Paul Waldman is the Prospect's daily blogger and senior writer. He also blogs for the Plum Line at the Washington Post, and is the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success.
It's been an entire 12 years since we started a war, and apparently the American people are getting a little antsy. A new Quinnipiac poll finds that 62 percent of Americans, including 72 percent of Republicans, favors the use of ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. We should be careful about over-interpreting that, because the question was preceded by another question talking about limited, but not long-term operations for ground troops. But there's no doubt that the public's interest in getting some boots back on the ground is gaining momentum; in Pew polls, support for ground troops went up from 39 percent in October to 47 percent in February; in the same poll, 67 percent of Republicans said they supported ground troops.
The reason I focus on the number of Republicans is that I suspect with this increase in support from their constituents, we're going to hear more and more Republican politicians coming out for what we might call a re-invasion of Iraq, and not just Iraq but Syria, as well. And as long as we're in the neighborhood, how about some military action against Iran?
Iran is, of course, a separate story. But it isn't unrelated; once people start advocating a third Iraq war with more vigor than they have been up until now, the idea of bombing Iran won't seem so outlandish. Back in 2002, when the Bush administration was in the midst of its campaign to convince the public that invading Iraq was necessary lest we all be obliterated by Saddam Hussein's fearsome arsenal of weapons of mass destruction, a British official described the sentiment among the Bush administration and its allies this way: "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad. Real men want to go to Tehran."
It wasn't long ago that the idea of sending ground troops back to the Middle East was widely considered just short of insane. After all, we'd finally gotten out of Iraq, after spending $2 trillion, losing 4,000 American lives, and sending the region into chaos. Why would we want to do it all over again? But now, the idea of doing it all over again seems to be gaining traction.
Just after the end of the first Iraq war, George H. W. Bush closed a celebratory speech by saying: "It's a proud day for America. And, by God, we've kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all." That syndrome was the reluctance of the public (and military leaders) to countenance enormous military adventures in far-off lands in service of vaguely defined goals. So it may now be time to say that the "Iraq syndrome" is dead, if ever it existed.
At the moment, when the Republicans running for president are asked about whether they'd like to send troops to any of these countries, they inevitably reply that "all options should be on the table." It's essentially a dodge, though not a completely unreasonable one. They want to signal to conservatives that they're ready to use force, but signal to everyone else that they're not eager to do so. But try to imagine what would happen if a Republican wins the presidency next year.
If ISIS isn't completely defeated, he'll be under pressure from his supporters to go in there and get the job done, and not in a wimpy way like Obama. Then think about Iran. With Bibi Netanyahu writing their talking points, Republicans will now insist that any nuclear agreement negotiated by this president is by definition weak and dangerous. The very fact of an agreement limiting Iran's nuclear activities can be the justification for military action. If the talks break down, on the other hand, well that just makes starting a bombing campaign all the more urgent. And of course, they'll assure us that once we take out the Iranian nuclear program, the people will rise up and overthrow their oppressive government.
It's all going to sound quite familiar. War will once again be presented as the only way to prevent a bigger, worse war that they insist is coming no matter what. Don't forget that the Iraq War was offered up by the Bush administration as a pre-emptive strike to prevent the inevitable and not-too-distant moment when Saddam Hussein would launch his war against the United States. While they never said whether the Iraq invasion would come by land, sea, or air, the attack was coming one way or another. In Dick Cheney's immortal words: "Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt he is amassing them to use against our friends, against our allies, and against us."
Netanyahu says that the Iranian regime is just a bunch of homicidal lunatics who are determined to re-enact the Holocaust. There's no use negotiating with them, because they're mad. War is the only way to solve the problem. Anyone who saw the way Republicans were like tweens at a One Direction concert at Netanyahu's speech on Tuesday know that if he says it, they'll believe it.
So here's what I think is going to happen. First, the idea that we need to put troops in to fight ISIS—not on the table, but on the ground—is very quickly going to become something that all Republicans agree on (and if you're going to do it, do it big—no half-assed mobilization of a few thousand, but a massive deployment). Then they'll start talking seriously about military action against Iran, sooner rather than later, and that too is going to move rapidly from being a fringe idea, to something that many of them admit should be "on the table," to something they all agree ought to be done. And by God, we'll have kicked that Iraq syndrome once and for all.
