The left has long liked to charge America with being an imperial hegemon, and in general a bad force in the world. The old isolationist right sometimes joins them, lamenting the presence of American military outposts around the world, and the large cost of this footprint, not to mention the way it embroils us in conflicts in so many places. In other words, as someone (I forget who, but it sounds like something Krauthammer would say), the left thinks America is too evil for the world, while (some of) the right thinks America is too good for the world.
And now along comes Trump, who is acting according to this neo-isolationist attitude to a large extent. His announcement today that the U.S. will withdraw all its forces from Syria is just another step in the slow disengagement from the world that began to some extent under Obama. But sentimental liberals ought to recognize the consequences of this directly. Obama’s decision not to intervene seriously in Syria—a correct decision in my view—meant that the civil war there would escalate into the extreme carnage we have seen. The Europeans proved too weak and feckless to do anything about it themselves (repeating their experience with the former Yugoslavia in the 199os, which required belated American force to end the mass violence), and thus are reaping the whirlwind of millions of refugees coming to Europe.
Let the Arab nations step up and police the region? Fine idea, except now our “human rights” community is complaining about the bloodshed in Yemen, where we have more or less given the Saudis a free hand to intervene, and now the Senate has voted to cut of American support for the Saudi-led effort.
The point: this is the kind of chaos you get when the U.S. disengages. Get used to it. Or shut up about American presence and assertiveness around the world.
Which brings me to my main point—a leftover argument about the closing of the Weekly Standard. A number of people on the left and the right have celebrated its closing on account of the crucial role the magazine is said to have played in causing the Iraq War. Scott McConnell writes at The American Conservative:
Invariably left unsaid or minimized in such accounts . . . is the role the Standard played in fomenting the Iraq war, the sole policy question where the magazine’s role was unambiguous and decisive. . .
As a glossy weekly publication, with hundreds of issues hand-delivered every week to important Beltway figures, the Standard occupied a critical node in Beltway opinion formation. . . No less a student of the American political establishment than The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman speculated to a reporter from Haaretz that the Iraq war would not have happened without the machinations of two dozen people inside the Beltway:
“It’s the war the neoconservatives marketed. They had an idea to sell when September 11 happened and they sold it. Oh boy, did they sell it. This is not the war the masses demanded. It is war of an elite. I could give you the names of 25 people, all of whom are at this moment within a five block radius of this office, who if you had exiled them to a desert island a year and a half ago, the Iraq war would not have happened.”
Could this group have succeeded without Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard serving as its public relations quarterback?
It is always self-flattering to writers to inflate their influence and the influence of opinion publications on events, but I want to suggest something that will amount to heresy to all sides: If Al Gore had become president in 2001 instead of George W. Bush, we would have ultimately invaded Iraq in just about the same way. Never mind that Gore said he would never have done it, and just recall that he was one of the leading hawks on Iraq in the Clinton White House.
And beyond Gore, there was a large constituency for intervention in Iraq in the State Department and other nodes of what we nowadays like to call the “deep state.” McConnell is ironically correct to call Tom Friedman a “student” of American politics, because he indeed has a lot to learn. But he might be partly right about “25 people” being crucial to the Iraq War. I doubt Friedman can actually name 25 such people (unless he borrows old Joe McCarthy’s list and cut it in half), but I’m quite sure you’d find that half the names on the list would turn out to be Democrats. Most of the Iraq occupation plans that proved so inept were developed by career foreign service officials at the State Department—hardly deep-dish neocons let alone devoted acolytes of The Weekly Standard. You might even think of them as “swamp creatures.”
You can see how alarmed the foreign policy establishment is by the horror with which they react to Trump’s criticisms of NATO, etc. They might come to miss The Weekly Standard before this is over. Even Samantha Power, whenever she looks up from milking the soft power dividend.
This is not to say that the Standard didn’t support the war or make a vigorous case for intervention. Just that a lot of the emphasis on this part of the Standard‘s history looks like opportunistic settling of old scores.