its victims enough; or a projected US defense outlay that did not need to be doubled. Though it has been apparent to everyone since at least the end of the Cold War that campaigning to restore the US military to its former glory is the swiftest road to electoral disaster, this fact has yet to register on the mind of Journal editor Robert L. Bartley.

Reality is in short supply at the Journal’s editorial offices. That is why lavishing enormous funds on the military – unpopular enough though that is – can never suffice for Bartley. He just wants to send our soldiers, sailors and airmen into battle. To what end, he neither explains nor appears to care much about. He is obsessed by our inhibitions about casualties. Let’s be done with them once and for all! This is what an article on the Wall Street Journal editorial page the other day tried to say. Written by the Journal’s editorial features editor, Max Boot, "Will Bush Bury ‘Bodybag Syndrome’?" argues that the American people, unlike the nation’s contemptible elite, are by no means squeamish when it comes to suffering casualties. US "casualty phobia," we learn, "became especially pronounced after 18 soldiers were killed in Somalia in 1993. Since then, the administration has often either avoided risky missions, as in Rwanda, or chosen to wage push-button warfare, as in the ineffectual cruise-missile strikes against Sudan and Afghanistan in 1998." Happily, Boot does not tell us what the United States should have done in Rwanda. Taken it over and set up a colonial administration? Nor, intriguingly, does he spell out what he would have had the United States do in Sudan and Afghanistan. Send in the ground troops? Evidently, the pounding the Russians took holds no lessons for us.

Boot also worries about casualty-aversion in Bosnia. It has made the US Army "reluctant to arrest Bosnian war criminals, making it harder to forge a lasting peace. ‘The Americans want zero risk, which is impossible if you want to arrest a criminal,’ the chief prosecutor of the United Nations War Crimes Tribunal complained last month." Boot, needless to say, accepts the fatuous judgment that what stands in the way of "lasting peace" in Bosnia is not the NATO’s arrogant and undemocratic attempt to create an artificial state by forcing people to live together who prefer to live separately. No, it’s all the fault of the "war criminals" – not the NATO variety, of course. (Boot dispenses even with a show of journalistic objectivity, referring to "war criminals," rather than "war crimes suspects.")

Consistent with his phony display of elite-bashing, Boot praises the military for its supposed willingness to risk casualties, while upbraiding top brass like Colin Powell for their pusillanimity. "Bodybag syndrome has taken root in the Pentagon," he sneers, "run by generals and admirals traumatized by their baptism of fire in Vietnam. One of the foremost proponents of the no-casualties mantra is Colin Powell…. Gen. Powell was even reluctant to launch Desert Storm; before risking his men’s lives, he wanted to wait for sanctions to take effect . . . and then wait some more." The outlook of today’s military is very different from that of Powell. Boot cites a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies survey of 12,500 service members, which found that 86 percent agreed with this statement: "If necessary to accomplish a combat/lifesaving mission, I am prepared to put my own life on the line." Now, this is a truly inane point. Who would admit to a questioner that he is not prepared to risk his own life to save another human being?

There is, of course, something repellent about someone who has never served a day of his life in the military, whose only experience of violence is his weekly kickboxing class in the high-priced Wall Street gym, sneering at a professional soldier like Colin Powell who, having seen friends killed in combat, is naturally reluctant to rush into pointless fights. Moreover, the CSIS report to which Boot refers says something very different about today’s military. Its members are increasingly unhappy about not being provided with a comfortable middle-class life style: "Reasonable quality-of-life expectations of service members and their families are not being met. The military as an institution has not adjusted adequately to the needs of a force with a higher number of married people. While a sense of willing sacrifice remains strong in today’s military, so too does the expectation of a reasonable lifestyle for individuals and families. Despite significant resources now being devoted to childcare centers, programs for single parents, and on-base housing, the data suggest that the efforts to date have fallen significantly short. Many service members are leaving the armed forces for other careers owing in part to the inadequacy of military pay, medical care, family support, retirement benefits, and other quality-of-life factors." This does not sound much like a military hungry for combat and self-sacrifice. The report repeatedly laments the excessive burdens being placed on the mean and women of the armed forces, what with peacekeeping missions, drug interdiction, and humanitarian interventions. Evidently, most of the military personnel would much prefer working 9 to 5 on base, all comforts and amenities provided for, instead of patrolling the streets of Pristina.

Boot’s claim that the American people look on the loss of American lives with equanimity is based on virtually no evidence. It also – in usual manner of the Wall Street Journal – defies common sense. After all, whatever else one may say about Bill Clinton, there is no question he is a gifted politician. One has to assume therefore that he is reluctant to risk American lives for a very good reason. The people may cheer on the blowing up of a bridge over the Danube, but not the dragging of a body of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu.

