Lingamfelter: Neo-Cons and Bumper Stickers
By Scott Lingamfelter
For some years now, I have been writing about foreign policy and national security. These are things that have always interested me since my days in high school. As a child my views were influenced by the stories I heard from World War II veterans. They seemed to understand that America’s role in the world was vital in defeating Imperial Japan after it attacked the U.S. naval base at Peral Harbor, Hawaii on December 7th, 1941. America declared war on Japan at that instance as well as formally joining European allies in the fight against Germany and Italy, the other two members of the Axis powers who were bent on world domination.
WW II was one of those situations where the world—while engaged in a horrible war—saw things largely in back and white, where one side was profoundly evil and the other essentially justified in fighting that evil. From the allied perspective WW II was a simple proposition. It was a just war in terms of casus belli, the right to wage just war, and jus in bello, the obligation to conduct war justly.
This formulation has always been essential to me when I look at war. Wars need to be just, that is, justified as fair play when done in self-defense, and so forth. Wars must also be conducted justly, absent atrocities or rank violations of international accords that govern war, the rules of war, and outlaw certain crimes that occur during combat. No nation has a pretty record in that aspect of war, sadly. But nonetheless, the framework for what is called “just war theory” is a valid one for me.
Some say my views make me prone to be a “neo-con,” a conservative-minded person eager to engage in any war that pops up. It’s a ridiculous charge but one that has many companions in the modern era of bumper sticker judgements, flung about by shallow-minded people who would make short work of a genuine evaluation concerning a person’s beliefs on a given topic. Welcome to 2021, where the tendency is to engage one’s mouth before engaging one’s brain.
There are many people of good will who firmly believe that America should stay out of the business of involving themselves in the affairs of other nations. They refer to themselves as non-interventionists. Others call them isolationists, which is a no more thoughtful terminology than how they characterize their opponents as “neo-cons.” For years, people who were anti-war were described as “doves” while those who supported wars were termed “hawks.” That was also an unhelpful dichotomy. War is not a simple matter. Nor is foreign policy and other issues surrounding our national security.
I have never been a strong supporter of the notion of a grand strategy in dealing with the conflicts that arise in the world. That’s because as I see it, foreign policy is essentially a reactive business. You can—as I believe America does—be as peace-minded as you choose, but your enemies will always have a vote when it comes to engaging you in war. Japan cast their vote on December 7th, 1941. America, having voted for a President who pledged to keep us out of war voted a day later to enter one. We reacted.
To be sure, since WW II, America has entered wars that were questionable propositions, Vietnam being the most notable. There has been much criticism of those we engaged in following the terrorist attacks on America on 9-11. That criticism is justified. So what is the point? It is this. Keep your powder dry when it comes to the business of war. Sometimes it means reacting patiently to avoid escalating a conflict. Sometimes it means acting decisively to quash it. It’s a reactive business. We must be ready to engage, if we value the idea of keeping peace in a world that sadly doesn’t always share that goal.
The war I engaged in 30 years ago, the First Gulf War otherwise referred to as Desert Storm, was one that epitomized just war theory. It also was the poster child for how the U.S. should respond to unbridled and lawless aggression. We were fortunate in that war to be in a military state of readiness that enabled us to act quickly, decisively, and victoriously. And that’s a point worth making also. In a world when foreign policy is essentially reactive, America must maintain the ability to react.
Our role as a world leader has been thrust upon us, not entirely of our choosing. Yet we have a responsibility to lead when it comes to keeping the peace, even when we do not violate it. If that makes me deserve the neo-con bumper sticker, then I’ll place it in my basement file cabinet where the other narrow-minded placards sleep in darkness.
Scott Lingamfelter is a graduate of VMI and the University of Virginia Law School, a retired U.S. Army Colonel after 28 years of service, and a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates from 2002-18.