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Six Years of Silence

Since Obama took office, the nation has yet to have a sustained debate about war.

February 24, 2015

Dick Cheney was right.

This is not a sentence that I ever imagined typing. But you have to give the former vice president credit for prescience in 2001.

A little more than a month after 9/11, Bob Woodward of The Washington Post interviewed Cheney in his West Wing office. The vice president tried to explain how this new war against al-Qaida did not fit the pattern of other recent conflicts. “It is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end,” Cheney said. “At least, not in our lifetime.”

War without end, amen.

At the time, Cheney’s comments struck me as needlessly apocalyptic. He was a hawkish vice president—who came of age during the Cold War with nuclear missiles pointed at Washington and Moscow—whose administration prior to September 11th had downplayed the immediate threat from Osama bin Laden. Now, five weeks after the Twin Towers toppled, Cheney was direly forecasting the modern equivalent of the Thirty Years War.

Thirteen years later, there is no Treaty of Westphalia in sight. (Signed in 1648, the treaty ended three decades of religious wars in Europe). It is looking increasingly plausible that 30 years after the September 11 attacks, America will still be dropping bombs on failed nation states around the globe, conducting drone strikes against suspected terrorists and abusing civil liberties and privacy rights in the name of national security. 

A year ago, nobody envisioned an entity called the Islamic State or ISIS or ISIL. Now after controlling a huge swath of territory in Iraq and Syria, after horrifying the world with beheadings, 65 percent of Americans consider the Islamic State to be a “major threat” to the United States, according to a recent CBS News poll. And, as memories of the disastrous invasion of Iraq fade, 57 percent of Americans are willing to send ground troops to fight ISIS.

America has been bombing the Islamic State since August under the legally shaky rationale that this is a continuation of the war against al-Qaida that Congress authorized in the panicky days after 9/11. Ryan Goodman, a professor at  New York University School of Law, pointed out in an article in Foreign Policy that the Obama administration has sidestepped the awkward reality that al-Qaida has repudiated ISIS. But the White House has long regarded the 2001 military authorization as malleable as Silly Putty, justifying everything from drone attacks in Yemen to bombing raids near Mosul.

To be sure, Barack Obama has now sent to Congress new legislation specifically authorizing the current war against the Islamic State. But in belt-and-suspenders fashion, the president wants that elastic 2001 military authorization against al-Qaida to remain in force as well. So short of launching drone attacks against the Norwegian ski team, Obama and his successor will have pretty free reign to bomb anywhere in the world.

And what is evident is that Congress wants it that way. Rather than asserting its constitutional war-making powers, Congress tried to pretend that the bombing of ISIS was not happening during the 2014 elections or the lame-duck session. Even now, the big issues before the fractious Congress are funding Homeland Security, immigration and the Keystone Pipeline. The Republican House will probably repeal Obamacare six more times before they get around to the military authorization legislation.

In the six years since Obama took office, America has yet to have a sustained public discussion over its commitment to global war and the trade-offs in terms of everything from military casualties to civil liberties that accompany it. This lack of sustained interest is less a critique of the president than an indictment of the national attention span.

In theory, such a national debate might have happened after Osama bin Laden was killed. Or during the Arab Spring when America joined the coalition that bombed Moammar Gadhafi. It could have occurred after Bashir Assad crossed Obama’s red line by using chemical weapons against the Syrian rebels. Even the furor over Edward Snowden’s revelations about the lawless excess of NSA’s data collection policies sputtered out before Congress seriously addressed the privacy issues raised. And the belated release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture did little beyond triggering the predictable reactions from both left and right.

As a result, America just hurtles along in this ill-defined total war without any of the checks-and-balances that supposedly come with democracy. And little of this is apt to change with the 2016 election campaign. As columnist Jill Lawrence recently put it in U.S. News, “The GOP foreign policy 'debate’ will be largely limited to a 'who’s tougher than Barack Obama’ competition, with early indications that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may aspire to the same title.”

Lawrence, of course, makes an exception for Rand Paul. But that is telling in its own way. What does it say about American democracy when the only questioning appears to be coming from a first-term GOP senator whose father is a libertarian gadfly?

It is worth recalling that from the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, there was a continuing national debate over how best to contain the Soviet Union and to avoid the threat of nuclear war. Was that due to superior 20th-century virtues of citizenship or the sense of continued vulnerability that everyone faced from missiles armed with H-bombs? What role does the end of the draft and the segregation of most of upscale America from military life play in all of this? Have wars without major U.S. casualties become an abstraction to most voters?

In 1984, while testing a microphone before a radio address, Ronald Reagan cracked, “We begin bombing in five minutes.” That presidential fantasy about attacking the Soviet Union created an uproar. Now America drops real bombs on a daily basis—and almost no one in politics appears to care.

Dick Cheney must be so pleased.

(Photo: Flickr/U.S. National Archives)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Walter Shapiro is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale UniversityHe can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.