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Is Jim Webb Really “Antiwar?”


This morning’s Washington Post had a curious article, entitled “Jim Webb, former senator from Va., takes on his party’s hawks. And maybe Clinton.” I say “curious” because it made the point-blank, matter-of-fact (as if it’s glaringly obvious) statement that Jim Webb is “antiwar,” even an “aggressive, antiwar populist.”  But is there any actual, ya know, evidence that Webb is “antiwar” in a general sense, as opposed to being against specific wars fought at specific times in specific ways, while also being FOR other wars fought at other times in other ways?

The Post article, written by former National Review reporter Robert Costa, doesn’t get into that — it simply states it as a matter of fact, point blank, that Jim Webb is “antiwar.” But is he? Let’s look at a few data points from his record. But first let me just make absolutely clear what my point is here: the following is NOT meant as criticism of Jim Webb, but of the Washington Post article (and the media more broadly) for wildly oversimplifying this complex, strategically thoughtful and highly knowledgeable (certainly on foreign policy and national security matters) man’s views, and by shoehorning the whole thing into an inane, wildly oversimplified, political narrative about the supposed “hawk” Hillary Clinton being challenged by the supposed “antiwar” Jim Webb. It’s just lame on all levels. With that, here are some of Webb’s actual views on this subject.

Vietnam: In March 2007, Jim Webb gave a speech at the National Press Club in which he asserted:

I may be one of the few people in the Congress who still strongly supports the Vietnam War. I believe that the logic for the Vietnam War was sustainable, and I believe that the American people, in spite of the way we look back at Vietnam, also agreed that the political logic for Vietnam was sustainable, even though the way that we fought the war was not sustainable.

That’s right, Webb strongly supported the Vietnam War then, and he strongly supports it in hindsight. And why didn’t we fight that war in a “sustainable” way, one that might have led to victory? In Webb’s view, part of the problem was the “anti-war left.”

The Anti-War Left: Hoping for a Communist Victory…The people who directed the antiwar movement did not care whether McNamara had a workable strategy, or whether it could have been adapted to circumstances. They did not care whether Nixon’s Vietnamization program might have worked. They did not care whether the South Vietnamese should have been given an adequate chance to adjust their strategy after the American withdrawal. And they did not care whether the communists signed a pledge guaranteeing free elections and a peaceful reunification of the country. Quite simply, they wanted the communists to win…only by comprehending that the antiwar movement’s dilatory effect was Hanoi’s greatest ace in the hole can we understand why the communists had few reasons ever to compromise at the negotiating table.

Now there’s a problem if Webb really does want to run as the “antiwar” candidate — his strongly negative views, stated many times, about the anti-Vietnam-War movement in the 1960s and early 1970s. We’ll see how that goes over in the Democratic caucuses in Iowa…

Iraq: But wait, you say, that was all a loooong time ago, right? What about more recent events, and what about Webb’s views in more recent years? Let’s cut right to the chase — the Iraq War — which Webb opposed. Except that Webb didn’t oppose the Iraq War because he was/is morally or otherwise broadly “antiwar.” Instead, Webb opposed that specific war at that specific time in that specific way, because he strongly believed it was a strategic error at that time and in that way.

I am not against fighting when fighting is necessary,” Webb told Inside the Navy during a sit-down interview last month. “What I am for is making sure you are fighting the right war.”

“If you dump a huge percentage of your resources into the Iraqi situation, you lose your capability of being maneuverable around the world to deal with other situations. And I am certainly not alone in saying that,” he said.

“The problem is that the people that want this war with Iraq have tried to create an inference that if you don’t support the war against Iraq, you are anti-war,” he told ITN. “It’s dishonest on their part, and they know it. They are trying to stifle a debate.”

So, bottom line: Webb is not against fighting when necessary, as long as the war is waged in the “right way.” Which is, by the way, fine with me; I agree with Webb that we should employ military force when necessary, as long as it’s consistent with (and important if not crucial to) our national interests, makes sense strategically, brings the necessary resources to bear, is planned and fought competently, has an “exit strategy,” etc.

Iran: Part of the reason Webb opposed the Iraq war was that removing a strong Iraq would end up “empowering Iran.” Which, in Webb’s view, would not be a good thing, given his deep suspicions about Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Second, Israel. It stands to lose greatly through the strategic axis China is developing with the Muslim world. The first foreign official to visit Pakistan after its detonation of nuclear devices was Iran’s Foreign Minister, Kamal Kharrazi, who proclaimed that “Muslims now feel more confident that Pakistan’s nuclear capability would play a role of deterrence to Israel’s.” Though he later played down this statement, the world must consider it in the context of Iran’s attempt to develop nuclear weapons of its own also with Chinese – and Russian,-assistance. The United States and Israel must keep the rest of the world focused on this, and should not rule out pre-emptive military strikes if there is evidence that Iran is building a weapon.

Again, whatever you think of Iran’s nuclear weapons program (and I find it deeply troubling), does leaving open a preemptive military option against it sound like a blanket, anti-war worldview to you? Nope, didn’t think so.

