Erik Larson

Nov 11, 2008

War, what is it good for?

No truer, blunter, words… but war drives politics, even or especially in peace.

Bush 2000 got elected because we’d had enough Clinton. There were term limits, and anyway, we’d had enough (when you reach discussions of stains on a dress, that’s called enough). Gore was old news. Bush, something new. So the extraordinary popularity of the Clinton adminstration managed to usher in an outsider, the then Governer Bush. At the time, Bush was not perceived as a hawk, and he had a non-interventionist foreign policy. And no boorish scandals. That’s 2000. Peace politics.

By 2004, President Bush would never have been re-elected were we not in the midst of all out war. “Nascar Dads” was the media explanation for John Kerry’s defeat at the time. Sure. You mean “war”. Ah, the wisdom of the American people. Imagine, had Kerry been elected, and initiated some tail-between-the-legs pullout of Iraq at that time, what now? He’d of course just be faithfully following the tired Vietnam script, so typical of Democrats (the surge has since breathed into them non-quagmire ideas, or at least rhetoric).

So war, ladies and gents, war , so often determines our politics. And even today, with the election of Obama, it’s still war that lurks behind the scenes, pulling still the electorate’s strings. It’s the economy, stupid. Sure, stupid. It’s the war. When in the midst of an all-out battle, Americans stick with their leader. Change— change of political leadership— signals weakness under fire. That explains Bush 2004. But once we’re confident that we’re not in an all-out street fight with another country, we shift domestic.

And so, since Iraq has now faded from constant media coverage (another way to say, the war is all but won), we’ve loosened our anxious grip, and now look around for other issues. Who needs a national security president, when the war’s been won? Redolent now, nonsensical still in 2004. Truth is, Sept. 11 cast a shadow over election booths for years; when, finally, the horror of that moment and the immediacy of the war on terror subsided, the—any—economic crisis could be heard. Loudly. (The Credit Crisis started in 2007, actually, and if we all were watching the economy then, it’d hardly be such shocking news now.)

All of this said, occasionally, rarely, political phenoms emerge, like Barack Obama. Obama vanquished the Clintons first, then by degrees he won us all over. Much credit directly to him. Congrats. But let’s not forget: the surge actually worked. No more daily stories of carnage, Al Queda in Iraq, quagmire. Gratitude to didn’t-betray-us Patraeus. And thanks to Bush, if only that he managed to clean the mess that he first made. President-elect Obama’s message resonated so much more as a result. Now, assuming no major terrorist or geopolitical upheaval in the next few years forces us to mobilize once again, I’m sure that the (always fleeting) next years of peace will allow his message to continue to resonate. I do hope so. Bully for us. And the world.