Our nation will shortly once again mark the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. That tragedy united the nation in fear and anger, and then President George W. Bush argued that the United States should punish those responsible and more generally, that the situation was quite simple: The nation had been unjustly and terribly attacked and should seek prompt and equally violent retribution. In accordance with this view, the United States elected to launch two wars, one nearly immediately in Afghanistan and another in train in Iraq to rid those nations of terrorists and a dictatorial leader, respectively. The President framed the choices confronting the nation as Manichean in character; one could either be for America in its justifiable grief, fear and anger, or against us. Given this stance, how one viewed this choice determined whether one supported the wars on which we shortly embarked. The justification for each conflict was presented in starkly dichotomous terms. The President argued the United States was morally “right” and its enemies were deeply depraved. The issue was outlined so as almost to suggest to Americans that not to support these interventions was not to back one’s nation and those who had been murdered in the terrorist attacks.
Now, 13 years on and following the expenditure of trillions of dollars and the loss of thousands of lives on all sides, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan has a truly democratic, stable and legitimate government, and both countries are aflame with conflicts. Indeed, devotees of the Islamic State in Iraq, known as ISIS, which began as an al-Qaeda splinter group, are now brutalizing populations in that nation and appear intent on descending more deeply each day into ever more heinous forms of inhumanity. This group’s crazed cruelty, fueled by a messianic ideology, appears to know no bounds. The United States is now actively engaged in airstrikes in an effort to assist Iraq in preventing ISIS from realizing its aim of assuming control of that nation. President Obama is pondering additional military involvement (with our allies) as I write. Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, that country’s government in Kabul cannot be said to enjoy true sovereignty, and it is not perceived as legitimate by many of its residents.
In short, as matters have evolved, neither of these elective wars yielded the promised stable democratic governments in Iraq and Afghanistan envisaged by the Bush administration when America launched these two conflicts. And, in retrospect, too, neither initiative may be said to have been so simple as the President argued, whether evaluated on geo-political or moral criteria. I do not wish here to revisit the question of the justifications provided by the Bush White House for the Afghan or Iraqi wars, but instead to point up how the nation came to respond as it did and to suggest that we are now in a similar scenario, and that the dangers of once again overreacting and acting imprudently are as real today as in 2001. The reasons for this lie in good measure in the politics of democratic mobilization.
In 2001 the country was shocked, angry and grieving and President Bush responded by mobilizing the nation around a politics of aggression and right and wrong. The Congress and nation supported its President out of fear and fury, but the results were far more complex and difficult than originally imagined by Bush or the citizens whose support he mobilized. In lieu of fighting one set of “bad guys,” the United States soon found that it had intervened in socio-political and cultural situations of enormous complexity that ill fit the simplified claims on which the interventions had been predicated. Predictably perhaps, popular disillusionment set in and support for both conflicts waned as the wars and their associated costs in blood and treasure mounted.
The broader point here is that dramatic and emotional claims predicated on fear, anger and loathing, and justified on simple conceptions of what was at stake, yielded popular support for war during a share of the Bush administration, but that political backing did not endure as the reality and complexities of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan became clear. It is far easier to rouse a population, especially one so large and heterogeneous as that of the United States, on the basis of raw emotion (especially rage and fear) than to argue for patience and prudence and efforts to grapple with the many political, economic and social intricacies actually in play. More generally, as I have argued previously, all political messages are mediated today in the United States, and most must be simplified in that process to reach the largest number of citizens (voters). In addition, many political claims are purposefully framed in deeply emotional ways so as to galvanize their target (a citizen) to take action or lend support to specific positions. Our political system now supports a large and permanent campaign and governance establishment underpinned by just this orientation.
All of this said, the nation has lately watched in horror as ISIS advances in Iraq, with its abominable treatment of those affected, and has also endured the gruesome spectacle of the beheading of two U.S. citizens. Such actions have enflamed the American electorate whose opinions concerning fresh intervention in Iraq have now nearly reversed to favor swift retaliatory steps. Several senators, especially John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC), have led calls for stepped up military involvement in Iraq to punish and defeat ISIS. One need not disagree that the Islamic State in Iraq must be stopped to contend that President Obama is correct nonetheless to consider the United States’ options and their consequences very carefully before taking additional steps toward full scale involvement in that nation once more.
Nonetheless, in adopting the stance he has, the President is presently enduring what could accurately be described as a political pillorying from the GOP during this campaign season, and from some in his own party. Those on the right, including McCain and Graham most forcefully, have called on the President to stop his alleged “dithering” and take still more forceful action against ISIS. Several elected officials from his own political party have argued that more vigorous action from the President is necessary in order to “control” events.
Given this situation and the ways these actors are framing the scenario, and the alarm and cries for vengeance growing in the broader electorate, President Obama faces a difficult political situation as he seeks to determine the most prudent course for the nation to avoid its recent mistakes in the region while also addressing the imperative to confront the threat posed by ISIS. Ironically, the dynamics of democratic mobilization and governance are now working strongly against ensuring a measured and considered national response that involves allies and reflects the social and political complexities driving events in Iraq and nearby nations. The current mobilization of the American electorate around emotion (however understandable) points up the very democratic reality that self-governance finally rests on the capacities of the population to discipline its own claims if the people are to protect themselves from potentially ruinous political leaders and actions. I hope that the President and his advisors persevere and take the time to chart a clear strategy forward for Iraq and the region, but political pressure now is surely in the direction of assuaging anger and fear via more aggressive military involvement as soon as possible. The current political scenario eerily resembles that at play when the United States embarked on its interventions following the September 11 tragedy. One may hope we have learned some lessons since and can be more thoughtful and nuanced in our actions now despite the clamor for revenge amidst deeply simplified narratives of what additional involvement might mean for our nation’s interests and people.