Conservatism’s Weird Blind Spot

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Watching the fifth Republican debate the other night, as the nine candidates — six of whom were all wearing the exact same suit, shirt, and tie, incidentally — accused each other of being insufficiently resolute about carpetbombing ISIS, killing ISIS’ friends and families, toppling Syria’s government, shoring up the failed Iraqi government, and abandoning diplomatic efforts with Iran, something struck me kind of funny.

I happen to know more than a few die-hard Republican voters, by virtue of having been born into a gun-loving Midwestern family, and that being the case, I try a little harder than a lot of my left-leaning friends to understand exactly what makes someone vote for a party that seems to be so diametrically opposed from my own beliefs. A lot of lefty types like to point the finger and assume that a Republican voter hates gays, hates women, hates minorities, hates the poor, and above all hates doing anything to assist any of the above.

While I’m sure that there are segments of the GOP electorate that fit that description, the Republicans I know don’t care about abortion or gay marriage or affirmative action. They don’t hate minorities and aren’t particularly hostile to the notion of helping those in need.

What they are is deeply, deeply skeptical of the ability of the government to successfully run a program like, say, food stamps without huge inefficiency, huge fraud, and huge waste of taxpayer dollars.  To some extent, this kind of cynicism is warranted; it doesn’t take more than a visit to the post office or the DMV to see where they’re coming from. During his unsuccessful 1976 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan was fod of telling the story of a woman in Chicago who was living on food stamps and driving a Cadillac, and the legend of the Welfare Queen — the symbol of the inefficiency and waste and fraud that inevitably follows any kind of effort to help the less fortunate — was born and persists to this day.

I can’t say I agree with this point of view, but at least there is a little bit of logic behind it. Cynicism about the effectiveness of large institutions is easier to understand than just cold-hearted indifference to the plight of your fellow man. And the people who feel this way are remarkably consistent in applying the same logic to nearly any spending initiative, no matter how well intentioned, that the government might propose: food stamps, healthcare, early education, higher education, gun control, you name it.

Which is why I find it so strange that this cynicism seems to evaporate like the morning dew any time the conversation turns to military adventure.

Nothing could be a bigger, more difficult endeavor with more moving parts or opportunities for failure than taking over another country, or removing a foreign leader, or swinging an election. It requires, above all, solid, reliable intelligence: the exact locations of enemy leaders, insight into their plans and strategies, accurate accounting of their weapons and assets. And yet despite the fact that the Unites States has an absolutely miserable track record in this area, starting with the attack on Pearl Harbor and including virtually every foreign military effort we have conducted since then. Either through corruption or plain old incompetence, nearly everything we have done overseas has either failed or made things demonstrably worse. Korea, Iran (’53), Cuba, Vietnam, Iran (’79), Afghanistan (’79), Grenada, Nicaragua, Iran-Contra, Iraq (’91), Afghanistan (’01), Iraq (’03)… failure after bungle after failure. (For far, far, far more depth and detail on each and every one of these debacles, I highly recommend Tim Weiner’s “Legacy of Ashes,” a comprehensive history of the CIA from its post-WWII formation up to 2005.)

So one story about a “welfare queen” means that government efforts to ease the burden on the less fortunate are so manifestly doomed to fail as to be not even worth attempting, but decades of abject failure abroad just means we need to throw more blood and more treasure at the problem.

Understand, I am not saying that ISIS is not a problem that needs to be solved by the military. I am not suggesting that we stick our head in the sand and just hope it all goes away. If our ratio of intelligence failures to successes was a little better than 20-to-1 over the last 50 years, I would be right there with all these Republicans urging Obama to dump 500,000 troops in there and get it sorted out before the start of Spring Training.

But it is not that black and white. You need to speak the language, you need to know the culture, you need to understand the history, you need reliable intelligence sources if you want to go into another country; if you don’t, you’ll only make it worse.

For example, during the debate, Ted Cruz promised to carpetbomb Raqqa, the city that ISIS has taken as its home base. When Wolf Blitzer pointed out that Raqqa is 90% civilians, unaffiliated with ISIS or terrorism, Cruz blithely promised that his carpetbombing campaign would kill only “the right people,” either unaware or unconcerned that the very definition of “carpetbombing” is to drop bombs all over, without regard to casualties. It doesn’t take a genius to understand that when you bomb a city where 90% of the people are civilians, 90% of the casualties are going to be civilians, and you are going to create as many or more new terrorists as you just killed.

I would hope that any commander-in-chief would follow the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm — in this case, do no harm to the delicate balance of power. Obama gets this, which is why although he has already ordered 9,000 airstrikes on ISIS targets, he is holding back on committing ground troops or toppling any foreign leaders. He’s showing that he understands the limits of our government’s power. I think they used to call that kind of thinking “conservative.”

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