Oct 31, 2009

David Brooks: peace is boring, war is exciting!

I AM A big admirer of David Brooks, whose columns on Obama are generally perspicacious. His latest column on the war on Afghanistan is, though, foolish. "For the past few days I have tried to do what journalists are supposed to do," he starts. Intriguing. What is this much-vaunted task? It turns out to mean calling a bunch of his neocon chums from the American Enterprise Institute and The Brookings Institution and then quoting their views at length, without attribution.

"Their first concerns are about Obama the man. They know he is intellectually sophisticated. They know he is capable of processing complicated arguments and weighing nuanced evidence. But they do not know if he possesses the trait that is more important than intellectual sophistication and, in fact, stands in tension with it. They do not know if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion. They do not know if he possesses the obstinacy that guided Lincoln and Churchill, and which must guide all war presidents to some degree."

At least he's honest. In the battle between tenacity and sophistication, obstinacy and complexity, fixation and nuance, we now know that where Brooks stands. He's on the side of fixation and obstinacy — sophistication, complexity and nuance be damned! Obama must "fixate" on the "simple conviction 'that the war is winnable' and grip it viscerally and unflinchingly" I was particularly struck by his use of the word "viscerally". It is true, war is more visceral than peace. If its viscera you're after, peace definitely disappoints. War delivers on viscera. Brooks is something of a dab hand at dispensing this kind of advice. From his column in The Weekly Standard, March 10, 2003:

"In certain circles, it is not only important what opinion you hold, but how you hold it. It is important to be seen dancing with complexity, sliding among shades of gray. Any poor rube can come to a simple conclusion -- that President Saddam Hussein is a menace who must be disarmed--but the refined ratiocinators want to be seen luxuriating amid the difficulties, donning the jewels of nuance, even to the point of self-paralysis.

"The president has remained resolute. Momentum to liberate Iraq continues to build. The situation has clarified, and history will allow clear judgments about which leaders and which institutions were up to the challenge posed by Saddam and which were not. What matters, and what ultimately sprang the U.N. trap, is American resolve. The administration simply wouldn't let up... It was and is sheer relentlessness that has driven us to where we are today

How well that turned out. And yet Brooks displays not the slightest self consciousness about recommending the exact same course of action today: unthinking, nuance-free "visceral" military escalation. In other words: Don't think! Wage war!

"The experts I spoke with describe a vacuum at the heart of the war effort — a determination vacuum. And if these experts do not know the state of President Obama’s resolve, neither do the Afghan villagers."

The vacuum he speaks of is real enough but it's got nothing to do with determination. It's to do with our purpose there. Brooks should pay attention to that lack rather than rushing to fill it with weepy machismo about Churchill, school yard taunts about "tenacity"* and appeals for the more "visceral" course. War is undeniably exciting. That's not reason enough to wage it. Thinking is definitely boring. That's not reason enough not to do it.

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