You never had any doubt that Bush took the wars the US was fighting during his presidency very seriously. His strategy and instincts may have often been wrong, but the solemnity of that responsibility, and the necessity of rallying public opinion never escaped him. Obama, by contrast, does not talk much about Iraq and Afghanistan. And, worse than that, the pacifist anti-war left has been silent during his presidency. It is nowhere near the huge force of 2004-2006. And this is unhealthy, not least because we still have many troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, and neither war is going swimmingly. The general public mostly could care less. The families of the deployed are glued to the television and had to learn this week that 30 commandos died in a helo crash, but for the average American this is a brief news story. Our lackluster progress in Afghanistan, the continuing loss of life of Americans and Afghanis, the problems of Pakistan, and all the rest are now on page 20, below the fold. And this is all because public opinion is highly malleable and shaped by what’s in the news. It’s why the deficit became the major political issue it is now–it has always been a genuine policy issue–and it is why the wars no longer really matter to anyone.
One of the worst consequences of Bush’s presidency was the cementing of Republican identity as the war party, the party of neoconservatives, who support the ambitious and universalist expansion of democracy and capitalism into tribal lands that have nothing to do with America’s interests. And the average Republican does this as an expression of identity as the mirror image of the pacifist, anti-American left. While in the 90s there still were significant isolationist voices on the Republican side, now they are largely relegated to the sidelines. It’s an unfortunate development. And it is doubly unfortunate when it is coupled with the “party spirit” of Democrats who will not, on the whole, say much negative about Obama’s wars, wars that he appears only half-heartedly prosecuting. We essentially have no criticism of America’s foreign wars at the moment.
There is a middle ground of hubristic neoconservative militarism and anti-American pacifism. That middle ground is patriotic concern for the national interest, coupled with a strong bias against excessive foreign involvement. It is the same spirit that led the US to quickly move in and out of Panama in Operation Just Cause, and it is the opposite of such mistaken campaigns as Beiruit or Kosovo or Somalia. It is the spirit of Washington and Lindbergh and Senator Fulbright and Henry Ford. It is far from nonexistent; many cultural conservatives talk this way outside of the DC beltway. But it has no recognized voice in national politics–except perhaps Sen. Jim Webb and Rep. Ron Paul–and therefore largely has only a minimal impact on national decisionmaking.