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August 18, 2014 4:25 PM Why War?

By Ed Kilgore

Paul Kruman stepped a bit beyond economics in his latest column to ask a perennially relevant question: with all the evidence that war is usually folly for wealthy modern societies, why do they keep happening?

[G]overnments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.
Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.
Similar arguments have been made about other wars that otherwise seem senseless, like Argentina’s invasion of the Falkland Islands in 1982, which is often attributed to the then-ruling junta’s desire to distract the public from an economic debacle….
And the fact is that nations almost always rally around their leaders in times of war, no matter how foolish the war or how awful the leaders. Argentina’s junta briefly became extremely popular during the Falklands war. For a time, the “war on terror” took President George W. Bush’s approval to dizzying heights, and Iraq probably won him the 2004 election. True to form, Mr. Putin’s approval ratings have soared since the Ukraine crisis began.

I’d add another troubling factor: modern technology continues to perpetuate the illusion that wars can be waged with limited costs (if you ignore the “collateral damage” of “enemy” civilian death and destruction, which Americans generally do). You’d think that idea would not have survived Vietnam, much less Iraq, but there’s no question the political calculation in going to war is heavily based on one’s own likely military casualties.

So much as “wag the dog” accusations of wars motivated by the polls or to distract people from other problems are sometimes without foundation—particularly when aimed at presidents I tend to support, of course—it’s a healthy impulse. We need to get to the point when the most prominent question about a proposed military action is “why?” rather than “why not?”

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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