31 Oct It Might Have Been
Not quite 19 years ago – sometime between November 2, 2004, when George W. Bush was reelected, and January 20, 2005, when he was inaugurated for the second time – we published a piece detailing our expectations for the post-election developments in the Global War on Terror. In that piece – titled “Bush Unbound” – we predicted that Bush and Cheney would turn even more hawkish. With the election behind them and thus free to focus on doing whatever was necessary to win the war, the two would, we wrote, cut to the heart of the Islamist terrorism problem and take the fight directly to Iran.
We were wrong, obviously. Magnificently, spectacularly, and excruciatingly wrong. Instead of renewed vigor in the pursuit of the enemy, Bush started his second term with newfound vigor in the pursuit of the impossible: “So, it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”
The Bush-Cheney decision to follow the “democratization” path to the conclusion of the GWOT, rather than the military-victory path, has yielded precious few positive consequences – as the American embassy in Iraq is perpetually under siege, and the Taliban once again rule Afghanistan.
The negative consequences of the democratization agenda, however, are manifold and are, in some instances, enormously complicating factors today, including in the conflict that Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has called his country’s “second war of independence.”
The first and most obvious of these negative consequences is the fact that the Mad Mullahs of Iran remain in power today and are able to use the wealth generated by their country’s plentiful natural resources to fund the war against Israel and Judaism more generally. If Bush had met our expectations and had taken the fight to Iran, then the Middle East and, indeed, the world would be dramatically different today.
Obviously, there’s no way to know who or what would have replaced the regime in Tehran, but it’s hard to imagine that whoever it was would have been worse than the Mullahs – especially on matters related to Israel and its right to exist. While it is true that every regime has foreign policy goals that might bring it into conflict with its neighbors and potential regional rivals, very few regimes are driven by chiliastic fervor and the belief that they have a vital role in bringing about “the end of days” and a great global battle. Indeed, to the best of our knowledge, Iran is the only major nation today run by people who firmly and dedicatedly believe that they must plunge the world into chaos in order to bring about the return of a religious leader who has been “hidden” for centuries, awaiting the moment to bring Muslim domination to the entire planet.
A second, less obvious but nevertheless critically important negative consequence of the Bush-Cheney democratization agenda is the change in attitudes it fostered among the American people. One could write an entire book on this subject, we’d imagine, but for our purposes today, we’ll keep it simple and focus on two attitudes in particular: attitudes toward war and self-defense and attitudes about the trustworthiness of “the institutions.”
As we have noted in these pages for years, the American people’s frustration with the democratization agenda took the form of opposition to “endless wars” and has long been reflected in their vote choices. In 2008, for example, the American people took a flyer on a young, largely unknown Senator from Illinois, in part because he promised to end America’s adventurism abroad and because his opponent was one of the best-known hawks in American government. Even after “only” seven years of war, the American people were exhausted by the whole thing. They just wanted it over and for their sons and daughters to come home.
Unfortunately, they didn’t get what they voted for. Instead, they got more of the same – and then some. Barack Obama spent eight years expanding America’s presence throughout the Middle East and North Africa. And when he was done, his party nominated for president his former Secretary of State, the woman who exuberantly advocated for the operation that plunged Libya into semi-permanent chaos, turning it into a failed state and a haven for miscreants and evildoers of all stripes and varieties.
Unsurprisingly in retrospect, the American people again vented their frustration in 2016, electing the purportedly “unelectable” Donald Trump, in part because he promised to do what Obama didn’t, to end the expansion of American global interventionism. Trump famously scolded Jeb Bish for his continuing support of his brother’s foreign policies and spoke repeatedly about his distaste for Republican “globalism.” His vow to end the Bush-Cheney wars was a key component of his appeal, especially to the white working class, which supplies a significant chunk of the nation’s armed forces.
Unlike his predecessors, Trump didn’t get two terms to put his stamp on American foreign policy, and so, he bequeathed an unfinished agenda to Joe Biden. Biden, in turn, ended the American occupation of Afghanistan – disastrously and humiliatingly – but then, almost immediately, deeply entangled the nation in a new foreign conflict, the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine. Biden’s dedication to the Ukrainian cause and his unwillingness even to consider questions about strategies, goals, and endgames have rekindled the anti-war, anti-globalist spirit in American politics, especially – and unsurprisingly – among those in the populist right.
Which brings us to Israel….
As the war for Israel’s survival has ramped up, many on the Right have been skeptical, both of Israel’s claims and motives and of American efforts to support its steadfast ally. Note, we are not referring here to the traditionally antisemitic Far Right, but to the more mainstream populist Right, the people who support Donald Trump and who represent much of the energy in the conservative movement at the moment. These are people who should be supporters of Israel under any circumstances, people who would be supporters of Israel under any other circumstances. But they have been soured on foreign interventionism by 20 years of endless war and 20 years of government contempt for their thoughts, beliefs, and concerns.
And they’re not alone. The traditional war-dubious Left has joined them, no longer bound by their apprehension to oppose Obama or Biden in their adventurism for fear of aiding Trump and other Republicans. Together, the anti-war Left and the populist Right have fashioned an opposition movement that stands in resistance to the nation’s official policy of unflinching and unfailing support for Israel.
Part of this, of course, is just rank obstinacy and ignorance on their part. The fight for Israel’s survival and against global antisemitism is simply NOT the same as the fight for Ukraine’s independence from Russia or the fight for Iraq’s independence from Saddam Hussein. It just isn’t. We mean no offense whatsoever to the Ukrainians or those who support their cause. Moreover, we agree that Vladimir Putin is a monster who has committed and will continue to commit horrendous atrocities. Nevertheless, Ukraine’s fight is similar to countless such territorial conflicts throughout the world, over the years and centuries. Israel’s fight, by contrast, is existential and represents the battle for the preservation of the Western soul. If the words “never again” were ever intended to mean anything, then they were intended for occasions such as this. The failure of the populist Right to recognize or understand this is inarguably misguided and reckless.
That said, much of the blame for fomenting this reckless obstinacy lies with the ruling class that fashioned and implemented the foreign policies that begot the endless wars of the last two decades and the endless arrogance necessary to wage them.
Ironically, for years, the antisemitic Left and Right called Bush’s foreign policy team “neocons” and accused them of crafting policies specifically to aid Israel. This was always a monstrous lie, of course, as was the concomitant libelous accusation of “dual loyalty.” Today, that lie is fully exposed for its patent ugliness. The policies Bush, Cheney, et al. implemented did not help Israel at all. Indeed, they set in motion a course of events that leaves Israel struggling to garner the support that should, by all rights, be automatic and full-throated.
Tragically, we’re not sure that there is a fix for this perilous conundrum. President Biden is both part of the foreign-policy establishment that pushed the endless wars on the country class and too intellectually vapid to make the case for aggressive support for Israel. President Trump, by contrast, should be able to break his supporters’ skepticism but seems unable or unwilling to rise to the task. As for the rest of the Republican field, we have some hope, but not much. The current non-Trump frontrunner, Nikki Haley, recently demonstrated that she doesn’t have a clue about the importance and uniqueness of Israel’s fight and would, as a result, likely make things worse.
Regular readers undoubtedly know that we are among those who have been frustrated by the Biden Administration’s policies on Ukraine and the Republicans’ acquiescence to them. But again, that fight and Israel’s are just not the same. Israel’s fight is inarguably our fight as well and a fight that cannot be lost. This may make us policy hypocrites, but we don’t care. Context matters. And the context here is the very survival of the Jewish people.
To that end, Bush should have heeded our counsel 19 years ago.