There was a weird little sidelight to the just-concluded mini-crisis over funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which was that the American Action Network, a group allied with John Boehner, was running ads criticizing conservative Republicans for not supporting a clean DHS funding bill, even as Boehner was trying to win them over with a much softer approach. But what really struck me watching this was something about the message itself:
You may have noticed that when the ad says "put real teeth in immigration enforcement," the image is of a Predator drone, presumably because we'll be raining missiles down on people wading through the Rio Grande. Which is...interesting. But here's the text:
"While the threats grow, conservatives in Congress want to beef up our security, enhance cybersecurity, and put real teeth in immigration enforcement. It's the right message to send to our enemies. But some in Washington are willing to put out security at risk by jeopardizing critical security funding. That's the wrong message to send to our enemies. Tell Congressman Tim Huelskamp to fund homeland security. Our safety must come first."
This is a common argument, particularly when it comes to national security policy. "Sending messages" is supposed to be extremely important, and not just to friends and potential supporters, but to adversaries and enemies as well. Indeed, sometimes it seems that victory can be achieved if only we "send the right message."
George W. Bush was particularly fond of citing the importance of proper message-sending. For instance, here are some of the things he said in the first debate he did in 2004 with John Kerry:
"[Iraqi Prime Minister Allawi] doesn't want U.S. leadership, however, to send mixed signals, to not stand with the Iraqi people…I don't see how you can lead this country to succeed in Iraq if you say wrong war, wrong time, wrong place. What message does that send our troops? What message does that send to our allies? What message does that send the Iraqis?...I know we won't achieve if we send mixed signals. I know we're not going to achieve our objective if we send mixed signals to our troops, our friends, the Iraqi citizens...The way to make sure that we succeed is to send consistent, sound messages to the Iraqi people...I think that by speaking clearly and doing what we say and not sending mixed messages, it is less likely we'll ever have to use troops...But by speaking clearly and sending messages that we mean what we say, we've affected the world in a positive way…[Kim Jong-Il] wants to unravel the six- party talks, or the five-nation coalition that's sending him a clear message...You cannot lead if you send mixed messages. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our troops. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to our allies. Mixed messages send the wrong signals to the Iraqi citizens."
Now I don't mean to say that message-sending is never important. Adversaries and allies alike notice both what we do and what we say. But the idea that what matters in defeating ISIS is the message we send them is kind of crazy. There are plenty of reasons why it would have been a bad idea to shut down DHS, but it's not like somewhere in Mosul a bunch of ISIS fighters would be watching CNN and say, "We were prepared to abandon this war, but this sends a message of weakness. The time to strike America is now!"
While everyone was getting ready for Benjamin Netanyahu's speech (you can read my thoughts on that here), John Boehner took the opportunity to capitulate to Democrats:
It was all but inevitable, and Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) finally cut his losses on Tuesday, telling House Republicans he will allow a vote on legislation to fund the Department of Homeland Security without any immigration restrictions.
The "clean" DHS funding bill could come up as early as Tuesday. It is expected to pass with overwhelming support from Democrats and enough House Republicans.
Boehner laid out three paths to his members in a weekly meeting, according to a source in the room: shutting down DHS, another short-term stopgap bill, or the Senate-passed clean DHS bill. He said the first two weren't good options.
"With more active threats coming into the homeland, I don't believe that's an option," Boehner said of a shutdown. "Imagine if, God forbid, another terrorist attack hits the United States."
It effectively ends the Republican threat to use a potential shutdown of DHS to overturn President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration, which Boehner promised to fight "tooth and nail" last year with the new GOP majorities in both chambers.
I am so surprised that it ended this way. Who could have predicted? Well, I and a dozen other people predicted exactly this, but anyway, I'm sure the House conservatives feel terribly betrayed.
Some time ago, I heard someone on the radio say that every time she sees "Romeo and Juliet," even though she knows how it ends, she finds herself hoping that Juliet will wake up in time to stop Romeo from drinking the poison, and they'll all live happily ever after. Which is understandable—despite what you know to be true, it's easy to get caught up in the drama. And today, conservatives in the House are kind of like that play-goer, except that they're leaving the theater all angry about how things ended, despite the fact that they've seen the play multiple times already.
There are a couple of ways to look at this. One is that, as I've argued before, Boehner has taken a nearly impossible task and made it even harder through incompetence. Another is that, as Jonathan Bernstein argues today, Boehner is actually being quite clever; these mini-crises pass without much public notice, he gives the crazies a chance to vent with a vote or two, and everything works out fine in the end. Maybe. But I still don't think history will be very kind to this speakership.