09/12/2014 03:21 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2014

The Real Winners (and Losers) in America's New War Against ISIL

MANDEL NGAN via Getty Images

Che Guevara famously called for "one, two, many Vietnams!" The idea was that constant warfare around the globe could at some point bleed dry the United States. Today, we hear similar calls for "one, two, many Iraqs!" Yet these noises aren't coming from a charismatic socialist revolutionary but from American foreign policy elites.

Just over a year ago, President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry were trying their best to drum up support for cruise missile strikes against the Syrian government of Bashir al-Assad. When confronted with the fact that the vast majority of Americans showed zero enthusiasm for another war they dropped the idea like a lead balloon. The Obama administration then followed the path of diplomacy and, Voila!, Syria's stockpile of chemical weapons was dismantled through non-lethal means that at the time we were told wasn't an option.

Now, the same Alawite Syrian government the U.S. was poised to blow to smithereens is our indispensable ally in "rolling back" the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS).

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been the focus of American ire since the moment in 1979 when the Iranians had the temerity to overthrow the U.S.'s favorite puppet in the region, Shah Reza Pahlavi. Not long ago Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu appeared at the United Nations brandishing a cartoon bomb and demanding that the United States rain death and destruction on a nation of 75 million people for the off chance that their civilian nuclear program might someday be used to build a weapon. And who can forget Senator John McCain's stirring rendition of the Beach Boys' "Barbara Ann," where he changed the lyrics and sang: "Bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb-bomb Iran?"

The new neo-conservative darling, Robert Kagan, also has a stiffy for throttling Tehran. In his much ballyhooed article in The New Republic titled "Superpowers Don't Get to Retire," he frets about nations in the Middle East that are "worried about Iran wonder[ing] if they will be left to confront it alone." Today, Iran has emerged as the "island of stability" in the region and, like Assad in Syria, has become a crucial American ally in the fight against ISIL. Many heads are still spinning from how fast America's enemies become its friends these days.

Elsewhere in the article Kagan acknowledges that fear plays a big role in motivating the American people to support foreign military adventures:

"Fear of communism, combined with fear of the Soviet Union as a geopolitical threat, allowed a majority of Americans and American policymakers to view practically any policy directed against suspected communist forces, anywhere in the world as directly serving the nation's vital interests." [italics added]

It's convenient for Kagan to conflate ordinary "Americans" with "American policymakers" because he knows that U.S. foreign policy has always been formulated by elites for elites. And Kagan willfully ignores the long history that shows "consent" for war can be "manufactured." Nor does he acknowledge the emotional buttons of fear and anger (the life-blood of right-wing talk radio and Fox News) that can be pushed to elicit the desired public attitude toward whatever war du jour the neo-cons are pushing.

Kagan, who was a vocal promoter of the Iraq War, currently takes on an air of neutrality:

"At the end of the day," he writes, "George W. Bush's decision to remove Saddam Hussein, whether that decision was wise or foolish, was driven more by concerns for world order than by narrow self-interest."

Really? That's the extent of Kagan's acknowledgement of the sacrifices the U.S. made in Iraq? Here Kagan absolves the neo-cons for their original sin of lying the American people into a catastrophic and costly war. What about all those WMDs that Dick Cheney said there was "no doubt" Saddam Hussein possessed?

Which brings me to L. Paul Bremer III. He actually darkened my teevee screen the other night spreading around his infinite wisdom about what President Obama must do now in Iraq. Bremer, who served as George W. Bush's Viceroy of Iraq, probably more than any other human on the planet is directly responsible for the rise of ISIL. His multiple "orders" (illegal under international law) upended Iraqi civil society, stripped the salaries of government workers, and sent the entire Iraqi military bureaucracy packing as part of a "de-Baathification" process.

What Bremer did was overthrow the Sunni technocratic class that had governed Iraq since forever and created a power vacuum that everybody knew would most likely be filled by religious Shiites aligned with Iran -- which is exactly what happened. These disaffected and disfranchised Sunni elements provided the guidance and logistics for the resistance to the U.S. occupation and to the Shia government. Nouri al-Maliki is singled out for spreading "sectarianism" but it was Bremer's illegal "orders" that set the table; and besides, what is a Prime Minister to do with all those car bombs going off in Shia marketplaces and mosques?

