Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.


Gary Hart: The most dangerous phrase in Washington is ‘do something’

Hart’s blog post was titled “People of Paradox,” meaning us, the American people, and was about the enduring but conflicting strains of U.S. history.

A friend sent me a link to “Matters of Principle,” former senator and presidential candidate Gary Hart’s blog the other day. Actually, it was Hart’s 4th of July entry, but I didn’t read it until yesterday and it made me wish I had read it sooner and followed Hart more regularly. But some of the wisdom in the post has held up pretty well, a week later, and I suspect it will also be worth a look-see by Independence Day next year, so I’m offering you this link to the full piece right here; it isn’t long. And it case you don’t click through I’ll paste in my favorite passage below.

It was titled “People of Paradox,” meaning us, the American people, and was about the enduring but conflicting strains of U.S. history, like the tension between constant conservatism and progressivism, and wanting to help our neighbors but to promote self-reliance, and wanting to fix – or maybe rule – the world but not liking conflicts that drag on and come to ambiguous conclusions. The pitfalls of these contrary wishes sound so obvious, but so hard to resist.

Here’s my favorite passage:

Nowhere is our ambivalence more prevalent than in foreign venues. The most dangerous phrase in Washington is “do something.” During the Cold War when a disturbance virtually anywhere in the world took place, it was a “communist takeover” and we must “do something.” We did something in Vietnam and seven years later left after 58,000 American and over a million Vietnamese had died. Now it is the complex Syrian civil war and, despite the sincere hesitancy of senior military commanders, many hawks are heard to say “we must do something.”

Article continues after advertisement

When doing something turns out badly, the interventionists disappear or blame the party in power for not “doing more.” A former Secretary of State might say: ‘What do we have this big military for if we’re not going to use it.’ But serious students of military affairs know that, in local indigenous conflicts, our military, if it is used at all, must be used as a scalpel, not a hammer. The first question a senior military commander asks is, What’s the exit strategy?

Our ambivalence about the use of military power abroad is not just the outcome of Vietnam and Iraq. It is the changing nature of warfare. Some politicians, who should know better, are still saying we should have won in Iraq. But national conflicts based on ancient sectarianism, tribalism, and ethnic nationalism do not lend themselves to permanent “victory” for U.S. interventionist forces as they did in World War II. There is no surrender ceremony and signing of documents.

A belated happy 4th of July to all from your humble and obedient ink-stained wretch, and have I mentioned recently that the Continental Congress, in Congress assembled in Philadelphia in 1776, actually voted for independence on July 2. It only took them until July 4 to finish torturing Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration.