The Warmongers Have Landed

News & Politics

If you've started to worry that the war in Afghanistan is not going well -- Osama bin Laden's still free, and the Taliban has not yet turned tail -- don't worry, the media hawks are out in full-force.

After weeks of patience, many have started flapping their wings (or gums) and criticizing the Bush administration for being led by faint-hearted warriors. On Fox News, Brit Hume recently grilled White House chief of staff Andrew Card, asking him in a demanding tone, "Can you assure us that the military efforts in the air ... are in no sense being hindered, delayed, held back at all by diplomatic considerations related to, say, keeping Pakistan happy, related to our coalition partners?" Card replied that the "military options are proceeding as we planned them ... We're not holding back at all."

Hume pressed on: "A number of military experts have said ... that the level of these strikes and the power of these strikes is nothing like what it could be ... Can you assure us here today that the president believes that we are hitting as hard as we could hit in those areas?" Card answered: "We're hitting appropriately for the mission." And Hume, noting the Northern Alliance rebels had complained about the low level of bombing, came back once more: "Is the President satisfied that we're hitting as hard as we can?" Again Card said, "We're hitting appropriately."

Interest declared: I am a contributor to Fox News Channel, and Hume is always nice to me in the make-up room. So pardon the understatement when I suggest Hume was war-mongering.

Hitting as hard as we could? Card should have said, "Of course not. Where not napalming entire stretches of Kandahar and Kabul. We're not dropping bombs on any vehicle that moves. We're not hitting every school, mosque and hospital we can find. We're not using nuclear weapons. Sure, we're holding back. Out of political and diplomatic considerations. And out of moral considerations."

What would have been wrong with such a reply? There is no shame in plotting military strategy with politics and diplomacy in mind. In fact, that may be a sign of maturity, an acknowledgment that war does occur within geopolitical contexts and that force is only one portion of the equation.

Say the United States bombarded Afghanistan with much greater intensity. Would the anti-bin Laden coalition hold? Would the credibility of the Northern Alliance, Washington's ally, be harmed within Afghanistan and, consequently, would its ability to offer leadership in a post-Taliban period be undermined? Would a hell-bent U.S. bombing blitz bolster Bush's effort to win the cooperation of nations throughout the world in other aspects of the war on terrorism?

Hume, though, was working from the assumption that strategic restraint is a sign of weakness and folly. And Card opted not to challenge the good-looking guy. (Sorry, but I do get a modest paycheck from Fox.)

Other conservatives have been pitching a similar line -- particularly the members of Bill Kristol's Cranky Conservative Clubhouse. In a Washington Post op-ed, Kristol noted the war is bound to fail due to "three (self-imposed) constraints: No ground troops in Afghanistan. No confrontation with Iraq. No alarm at home." (He even blasted the FBI and CIA for stating they have no evidence the anthrax attacks are linked to bin Laden and for noting they suspect domestic culprits. What would he have them do? Lie to gin up ever more hatred -- if that were possible -- against bin Laden and Iraq?) Forget patience, Kristol advised, there's not much time to get serious "about winning the war."

The Los Angeles Times quoted Gary Schmitt, the executive director of the Project for a New American Century (which happens to be a policy shop founded by Kristol) worrying that the military campaign was being "held back" by "constraints." And in the same article, Robert Kagan, who was IDed as a GOP foreign policy analyst (but who is also a cofounder of the Project for a New American Century) declared the Bush administration was "losing the first round of the war."

Credit the Kristolites for message discipline. And others have joined the chorus. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer huffed that the war "has been fought with half-measures. It has been fought with one eye on the wishes of our 'coalition partners.' It has been fought to assuage the Arab 'street.' It has been fought to satisfy the diplomats rather than the generals." He urged massive bombing of Afghanistan's cities -- after dropping leaflets warning civilians to flee. (Yes, run to the squalor of the refugee camps, and, by the way, do not expect the United States to bother to devise a plan for post-bombed Afghanistan. As Krauthammer snorts, "What comes after will be an interesting problem ... Nice is nice but this is war.")

