Commentary Magazine


E.J. Dionne, Then & Now

In his most recent column, the Washington Post’s E.J. Dionne Jr. reports that at a White House dinner with a group of historians at the beginning of summer, Robert Dallek offered a “chilling comment” to President Obama:

“In my judgment,” he recalls saying, “war kills off great reform movements.” The American record is pretty clear: World War I brought the Progressive Era to a close. When Franklin D. Roosevelt was waging World War II, he was candid in saying that “Dr. New Deal” had given way to “Dr. Win the War.” Korea ended Harry Truman’s Fair Deal, and Vietnam brought Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society to an abrupt halt. . . . Dallek’s point helps explain why Obama is right to have grave qualms about an extended commitment of many more American troops to Afghanistan . Obama was elected not to escalate a war but to end one. The change and hope he promised did not involve a vast new campaign to transform Afghanistan

Dionne goes on to argue against the war not because it will prevent nationalized health care from getting through but because the Afghanistan war might come to define his presidency “more than any victory he wins on health care.”

So you can now add Mr. Dionne to the pundits who once thought Afghanistan was the “good war” but now view it as the Inconvenient War. The shift on Afghanistan by E.J. and other “progressives” is head-snapping. For example, on October 5, 2007, Dionne wrote:

The plan [an Iraq-war surtax pushed by Representative David Obey] does not ask for a tax to cover the $45 billion in Mr. Bush’s supplemental request to pay for the war in Afghanistan. “There are legitimate expenditures on which we don’t mind sharing the costs with future generations,” Mr. Obey says, noting that there is a broad consensus that the fight in Afghanistan is in the long-term interest of the country.

On March 20, 2007, he wrote this:

None of this means that American opinion has become isolationist. The country’s determination to defeat terrorism has not slackened. Most Americans still believe the war in Afghanistan was a proper response to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and wonder why it was left unfinished so the ideologues could go off in pursuit of Utopia on the Euphrates.

On September 15, 2006, he wrote this:

Both [Joe Biden and John Kerry] emphasized what should be a central element in the debate, the potential disaster looming in Afghanistan. The administration, Mr. Biden said last week, “has picked the wrong fights at the wrong times, failing to finish the job in Afghanistan, which the world agreed was the central front in the war on radical fundamentalism, and instead rushing to war in Iraq, which was not a central front in that struggle.” On Saturday, Mr. Kerry condemned the administration’s “stand-still-and-lose strategy” and called on the administration to send 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan to quell the Taliban insurgency. . . . These speeches reflect a growing consensus among many Democrats: First, that Iraq is a blind alley, a distraction from the war on terror, not its “central front.” Second, that the United States needs a responsible way to disengage from Iraq , re-engage in Afghanistan, and prepare itself to deal with the rising power of Iran , so far a real winner from Mr. Bush’s Iraq policies.

On June 22, 2004, he wrote this:

Most Americans, including this one, supported the war in Afghanistan because the ties between the Taliban regime and Osama bin Laden were obvious. If Saddam was connected to 9/11, then the war against him could be defended as a logical response to the terrorist attacks.

And on October 9, 2001, Dionne wrote this:

And a president who has said he is not “into” nation-building has shown signs of understanding that a narrow war against bin Laden and Afghanistan’s Taliban regime will not be good enough. Dropping relief packages to starving Afghans should not be dismissed as a propaganda exercise. The administration seems to understand that our failure to help rebuild Afghanistan after the defeat of the Soviet Union in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the rise of the very forces we now oppose. We shouldn’t make the same mistake this time. That there is a practical side to humanitarianism, and yes, even nation-building, is a sentiment shared across party lines. But it is especially important to Bush’s new Democratic allies.

There is more — but what’s clear is that what was once a “war of necessity” is now, for liberals, a tiresome and troublesome war. Not that long ago, success in Afghanistan was in the vital long-term interest of the country. It was the “central front” in the war against militant Islam, a just conflict in which to re-engage (including by sending more troops). Nation-building was in — especially for “Bush’s new Democratic allies.” Failure to rebuild Afghanistan would be a grave error. And Iraq was a mistake in part because it left the Afghan war “unfinished.” Apparently those arguments have become inoperative.

Why the volte-face? And why the frantic efforts to urge Obama to reject the recommendation by General Stanley McChrystal, who believes that without additional troops our mission in Afghanistan “will likely result in failure” and “risks an outcome where defeating the insurgency is no longer possible.” Perhaps, as the great Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami has written, the “good war” of Afghanistan was “the club with which the Iraq war was battered.” Regardless of the reason, the inconsistency and inconstancy on Afghanistan by Dionne and his fellow liberals are both obvious and damning. They are reminding us, one more time, why they cannot be trusted on matters of national security.

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