Groupthink is the last thing a country needs when debating questions of war and peace. But groupthink is what America’s pundits have succumbed to once again. In 2003, voices of opposition to the Iraq War struggled to be heard, with even the progressive cable news channel MSNBC silencing its most outspoken critic (Phil Donahue) and telling a right-wing dissenter from President Bush’s war (Pat Buchanan) that he was expected to represent Republican opinion — which is to say, pro-war opinion. So much for press freedom.
Today, groupthink is on the side of peace, or rather on the side of caricaturing President Trump as a warmonger. This is something of a turnabout after years in which respectable opinion had it that Trump was dangerous precisely because he was not hawkish enough: he was an isolationist, an appeaser of Putin — or a collaborator — and a coddler of Kim Jong-un. He didn’t go far enough with his minimal-casualties bombing of Syria in April 2017. Only briefly, later that same year, did the groupmind reverse itself and present Trump as a maniac about to trigger World War Three after he tweeted a threat of ‘fire and fury’ at Kim. But when that moment passed, the isolationist myth took root again.
Trump’s use of a drone strike in January to kill Qasem Soleimani, head of Iran’s Quds Force, has changed the storyline. With impeachment faltering, this was a chance to try out a new script, one recycled from the George W. Bush years. Now partisan critics of the president were once more a peace movement, just like they were in the waning days of Bush. Anti-war mobilizations curiously came to an end as soon as Barack Obama was in office, even as he perpetuated the war in Afghanistan and launched a new regime change project in Libya.
The fabled progressive anti-war movement also didn’t stop Hillary Clinton from becoming the 2016 Democratic nominee for president, despite her support for the Iraq War during her time in the Senate and her role in fomenting the Libyan intervention as Obama’s secretary of state.
Never mind: Trump’s killing of Iran’s de facto chief of external terrorism and paramilitary intervention means that a militaristic madman is in the White House. In truth, the progressive groupthink here resembles less the Johnny-come-lately opposition to Bush’s foreign policy than the mischaracterization of Ronald Reagan as a warmonger in the 1980s. Cowboy Ronnie was meant to be on the verge of starting global thermonuclear war back then because he was just so dang stupid and radically right wing. He was an actor, an idiot, a mental feeb, just like Trump — only Reagan’s movies had writers, and Trump’s reality show did not.
Left-wing groupthink in opposition to a Republican president is unexceptional. But augmenting the new mythology of the left is a certain intellectual slovenliness on the anti-war right, including among some members of Trump’s base. These conservatives have gone along with the left’s narrative rather than exercising judgment to make elementary distinctions between defensive and aggressive uses of force. For some on the left, there is no such thing as defensive use of force by America — though every use of force by Iran is defensive, justified as retaliation for the 1953 overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh with CIA connivance and the 2003 invasion of Iran’s neighbor.
By that account, Soleimani’s role in arming and training Shiite militias to kill Americans in Iraq is not grounds for America to do to Soleimani what he did to some 600 of our troops. The emotional anti-war right rarely goes that far, but it is susceptible to its own wishful thinking about the irenic intentions of Iran and other interventionist powers that are not the US of A.
The anti-war groupthink of 2020 may be less dangerous in the short run than the pro-war groupthink of 2003. But after 17 years of involvement in Iraq and nearly 20 years of occupying Afghanistan, we are no longer talking about the short run. With Trump, the right has a chance to strike a new course in foreign affairs after the failures of neoconservatism under Bush. But a new course requires strategic thinking, not sentimentality or mere slogans of the ‘Come Home, America’ variety. America will never come home from the Pacific because one of our states and several of our territories are in the middle of the ocean, vulnerable to any aggressive Asian power.
If America came home from Europe and left Nato tomorrow, Russia would soon do to Latvia and Lithuania what it has done to Ukraine, and for much the same reason: Crimea was a strategic priority for Russia, and so is direct access to the Kaliningrad exclave. That might not lead to war on the Continent, but if I were Poland, it would lead me to think about nuclear deterrence. And if I were Russia, I would think about deterring Poland from obtaining nuclear deterrence.
If America comes home from the Islamic world, meanwhile, Afghanistan will revert to Taliban control and chaos will continue in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran vying for power and Israel, Russia, and others taking whatever role they deem necessary. But this is happening anyway with Americans in the midst of struggle. We can leave and spare lives and treasure — and we should. To stop the chaos from following us home, however, may require a new attitude to immigration as well as war. The anti-war right won’t find any allies on the left in that cause.
Groupthink has no answers to the difficulties bedeviling our foreign policy. The in-crowd consensus, as always, is wrong about Trump, who is still the closest thing to a peace president we have had since the end of the Cold War. But worse, this lazy consensus is an opiate when the hour has arrived to wake up and think clearly about the world.