In Congress, Senator John McCain has been waving a similar flag. The United States, according to McCain, must "exert a maximum amount of force" -- meaning "dramatically escalating" the bombing and sending in ground troops to establish a forward position in Afghanistan. He insists, "Issues such as whether Ramadan is coming, the status of our coalition, civilian casualties -- as tragic as they are -- and other issues are all secondary to our mission, which is to seek out and destroy the enemy wherever they are."

Even if they are hiding among women and children they have taken hostage? In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attack, despite the unforgivable horrors of that day, there remains the need to consider proportionality -- for reasons of strategy and morality.

Is all bombing justified in the pursuit of these scumbags? Is there any difference between dozens of civilian Afghan deaths and hundreds and thousands? Should the United States take guidance from Kurtz (of Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now), who urged, "Exterminate all the brutes"? How many civilian casualties are acceptable? If the answer is -- as I suspect Kristol and the Gang might say -- as many as necessary, then the United States cannot in good faith declare this is not a war against the people of Afghanistan. Instead, it should be saying to Afghans, you are all expendable, enjoy the PB&J sandwiches courtesy of our airdrops while you can.

The motto of this bunch: whatever it takes, whatever that brings.

"Of course you should be concerned about civilian casualties," says Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan Administration. "Remember, what you're not just trying to do is get rid of the Taliban, you're trying to win the struggle against terrorism."

The question may boil down to whether one believes the United States can win (or should try to win) that struggle on its own. Those who believe America needs no partners are freer to encourage harsher military tactics and urge a wider war. Destroy the village to save it? Nah, just blast away, for who gives a shit about the damn village? But partnerships oblige members to heed the concerns of colleagues. Presumably, in return, the partnership allows members to achieve more than they could as solo practitioners. With the United States a large, diverse, open society (full of terrorist targets) in a globalized world, it is tough to envision the nation succeeding in the war on terrorism, if Washington adopts a go-it-alone, who-cares-what-anyone-else-thinks, damn-the-constraints attitude. The United States cannot be Israel.

Following the outburst of conservative outrage, the Bush administration did ratchet up the bombing in Afghanistan. The Pentagon claimed it was not responding to the criticisms and that it had solid military reasons for intensifying the bombing. Life in America would be even scarier, if Bill Kristol and his conservative kibitzers were literally calling the shots in the war on terrorism.

Sidebar: Other Notable War Quotables

While we're sniping at the war advice of op-ed generals, let's consider other notable statements recently made by prominent figures.

- Asked about the news that Vice President Dick Cheney was again dispatched to a secret hideout, while President Bush was attending the World Series and telling Americans to lead normal lives, Mary Matalin, a Cheney adviser said, "The vice president has been talking about the new normalcy and in that context the new normalcy will include evolving work environments." No doubt, these "evolving work environments" will be in underground bunkers where everyone wears hazmat suits and mail is opened by laboratory rats and irradiated before being disseminated.

- Asked how the United States' war will be different than the Soviet's war in Afghanistan, General Tommy Franks, the commander of Operation Enduring Freedom, replied, "I am not sure exactly how it's going to be different. But I am sure that it's going to be different." That's reassuring.

- Asked whether Bush would have to clear going to war against Iraq with Congress, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, remarked, "No, he certainly wouldn't have to clear it with us. He's an independent branch of government." Time-out for a Constitution check. What's all that Article 1-Section 8 gibberish about Congress being the branch "to declare war"?

- Finally, R. James Woolsey, the former CIA director. Asked about the recent, no-specifics terrorism alert issued by Attorney General John Ashcroft, Woolsey quipped, "Much of intelligence is a big maybe." Now he tells us.

David Corn is the Washington editor of The Nation and a regular columnist for

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