Libya: Webb was highly skeptical of the 2011 military operation in Libya which ended up toppling Muammar Qaddafi from power. The reason, though, wasn’t because he’s “antiwar.” Instead, consistent with his thinking on national security matters, Webb felt the Libya case lacked: a) a “clear statement of foreign policy” to accompany the military operation; b) “a picture of who the opposition movement really is;” and c) the American people and Congress hadn’t really debated it. All of which are valid points, even though none of them really applied in the Vietnam War (which Webb supported then and now). But regardless, it’s not what a principled “antiwar” person would have focused on, which is that war is always – or nearly always – wrong, immoral, stupid, etc. That’s not what Webb was saying here at all.

China: Jim Webb has warned about the rise of China for many years now. In 1996, for instance, he warned:

The bases in Subic are gone, with no visible movement to replace them elsewhere. Our bases in Japan and Okinawa are in jeopardy. The Korean peninsula is a tinderbox, even on the verge of war. China is mocking American power as it builds its economy with the help of American business and at the same time develops a strategic axis with the Muslim world, intimidates its neighbors, proliferates nuclear weapons, and aggressively grows its own fleet. Libya is building a massive poison gas facility. Pakistan and Iran are increasing their military and even nuclear aspirations, bidding to become major powers.

These events are occurring against a backdrop where the fleet is moving toward 300 ships, one-third the size of the Navy when I was commissioned, and half of the nearly 600 we were able to rebuild it to during the Reagan era. Not surprisingly, over the past seven years our national presence in Pacific Asia has become ever more tenuous.”

Of course, 1996 was a while ago. How about more recently? Well, in 2012, Webb continued to sound the alarm about China: “History teaches us that when unilateral acts of aggression go unanswered, the bad news never gets better with age.” Webb added that “all of East Asia is watching what the U.S. will do about Chinese actions in the South China Sea,” that countries in the region “know a test when they see one,” and that they “are waiting to see whether America will live up to its uncomfortable but necessary role as the true guarantor of stability in East Asia, or whether the region will again be dominated by belligerence and intimidation.” Now, Webb’s certainly not calling for war here. On the other hand, he’s certainly not backing down from a possible fight, or from a strong naval presence, or for an assertive-if-not-aggressive U.S. policy in the region. We can debate whether or not we agree with that or not, obviously. But what I don’t think is debatable is whether Webb’s some sort of pacifist or “antiwar” person in a general sense. That’s clearly not the case.

The bottom line of all this? Clearly, Webb is “not against fighting when fighting is necessary,” but sensibly is for “making sure you are fighting the right war.” Also highly sensible is Webb’s view that “[t]he question is where you draw your national priorities and how that plays out.” Seems pretty obvious, unless you’re absolutely against the use of military force in all (or the vast majority of) cases — views Webb obviously does not share. One thing’s for sure, though: none of this conforms with the Washington Post article’s oversimplified characterization/forced narrative of Webb as the “antiwar” candidate (vs. Hillary Clinton as the “hawk” candidate, presumably?) in a potential Democratic primary contest for president in 2016.

  • Jim B

    Can we trust anything the Amazon Post has to say. Those folks will be working for minimum wages before long.

  • scott_r

    I think Webb can be understood this way:  He has really never wavered from being very pro-robust-military and pro-internationalist.  That strain of thinking is consistent from his service in Vietnam through his comments on Iraq (and other foolish Neo-Con policy).  The – in MHO forgivable and understandable – congnitive dissonance is in his refusal to recognize that in both Iraq and Afghanistan (and other broken states) – as in Vietnam – we have no direct “dog in the fight”.  We have no direct national interest.  The easy proof of this with Vietnam is that a quarter century after we were out, we were on good terms and cooperatively engaged with our former foes – precisely because we never really had a fundamental conflict with those foes – the fundamental conflict was local and didn’t involve the US.

    To that end, his comments are consistent: Webb demands – reasonably after Vietnam in particular – that the US have a clearly stated foriegn policy objective before getting dragged into a conflict.  I think it’s forgivable and understandable – now that the issue is settled – that he ‘sticks to his guns’ on Vietnam, having been forced to pick sides in the middle of what was (is) really a US internal culture war, insofar as he seems to have worked out which is the correct side (anti-war) and to not engage in further intellectual dishonesty.  I think his actions have pretty well borne that out.  

    I think Webb’s trying to thread the needle between “keeping the faith” with the people on the rural/military side of the culture war while also being on the smart, sensible foreign policy side of the larger debate.  Those two things shouldn’t require a balancing act since when you get down to it, they actually go hand-in-hand (not putting US personnel at risk in fights that aren’t really our business).  I would be curious to hear where he came down on Bosnia in ’96.  

    Speaking of his ’96 comments, I think they have to be placed in context: a former Navy Secretary and lifetime career militarist defending spending levels in a time of draw-down.  Being in favor of a big pentagon budget is not exactly the same thing as being in favor of hot wars.  While I think you can make the case that the “tinderbox” metaphor for Korea is overblown (esp. when no fighting war has broken out yet almost 20 years on), but the importance of keeping the Asia-Pacific calm by being able to project massive power is pretty key – even Obama (that peacenik Kenyan socialist) says this.