Book Forum Tuesday: Deceit and War

Tuesday at noon, John Schuessler will be at Cato to discuss his new book, Deceit on the Road to War: Presidents, Politics, and American Democracy. Its subject is U.S. leaders’ manipulation of public opinion to win support for wars, particularly World War II, Vietnam and Iraq. With help from Elizabeth Saunders and Trevor Thrall, we’ll discuss whether the United States is especially prone to this kind of deceit, why that might be, and deceit’s dangers.

If that sounds overly theoretical, consider the 2011 war in Libya. If you believed the Obama administration then, bombing Libyan troops would be geopolitical magic. The cost would be tiny: no U.S. ground forces, minimal risk to pilots, expenses amounting to federal pocket change. That minor effort would produce bountiful returns: democratic transition in Libya once the rebels took power, stronger U.S. alliances, prevention of refugee flows that would destabilize neighboring states, a cowing of dictators that would invigorate the Arab Spring, accelerating the region’s transformation to liberalism, and hundreds of thousands of lives spared from Gaddafi, who had promised to crush innocents like “cockroaches,” “showing “no mercy and pity.”

Those claims all relied on combinations of dubious logic, wishful thinking, and the case of the last, deceit. Gaffafi’s bloody threats explicitly excluded non-combatants. His forces committed war crimes but did not engage in mass slaughter of civilians in areas they captured. As critics predicted, the war’s chaotic results undermined its purported benefits. None of its rationales seem right in hindsight.

An unfortunate conclusion here is that, as with the Iraq War, democracy’s free marketplace of ideas is mythical or at least overrated. That theory says that democracy, by forcing debate, prevents leaders from launching reckless wars. Divided power and a free press mean that vigorous debate should expose faulty arguments and block the foolish policies they promote. Anticipating resistance and evaluation, leaders avoid making bad or dishonest arguments in the first place.

In Libya, the president offered just about every half plausible argument for war. Debate stayed anemic and largely unofficial. War advocates, especially powerful ones, basically ignored the few pundits and academics criticizing their arguments. Congress paid little attention, even once it took up the Benghazi attack. There was neither a congressional authorization nor an appropriation vote. The Pentagon transferred already-appropriated funds to cover the bill. In the few relevant hearings, Congressional consideration of the issues raised above was limited, at best.

Debate did not improve as Libya unraveled. It simply grew quieter. The war backers who attacked critics and hailed the “model intervention” when the rebels took power mostly went silent. A few repeat old talking points or labor to revitalize them. Mostly they shifted their attention. A bipartisan chorus, probably including our next president, makes similarly fatuous claims in pressing for more aid for Syrian rebels.

That lack of correction contrasts with the war in Iraq, which produced some policy reassessment, especially about U.S. capability to succeed in occupational warfare. Iraq’s far higher human and fiscal costs probably explain the difference. Because Libya seemed and stayed cheap for Americans, the public could stay rationally ignorant. Congress then had little reason to interfere. There was no reckoning. It’s not that the overstated arguments for war clearly worked, manipulating the public. Low costs prevented interrogation of the arguments.

Libya isn’t special because our leaders oversold the case for war. All U.S. wars share that quality. Libya instead exemplifies trends conducive to unchecked overselling of war. Wealth and power permit the United States to make war with great discretion in many places. The same factors limit dangers at home, making wars’ stakes more remote. Remote stakes mean that hawks eager to win support for war struggle to make them seem more important to domestic safety. They exaggerate more. Remote stakes also encourage leaders to hold down costs. Dead Americans seem likely to increase public attention, debate, and opposition. A gap widens between the nation’s limited willingness to pay for wars and the overwrought reasons we claim to fight them.

Relative power then produces lots of wars waged with limited risk and dysfunctional democratic debate. That is the current situation. Lately, we are hawkish in the number of places we make war—especially with airpower, including drones—but dovish in our willingness to take bloody risks in those wars. An unthreatened public pays little attention as an interventionist elite repeats arguments for war that bear little scrutiny. As long as costs stay low, scrutiny is an academic concern of little practical relevance for policymakers.