So even on the neo-cons' own "geo-strategic" terms the overthrow of the secular Sunni government in Iraq ended up strengthening Iran's power in the region, which is why none of the Sunni Arab states went along with Bush's decision to invade and occupy Iraq that Robert Kagan whimsically calls either "wise or foolish."

So who are the real "winners" in what George W. Bush might call "Bringing 'em on!"

The neo-cons are winners. They're back in the forefront (note the huge reception Kagan has gotten lately) because now they appear prescient proving that if you scream for war long enough -- given the power of the military industrial complex and the imperial reach of the U.S. -- you have a good chance of getting war.

The arms manufacturers too are winners. No doubt much of that additional half-a-billion dollars Obama got to fight ISIL is going right into the pockets of the same corporations that already made a killing (literally and figuratively) in Iraq and Afghanistan. How sweet it must be for the war profiteers to see the U.S. treasury tapped yet again so they can profit from blowing up weapons and Humvees that ISIL now controls that they already profited from when they were first sold off and given to the Iraqi military.

When the neo-cons and war profiteers are the "winners" it means the rest of us are the "losers."

President Ike Eisenhower warned us 53 years ago:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people."

Robert Kagan claims that Americans today are not war-weary:

"[I]t may be more accurate to say they are world-weary. After all, Americans had much greater reason for war-weariness... [during the Cold War because] ... Korea and Vietnam were 14 times more costly in terms of American deaths than Afghanistan and Iraq."

I suppose one could look at it that way. But those wars came at a time when the United States controlled a large chunk of the world's manufacturing base, the dollar was tied to gold, and there were trade surpluses, most importantly, those wars didn't come at a time when both political parties were pushing austerity and telling us "we can't afford" food stamps, or child nutrition, or single payer health care, or even fixing our roads and bridges.

Kagan and the neo-cons' prescription for America is the opposite of what Ike Eisenhower identified in his farewell address. They're willing to bankrupt the country, degrade American living standards, and postpone "nation building" at home in pursuit of monsters abroad with no end in sight.

Ike also pointed to another despairing aspect of perpetual war: its negative "spiritual" effects. The simple fact is that if a nation pours so much of its toil and resources into preparing for and fighting never-ending wars it's contorting its priorities.

Richard Barnett reached a similar conclusion in 1972.

"[T]he evidence is mounting that the costs of empire, not only financial but political and psychological, have weakened the United States. Indeed, the loss of American hegemony appears to be directly related to the strategies adopted to maintain it." (Quoted in Terrence Edward Paupp, Robert F. Kennedy in the Stream of History, 2014, p. 193)

Neo-cons like Kagan want to put the pedal to the metal on this ongoing and horrific process of debasing American life in pursuit of enemies, that are often, as with ISIL, of their own creation.

And it gets worse. The professor emeritus of politics at Princeton, Sheldon Wolin, in his book, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (2008), warns of the long-term costs of the United States' foreign adventurism:

"'Superpower, 'empire,' and 'globalization' all presuppose and depend upon inequalities of power while maintaining the illusion that somehow those inequalities are not retrojected into the homeland, that the refinement of methods of controlling 'crowds' [see Ferguson, Missouri] or the denial of due process to American citizens is, at worst, an aberration rather than a prerequisite of Superpower and a contribution to inverted totalitarianism. In fact, empire and Superpower undermine and implicitly oppose two presumably fundamental principles of American political ideology: that the Constitution provides the standard for a government of limited powers - and that American governance and politics are democratic." (Quoted in Paupp, p. 208)

The blowback from all the death and destruction the U.S. has unleashed in the world continues to degrade American life in ways that undermine our highest democratic ideals.

Robert F. Kennedy said of the Vietnam War:

"All we say and all we do must be informed by our awareness that this horror is ... not just a nation's responsibility, but yours and mine. It is we who ... send our young men to die. It is our chemicals that scorch the children and our bombs that level villages. We are all participants."

This idea is something to think about as the civilian death toll mounts in this new war in Iraq and Syria.