Column: Talking ourselves out of war
Rarely, if ever, has so much talk preceded a proposed military strike.
Most administrations contemplating military action worry about an exit strategy. The Obama administration seems to be in search of an entrance strategy.
Or is it that we’re trying to talk ourselves out of this mess?
As war goes, a war of words seems a better option. Less blood and death if, at times, more ennui and head-clutching frustration. In that vein, the past several weeks have provided an embarrassment of riches.
Just this week, we’ve heard from the president and his many minions, surrogates and converts, including national security adviser Susan Rice, former Secretary of State and likely 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, current Secretary of State John Kerry, as well as White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, who hit the Sunday news shows.
Despite all best efforts, public consensus for cruise missile strikes against Syria has not taken shape. The reason may be partly war weariness, but surely much of the problem lies in the odd formulations leading up to this non-war.
With shock-and-awe barely in our rearview mirror, pre-war chitchat is not a modus operandi to which we are accustomed.
There is certainly merit to discussing military action carefully in advance of deployment, but such lengthy, often confusing, verbal perambulations as we’ve witnessed the past several weeks – stressing the urgency of taking action while repeatedly postponing action pending fill-in-the-blank – do create fresh sets of problems.
The debate of late has most closely resembled a busy mom’s calendaring challenge: Let’s see, we can’t vote to strike until after Labor Day vacation – and the president’s speech can’t be on Monday because the Redskins are playing and, no, not Wednesday either because 9/11 is too fraught.
Meanwhile, we’ve all but sent engraved announcements to Bashar al-Assad giving the time and place of our proposed engagement. Repondez s’il vous plait.
The sense created by so much clearing of throats has been that one is not quite certain of one’s intentions, and, therefore, one’s rationale for war. President Obama’s reticence is understandable, but also disconcerting. Creating and then moving a red line is inherently problematic and otherwise lacking in, shall we say, clarity. Another hitch, commensurate with the preceding, is a rising trust deficit among the American people, not to mention the world, followed by a lack of will. If war is not urgent, as this one seems not to be, then perhaps war is not necessary.
Imagine, as a dead poet once crooned.
Then there is this appealing thought: Once nations reach the point of talking a war to death, rather than fighting one to the death – a coalition of the unwilling – aren’t they participants in some sort of tipping point? We talk ourselves out of things all the time. Why not talk ourselves out of war?
We pause to note that we’re not really talking about war, which adds to the trust deficit. Despite assurances to the contrary, no one really believes that our engagement with Syria will consist of a few strategic, limited strikes, especially given Assad’s promise to retaliate. “Expect everything,” he told Charlie Rose in a recent interview.
Trust us, the administration keeps saying. And America keeps shaking its head. No.
The trust deficit is not a new problem and it certainly can’t be blamed entirely on Obama. Distrust of public institutions is part of a 50-year (at least) trend, exacerbated recently by revelations about our government spying on its citizens.
And, let’s be clear, if we once “kicked” Vietnam Syndrome, as President George H.W. Bush jubilantly declared after the first Gulf War, we have inherited Iraq Syndrome from his son.
Can intelligence ever be trusted again when rationalizing military action against a sovereign nation?
The war of words, tedious as it has sometimes seemed, may yet hold promise as Syria, prodded by Russia, seems to be responding positively to an off-hand remark Kerry made during a news conference. With a dismissive shrug of perhaps premature resignation, Kerry casually suggested that the strike could be avoided if Assad merely turned over his chemical weapons to international control.
The clamor for support from all quarters, including Moscow and Damascus, has been somewhat breathtaking. Was that all it took? Or did the formulation of an idea require time to evolve?
It is too soon to declare war avoided, but there is reason to hope. Who knows? Obama’s most significant legacy may not be Obamacare, but the talking cure as inoculation against war.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post and lives part-time in South Carolina.