As we watch the crisis unfold in Libya, here's a reminder to you liberals about what happens in liberal wars. Because liberals spend so much time building consensus, they never clearly define objectives the way a strongman would. Inadvertently, they cause more bloodshed. By contrast, more successful wars (by conservatives, we assume) tend to limit violence by creating strict guidelines, rules of engagement and precise military goals. So what Ross Douthat is saying, I guess, is that conservative wars like those waged in Iraq go off without a hitch. Meanwhile, the U.S. intervention by liberals in places like Yugoslavia are nightmares. After all, the Yugoslavian War continues to drag on to this day while Iraq finished nicely. Rwanda is another good example. Thanks to our restraint there, Rwanda took care of itself. Just as certainly as Libya will.
I often read Douthat's column only because it's a fascinating character study of Ross Douthat himself. The guy is often reasonable, but he suffers from a personality crisis. People ought to define themselves politically by dealing with facts on their face. When they start to interpret, that's when they figure out whether they are on the liberal or conservative side, generally. But Douthat is one of those sad creatures who does it backwards--like too many conservatives I know. Their identity as conservatives becomes more important to them over time than any particular beliefs. They seem to value mostly their membership in a team. If they are reasonable and consider their philosophies against the realities of the world (and that's a big if), then like Douthat they must constantly draw and redraw the stencil lines of their political identity and then see how the world fits into it.
Doesn't work, kid.
Should I go the ultimate course, help Ross out and remind him what the "liberal" and "conservative" labels are--meaningless fictions? Changing styles that ought not to be defined so much as alluded to in generalities, as green phosphenes that disappear on the back of your eyes? Is being liberal or conservative really going to help you put the Libyan upheaval into a perspective? No. I think Ross would be a better writer if he realized this. Yes, I know, his being a young, idealistic conservative is the only thing that got him his job at the New York Times. But there are hordes of better (more experienced?) conservative columnists around. And his presence there sometimes seems to serve the same purpose that Alan Colmes' did on Fox News--to look weak-chinned and not-so-bright next to the real stars. Is it because he's dumb or a bad writer? No. But he is a chalk artist of sorts--a man trying to constantly clarify for us skeptics what conservatism is in a changing world and who ends up trying to draw a figure in a rain storm. Yes, we know you all think Ronald Reagan saved the world. Doesn't help us or you at this point.
At best, Douthat ends up looking like the kid in the choir trying to show how well he reads the book of hymns to the faithful. At worst, he ends up writing nonsensical articles like this one that needlessly insult the foreign policy victories of the Clinton era and especially insult those who took on wars for humanitarian issues alone, as if without a revenge factor, a war is a waste of time. Insulting humanitarian issues for one war (like Kosovo or Libya) and then hiding behind them for a war of aggression (like the one in Iraq) makes you simply an asshole.
The fact is, no war is good, even those that are sadly necessary. All of them begin to end political chaos and yet all of them ironically increase political complexity once they are started (even morally defensible ones like World War II). You often get to a point you never intended to be, and end up fighting for things you never started fighting for. You can't control a war's outcome, not if you're a high-minded humanitarian trying to stop a massacre or if you're a bullying empire trying to get more land. All you can do is try to control the variables. A good political leader might have tried, for example, to control American revenge lust in 2003 rather than exploiting it.
So there's no need to pollute our arguments with ridiculous paradigms like conservative and liberal. When I explain to a person that the estate tax repeal was an abomination that was engineered by a few and served even fewer, I should not have to deal with the counterpoint, "You're a liberal." Ross Douthat is not as dumb as that, and yet he and the dummy who says it are thinkers of the same kidney. If you had just stuck with the facts, kid, "Maybe only a ground war could take Qaddafi out," then I would have taken your article seriously and said you had a point. Instead, you want to make every article about Ronald Reagan and hometown values and a lot of other insipid garbage. It gets obnoxious and irritating to watch you grow up in public.