The Erstwhile Conservative has cogently called attention to the political dust-up over Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions and its threat to Middle East instability. GOP presidential candidates are, with a Libertarian exception, waxing bellicose. There is
ample historical precedent here. The easiest and quickest way for politicians to unite a squabbling electorate has always been to rattle sabers and stir up anger against a common enemy. Before 2003 I would have said the most prominent example of this was the Spanish American War. Wikipedia describes it this way:
Revolts against Spanish rule had been endemic for decades in Cuba and were closely watched by Americans; there had been war scares before, as in the Virginius Affair in 1873. By 1897–98, American public opinion grew angrier at reports of Spanish atrocities in Cuba. After the mysterious sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor, political pressures from the Democratic Party pushed the administration of President William McKinley, a Republican, into a war McKinley had wished to avoid. Compromise proved impossible, resulting in the United States sending an ultimatum to Spain demanding it immediately surrender control of Cuba, which the Spanish rejected. First Madrid, then Washington, formally declared war.
The article said this about the war’s aftermath:
The war lasted four months. John Hay (the United States Ambassador to the United Kingdom), writing from London to his friend Theodore Roosevelt declared that it had been “a splendid little war.” The press showed Northerners and Southerners, blacks and whites fighting against a common foe, helping to ease the scars left from the American Civil War.
The war marked American entry into world affairs. Since then, the U.S. has had a significant hand in various conflicts around the world, and entered many treaties and agreements. The Panic of 1893 was over by this point, and the U.S. entered a long and prosperous period of economic and population growth, and technological innovation that lasted through the 1920s.
The war redefined national identity, served as a solution of sorts to the social divisions plaguing the American mind, and provided a model for all future news reporting.
The war served to further repair relations between the American North and South. The war gave both sides a common enemy for the first time since the end of the Civil War in 1865, and many friendships were formed between soldiers of northern and southern states during their tours of duty. This was an important development, since many soldiers in this war were the children of Civil War veterans on both sides.
I might add, from memory of a Teddy Roosevelt biography, that the U.S. Army actually made impressive progress in reforming Cuba’s healthcare system, especially relative to yellow fever and malaria, and their social services. The Cubans never had it so good, before or since. However, U.S. politics determined that we did not wish to be a colonial power and power was returned to the Cubans.
If all that doesn’t sound familiar, it should. The parallels of that conflict to 9/11 are clear. Americans were angry and fearful and were politically primed to vent their emotions in a tangible way on the foe. But the true foe, a cadre of religious fanatics financed by Saudi oil wealth, were in hiding, so the Bush administration found a foe of opportunity in one Saddam Hussein, a dictator who of course had nothing to do with 9/11. But, he fit the foe’s profile in other ways. He was nominally Muslim (albeit of the wrong sect), he was a ruthless perpetrator of atrocities and he was said to have ambitions about weapons of mass destruction (never mind that he had made no significant progress to that end.)
Adding to the administration’s motivation was the unrealistic vision of re-making Iraq into an island of democratic stability in the principal region of world energy instability. But the lesson is clear – the Iraq War was a massive, unaffordable disaster, both for the United States and for Iraq, a nation still divided three ethnic ways and with only a few hours of electricity a day for its citizens.
Now comes the problem of Iran. In another time the Teddy Roosevelt solution might indeed be the right one – a “splendid little war” just might be the thing to bring feuding Democrats and Republicans together when nothing else can. Ah, but things are not so simple now as then. Russia and China are players on this stage as well. Now we have a global economy and there are nine nations that already have nuclear weapons. And as someone mentioned in Duane’s Morning Joe clip, North Korea has nukes and we aren’t talking about invading them. Deterrence worked for the Cold War and it is working now. What doesn’t work is nation building, even if it almost did in Cuba. This is not Teddy Roosevelt’s world any more. I submit that the Obama administration is pursuing the only sensible course of action as our fragile economy struggles for a foothold. We should find some other way to rediscover that we can be a nation undivided. I am frankly dismayed to find that most GOP candidates think otherwise. It’s called demagoguery.