"Messrs. Bush and Cheney are campaigning on a Powellesque platform," Boot warns, "We want to increase funding for the armed forces, they proclaim, but not put its personnel in harm’s way…For those interested in utilizing US military might to police the Pax Americana, this ought to be disquieting news." Pax Americana is just a fancy way of saying American Empire. And the American people have been fairly consistent in their lack of enthusiasm for it. Though during every military caper, the media trumpet the usual nonsense about how the "American people are strongly behind the President," the actual poll numbers invariably fail to confirm this. As usual, it all depends on how the question is framed. For instance, on March 14 1999, just ten days before the launch of the NATO attack on Yugoslavia, ABC News and Washington Post, published a poll based on responses to the question "The United States has said it may bomb Serbia unless Serbia agrees to a peace plan for Kosovo. If Serbia does not agree to the peace plan, should the United States bomb Serbia or not?" 26 percent were in favor; 62 percent were opposed. This was a fair and precisely formulated question and, by a margin of 2 to 1, the American people said they were against the policy the US Government was pursuing. The polls that the pundits preferred to cite were like the one ABC News/Washington Post published on April 26. "Do you support or oppose the United States and its European allies conducting air strikes against Serbia?" people were asked. 65 percent were in favor; 30 percent against. Yet these numbers said nothing more than that by a large margin the American people support their armed forces in war.

Then there was the alleged national enthusiasm to send in the ground troops. Asked "Suppose the bombing does not stop Serbia’s military action in Kosovo. Would you support or oppose the United States and its European allies sending in ground troops to try to end the conflict in Kosovo?" the response was 57 percent in favor, 39 percent against. This is already an extremely tendentiously phrased question, full of dubious assumptions about NATO bombing in order to "stop Serbia’s military action in Kosovo" and ground troops being sent in "to try to end the conflict." However, when asked "Would you support or oppose sending in ground troops if there was a good chance that some US soldiers would be killed in the fighting?," the numbers changed dramatically. Now only 44 percent were in favor, with 50 percent against. When asked the same question, with the slight change "if there was a good chance that up to 100 US soldiers would be killed in the fighting?," the numbers went down even further. Now only 37 percent were in favor; 57 percent against. When the number of US casualties was put at 500, 31 percent were in favor; 62 percent against. These numbers were confirmed by a March 25 Time/CNN poll that asked, "How many American lives would you be willing to sacrifice to achieve US goals in Kosovo?" 74 percent said none.

Max Boot’s absurdities were echoed in a typical Bill Kristol screed in the Washington Post the other day. The only way the Republican can avoid disaster in November, he argued, is if they embrace the issue of "War. Or at least ‘peace through strength.’ This theme has traditionally served the GOP well. After all, in every presidential election a Republican has won in modern times, foreign and defense policy has been a big issue, and the Republican candidate has stood for a stronger and more assertive America than the Democrat." Kristol is contemptuous of Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice. At the Philadelphia convention she had said "America’s armed forces are not a global police force, they are not the world’s 911." This "was closer to the spirit of George McGovern than Ronald Reagan" – a typically ludicrous Kristol assertion, but one gets away with time and again. Kristol is horrified at the notion that as President, Bush might consider withdrawing troops from somewhere. He invokes standard boilerplate about the "devastating abdication of US leadership in NATO for the sake of piddling savings," not to mention the "weakening of our commitment to friends and allies around the world." To his horror, Condoleezza Rice "has basically expressed agreement with Bill Clinton’s China policy, and Dick Cheney with Clinton’s Iraq policy. Missile defense has virtually disappeared as a campaign theme. And vague promises of a Bush military buildup are unaccompanied by specific numbers or an explanation of the purpose of a larger and stronger military." Clearly Kristol would much prefer it if, the day after his inauguration, President Bush began to prepare for war against Iraq, against China, and no doubt against Russia too. Amazingly, like Boot, he would have Bush reveal his intentions even before the election.

"If Bush and Cheney are unwilling to make the defense and foreign policy case in terms of American global leadership," Kristol concludes darkly, "and, yes, American honor and greatness, they won’t win it. And if they don’t win it, they’re unlikely to win the election." This is yet another assertion without the slightest scrap of evidence. It is hard to think of any election in recent times that was decided on foreign policy and defense issues. Even Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory was a response to the recession, not to mention Jimmy Carter’s ineffectual Presidency.

The poll numbers argue heavily against Kristol. In March a poll asked 1,155 Americans: "If attacked by another country, should the US help defend militarily, even though it could cost American soldiers their lives, . . ." such places as Kosovo, Israel, Taiwan, South Korea and Kuwait. In each case, a substantial majority was opposed US military involvement. 31 percent supported the defense of Taiwan; 69 percent were against. 74 percent opposed the defense of Kosovo; 71 percent the defense of Kuwait; 72 percent South Korea. 59 percent were against the United States coming to the defense of Israel.

There is a strong case to be made for a return of the military draft. The prospect of casualties will ensure that the American people have a direct interest in bringing to an end the elite’s imperial adventures. As long as we have an all-volunteer military, the Wall Street Journal and the Weekly Standard will continue to enjoy a free run for their nonsense.

Please Support

Send contributions to
520 S. Murphy Avenue, #202
Sunnyvale, CA 94086

or Contribute Via our Secure Server
Credit Card Donation Form

Your Contributions are now Tax-Deductible

Back to Home Page | Contact Us