President George W. Bush was largely divorced from what one aide famously dismissed as the "reality-based community." The unnamed staffer told author Ron Suskind that "when we act, we create our own reality." Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), now pushing for war against Syria, apparently believes, along with the anonymous White House official, that he is one of "history's actors," unconstrained by unpleasant reality.
The United States is broke. This year it is spending a record $3.8 trillion, 40 percent of which is being borrowed. The national debt, now over $14 trillion, could double over the next decade if serious budget economies are not made. However, a host of new expenses are likely: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac continue to lose money, the FDIC continues to close banks and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation continues to accumulate liabilities. Worse, a realistic assessment of Social Security and Medicare reveals an unfunded liability of more than $100 trillion. Yet all Sen. Graham and his colleagues could come up with this year was an anemic one percent spending cut — and that estimate was based on funny accounting.
All this while America is spending more on the military than at any time since World War II. The United States accounts for almost half of the globe's military outlays. In real terms "defense" expenditures have doubled over the last decade. Washington is spending so much because most of what the Pentagon does has nothing to do with defense — of America, at least. As a result, the U.S. military is stretched as never before. Washington continues to formally protect prosperous, populous allies around the globe: South Korea, Japan, Canada and Europe. All could defend themselves and their regions, but no matter. Taiwan is an unofficial defense dependent, as would have been the country of Georgia, had Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) had his way.
Militarized social engineering is also a constant U.S. avocation. American forces are involved in three, four or five — depending on how one counts — military conflicts. The mission in Afghanistan has gone from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency, with Washington attempting to build a Western-style, liberal society and strong central government where none previously existed. Despite recent signs of tentative progress, America is further away from achieving that goal than when it intervened nearly a decade ago.
The Obama administration wants to stay in Iraq despite the fact that elections have been held, a military has been created and the insurgency has been suppressed. Doing so would create another fragile defense dependent, with U.S. troops on call to combat domestic conflict as well — though on whose side the Americans would fight is not clear. The government continues to move in a more authoritarian direction.
The United States is expanding military operations in both Pakistan and Yemen, mostly through drone attacks. Although the operations are supposed to be directed at terrorist threats against America, in Pakistan, at least, targets have been expanded to local jihadists who, until recently, were focused on battling the Pakistani government in Islamabad. By killing innocent civilians as well as terrorists, Washington has increased hostility against the United States and created more terrorists, some who now want to kill Americans in New York City.
Finally, Libya mixes humanitarian intervention and nation building. The mission was originally justified as necessary to save lives, even though there was no evidence of impending massacres anywhere, including in Benghazi. In fact, Muammar Qaddafi's forces committed no large killings in any of the cities that they retook, and his oft-cited florid rhetoric was directed against guerrilla fighters, not civilians. Now the administration and European governments, though originally disavowing the objective of regime change, say that Qaddafi must be removed.
After almost three months of war, the United States and NATO have failed to achieve their first objective. In fact, by prolonging the civil war, they are responsible for some of the estimated 10,000 to 15,000 dead. And the allies appear no closer to fulfilling their second objective than when they started: Qaddafi is still fighting defiantly. Moreover, his defeat (assuming it comes eventually) will not be the end.
The opposition appears to be a motley collection of genuine democrats, Qaddafi defectors, radical Islamists and tribal opponents: it is impossible to predict who will win the almost inevitable second power struggle. Washington is not likely to remain aloof, especially it the "wrong" people appear to be winning.
Nevertheless, Sen. Graham, who two years ago spent a pleasant time visiting Tripoli and discussing with Qaddafi the possibility of providing military aid, now is relentlessly beating the war drums for U.S. and NATO escalation. And he views Libya as a template for military action elsewhere. Appearing on CBS's Face the Nation, he declared: "If it made sense to protect the Libyan people against Qaddafi, and it did, . . . the question for the world is have we gotten to that point in Syria?" Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, added: "We may not be there yet, but we're getting very close." He explained: "It has gotten to the point where Qaddafi's behavior and Assad's behavior are indistinguishable . . . You need to put on the table all options, including a model like we have in Libya."
America isn't busy elsewhere. Washington has plenty of money. Why not make it war number six?
Why would the senator propose starting another war with no vital interests at stake or clear objective to achieve? Perhaps he was bored with the slow action on the Senate floor and smoked some funny cigarettes. Perhaps he has an undisclosed medical condition and stopped taking his medication. Perhaps he is simply stupid.
However, there is no evidence that Sen. Graham is a drug addict, clinically insane or remarkably dumb. Rather, while living in Washington he appears to have drunk an extra jug of hubris. Like many other U.S. policy makers, he believes that Washington is the center of the world and What We Say Goes. Like President George W. Bush, Sen. Graham does not believe that reality applies to him.
Of course, the United States could defeat the Syrian military. Though bombing alone might not be enough, unless it was far heavier and deadlier than that occurring in Libya. But the question is: "Then what?" That is the question which policy makers failed to ask and answer in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Assume Assad is killed or deposed. Then what? Who rises to power? Who protects religious and ethnic minorities? Who creates liberal democracy? Who manages the religious divide among Sunni, Shia and Alawite? Who contains the unanticipated and inadvertent consequences of literally blowing up another country?
Of course, if one believes such questions to be irrelevant, there is no reason to stop with Syria. Certainly Iran and Sudan demand similar attention. Bahrain and especially Saudi Arabia, an oppressive near-totalitarian system, could use a few U.S. bombing runs. North Korea obviously belongs on the list, along with Burma. Zimbabwe is a well-deserving candidate, probably the worst oppressor in southern Africa. Closer to home is Cuba and perhaps Venezuela. Belarus and all of the Central Asian dictatorships deserve a few drone strikes at the least. War against China obviously is warranted, since there should be no statute of limitation on Tiananmen Square. Authoritarian Russia probably also qualifies for attack, though it hasn't felt the need to deploy military force against demonstrators. Washington could stay quite busy.
It sounds like a grand adventure — unless you are a member of the reality-based community. Unless you remember that Washington is broke, while the finances of several states, such as California, resemble those of Greece. Unless you remember that the U.S. is carrying an outsized military burden for the benefit of other states that are perfectly able to protect themselves. Unless you remember that social engineering is tough enough to achieve at home, where the differences in religion, ethnicity, history, tradition and culture are much smaller than those abroad. Unless you remember that wars rarely turn out the way they were supposed to, such as an Iraqi cakewalk that ended up killing 4400 Americans and perhaps 200,000 civilians and an Afghan intervention that will soon enter its tenth year with the indigenous government more incompetent, corrupt and hated than ever.
Today is the moment to implement the "humble" foreign policy which candidate George W. Bush talked about. It is not America's mission to remake the globe. It is not within America's capability to remake the globe. And America should stop trying to remake the globe. The reality-based community was right then to warn against the invasion of Iraq. The reality-based community is right now to warn against proposals for new wars. Unfortunately, so far this president does not seem to take the consequences of war any more seriously than did his predecessor.