The War in Iraq: Complexity as Cost

Phil Klein reports at AmSpecBlog:

When I was in Pennsylvania a few weeks ago covering the primary there, I spoke to a man who could be described as a classic swing voter. While he was leaning toward Hillary Clinton in the primary, he said he’d reevaluate his choices in a general election. When I asked him what the most important issues were to him, he mentioned bringing troops home from Iraq, which you’d think would put him firmly in the Democratic camp. But he said he’d be perfectly willing to vote for John McCain in November. He described how, no matter what the candidates say, they aren’t going to be able to just pull out right away, it may take a long time. And he noted that McCain was quoted out of context with his “100 years” comment, and said perhaps McCain’s right that we’ll have troops there for decades like in Korea.

A lot of pundits look at the polls showing a significant majority of Americans think the war was a mistake and want to bring the troops home, and assume that McCain’s strong support for the Iraq War will be a drag on his candidacy. Obviously this is just one voter, but what struck me at the time, was that things are a lot more complicated than that. In any poll on Iraq, this man would have been recorded as supporting pulling out of Iraq and thus seen as more sympathetic to Democrats, yet at the same time, he appreciates the complexity of the situation and is perfectly open to voting for McCain. I wondered, how many others like him are out there?

Phil’s right to underscore how polling can systematically oversimplify and slant public opinion on the war. But, as I’ve argued before apropos of Matt Yglesias’ avowed ‘lack of strategic patience’, the ‘complexity of the situation’ boils down for us Americans to a relatively simple question of cost: either what we’re doing in Iraq — never mind the details — racks up unacceptable expenses in blood and treasure or it doesn’t. The political fight’s over what’s unacceptable, but the terms of the debate are cast by the willingness of a significant majority of the American people to pay. (Or to feel like they’re paying.)

What’s more, this is the lens through which we ought to view McCain’s infamous 100 Years remark. Without a doubt, if keeping the Army in Iraq costs as much in dollars and casualties as keeping the Army in Germany costs today, the American people will extend their indefinite support. Only in a very strained sense, after all, is there today an American ‘occupation’ of Germany, and likewise the US can keep substantial numbers of armed forces in Iraq without maintaining an ‘occupation’. ‘Occupation’ — in the sense that it’s used in both ‘Occupied Europe’ and ‘the Occupied Territories’ — is less tolerable to the American people, but mostly to the extent that true occupation is by nature expensive, indefinite, and uncertain. The analytical category of ‘permanent presence’, no matter how popular in the press, is far too abstract for Americans to think in, and sure enough, they don’t.

It’s important to recognize, as we tease out the nuance of what I agree is a prevailing American attitude about the war, that a voter can both see McCain’s 100 Years remark as ripped out of context and feel uncomfortable with McCain’s “strong support for the Iraq War.” In fact, there’s nothing incoherent in generally supporting a peaceable long-term military presence in Iraq while also generally opposing, meanwhile, a die-hard attitude about Victory and Sacrifice Whatever the Cost. Such an attitude might reflect underlying preferences that war supporters might find inconsistent, but that’s the funny thing about complexity — particularly the sort that’s constantly reflected in the improvised, practical judgments of ordinary Americans: more often than not, it cuts both ways.

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