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Op-Ed Warlords

Posted by Josh Rothman  July 25, 2012 08:05 AM

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Writing at the Council on Foreign Relations’ Politics, Power, and Preventative Action blog, Micah Zenko makes an interesting point: While we tend to think of generals as hawks and civilians as doves, history suggests that the opposite is true. In fact, generals tend to be cautious about the use of military force, while civilians tend to urge us toward it. “There is no body of civilians that more consistently makes unrealistic demands for the use of military force than editorial boards and opinion-page writers of major American news outlets.”

Op-ed writers are often war-mongers, Zenko writes, essentially because they have little to lose if military action does take place. And they tend, he argues, to vastly overestimate the “psychological benefits” of military action:

For example, today, the Wall Street Journal claimed, “A show of preparation for intervention might prod Syria’s officer corps to solve the Assad problem on their own.” Last week, three members of Freedom House wrote: “Merely planning for serious military options would have an important psychological effect on the regime and its military forces, possibly prodding more defections.” Last year, the former chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force contended that discussing a no-fly zone in Libya would “change [the Qaddafi regime’s] calculation of who might come out on top. Just the mere announcement of this might have an impact.”

Op-ed writers create the impression that they’re on the military’s side, working to sway an irresolute president or electorate. In fact, as Robert Gates put it in his memoirs, “the biggest doves in Washington wear uniforms.” Read more at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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