At a 2006 meeting of the conservative Philadelphia Society, scholar Max Boot gave a pointed speech that America needed to make the same kind of military commitment to Iraq that it made to Germany after World War II, to the tune of 50 or so years. He finished with a Teddy Roosevelt quote: "We must soberly set to work to find out all we can about the existence and extent of every evil, must acknowledge it to be such, and must then attack it with unyielding resolution."
After the speech, a boyish student from Yale, Peter Johnston, stood up and politely noted to Boot that he would commit America to be in Iraq until he, Peter Johnston, was in his 70s. It got a good laugh from all the people in the room who will be long dead by the time Peter Johnston is in his 70s.
The fates laugh now. Looked at from one angle, the 50-year commitment to Iraq is further along than we realized. We are now informed that the "limited" American campaign in Syria and Iraq will last for "years." With a few cigarette breaks, we've been at war or in a war-like stalemate with Iraq since I was 8 years old. And the engagement feels less like unyielding resolution than uninspired resignation, punctuated by bombs and the made-for-4chan spectacles of extremism.
In the meantime, the continuing embarrassment of successive presidencies over the failure to turn Iraq into a proper democracy, or a proper buffer against Iran, or an orderly place for more than a year, leads to a casual abuse of our own Constitution. The Authorizations of Military Force against terrorism related to 9/11 are deployed to justify attacks on ISIS, a group that only recently came into existence and is based in Syria. America's planes might as well show up in Raqqa under the authority of an acceptance letter to Ole Miss.
The American Congress, like the people they represent, barely takes an interest in endorsing the latest edition of an Iraq war. Pollsters inform us that taking military action against ISIS is popular in a noncommitted way. Of course it is popular, as no one has bothered counting the potential cost in American lives or to our reputation. Does the American public know we're engaged in a policy that may strengthen Bashar al-Assad and Iran's position in the region? Or that it might take him out at the behest of Saudi Arabia? A debate by the people's House might have occasioned reflection on the risks and dangers.
Does anyone really want to debate raining death down in Syria and the Sunni Triangle? If Congress endorses it, that means Congress might end it, or an electoral shift may rob the war of its mandate. Since no one explicitly authorized American drone wars in Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen, and no one ever talks about it with the public, no one is responsible for the results, whatever they might be. (Does anyone know?) Only a self-governing people would demand something as outrageous as an open debate about the wars conducted in their name.
A self-governing people would also be capable of governing their own passions according to some kind of determination. Barack Obama's exit from Iraq was as popular as his re-entry. America is against war in Iraq and then for it with the same noncommittal "Um, okay." The nation was founded by a people who made vows, who would "pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor." Now its wars are are on and off like a proposed takeout order: "Chinese or pizza? I mean, whatever you want."
The pundits who say that President Obama has failed to demonstrate leadership have never considered whether the public is capable of following him, or even their own train of thought. The American public is not even capable of not following him in any recognizable way. We might have been dropping bombs in Syria against Assad to the benefit of ISIS a year ago had it not been for the hearty "No" vote in the British Parliament that denied Obama the fig leaf of multilateralism. A democratic people should be bewildered that their president was urging them to join one side of a civil war a year ago, and now joins them to another. But the American people are as responsive to this stimulus as a cattle herd is to the conclusion of a Dostoyevsky novel.
Among a people that flatter themselves as democratic, nothing is more gauche than the expectation of democratic exercise. To demand as much is to wander dirty in the streets with a sign saying "Wake up, Sheeple!" So, forget I mentioned it. Fifty more years? No way. But, whatever, sure.