Last week, a Politico reporter phoned me to ascertain my thoughts on the new war. Among the questions: Was there concern among liberals that Barack Obama was in some sense now becoming George Bush, and did I see similarities between the current war and Bush’s Iraq war that, come on, be honest, made me squirm in my seat ever so slightly? My answer ended up on the cutting-room floor, as many answers given to reporters do.
But since I’m fortunate enough to have a column, I’d like to broadcast it now, because the answer is a reverberating no. In fact it’s hard for me to imagine how the differences between the two actions could be starker. This is not to say that they might not end up in the same place—creating more problems than they solve. But in moral terms, this war is nothing like that war, and if this war doesn’t end up like Bush’s and somehow actually solves more problems than it creates, that will happen precisely because of the moral differences.
The first and most important difference, plainly and simply: Obama didn’t lie us into this war. It’s worth emphasizing this point, I think, during this week when Obama is at the United Nations trying to redouble international support to fight ISIS, and as we think back on Colin Powell’s infamous February 2003 snow job to Security Council. Obama didn’t tell us any nightmarish fairy tales about weapons of mass destruction that had already been destroyed or never existed. He didn’t trot his loyalists out there to tell fantastical stories about smoking guns and mushroom clouds.
The evidence for the nature of the threat posed by the Islamic State is, in contrast, as non-fabricated as evidence can be and was handed right to us by ISIS itself: the beheading videos, and spokesmen’s own statements from recruitment videos about the group’s goal being the establishment of a reactionary fundamentalist state over Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. That’s all quite real.
Difference number two: This war doesn’t involve 140,000 ground troops. That’s not just a debating point. It’s a massive, real-world difference. I know some of you are saying, well, not yet, anyway. Time could prove you right. But if this works more or less as planned, it establishes a new model for fighting terrorism in the Middle East—the United States and Arab nations and fighting forces working together to do battle against terrorism. That’s kind of a huge deal.
Which leads us to difference number three: This coalition, while still in its infancy, could in the end be a far more meaningful coalition than Bush’s. The Bush coalition was an ad hoc assemblage bribed or browbeaten into backing the United States’ immediate geopolitical aims. It was brought together pretty much so Bush could deflect the essentially true unilateralist charge and stand up there and say “41 countries have joined together” blah blah blah.
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