Politics

Validating Foreign Policy Folly

The candidates cave on the Bush doctrine

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It's an election year in wartime, and right now we seem to be having a real debate about American foreign policy. All three of the remaining contenders have been talking about Iraq for months, all have been touting their credentials to be commander in chief, and all have given major speeches mapping out their views.

But don't be misled. Instead of a real debate, we're having a make-believe one. The make-believe is the suggestion that there are clear, profound differences among the candidates. In reality, they represent a range that, on a color palette, would range not from red to blue but from cream to taupe.

It's true they have staked out distinctive positions on the Iraq war. John McCain was for it at the beginning and always will be. Barack Obama was against it from the start and hasn't budged. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize it but now wants to get out. They have also bickered over issues such as whether to negotiate with dictators and whether to go into Pakistan after Osama bin Laden.

Those disagreements are not trivial. It's safe to say a Democratic president would handle Iraq differently than a Republican one. But it's worth remembering what helped to get us into Iraq: a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that favors U.S. military intervention abroad whenever we may be able to accomplish something that looks appealing. That was our national approach under the past three presidents, and it's a safe bet it will be our approach under the next one.

During the early 1990s, McCain was wary of the use of American military power. But he supported sending American peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1995. When a civil war erupted in Kosovo in 1999, he became a fervent voice for using American bombers and even ground troops against Yugoslavia—this when House Republicans were voting against giving President Clinton authority to go to war.

Soon after, McCain was urging a "rogue state rollback" policy. "We must be prepared," he said, to apply "military force when the continued existence of such rogue states threatens America's interests and values." Hmm. Whatever happened to that idea?

McCain's positions bear an eerie resemblance to those of Hillary Clinton, who vigorously favored her husband's decision to act in the Balkans. "I urged him to bomb," she said later. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time."

Her impulse to improve the world at the point of a gun was also on display in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Besides supporting the war resolution, Clinton often sounded like a crusading neoconservative, envisioning that Iraq would be a "model for other Middle Eastern countries" that would "shake the foundations of autocracy."

If Barack Obama is averse to fighting wars to spread democracy or to advance other noble purposes, he hasn't let on. He claims the United States has a "moral obligation" to act against "genocide" in Darfur, and he supports sending NATO forces to stop the bloodshed. One of his chief foreign policy advisers—until she resigned over calling Clinton a "monster"—was Samantha Power, a self-described "humanitarian hawk," who excoriated Bill Clinton for ruling out U.S. military action in Rwanda in 1994.

In a recent speech, Obama rejected the idea of cutting back our expansive role in the world. "We can choose the path of disengagment," he scoffed, "and cede our leadership."

Attitudes like that got us involved in the Balkans, where we had no national interest at stake; in Somalia, where we found ourselves fighting a war we didn't anticipate; and in Haiti, where our good intentions accomplished very little. Iraq, where conservatives turned idealistic liberal ideas to their own ends, was the ruinous culmination of that approach.

If there has been a flaw in U.S. foreign policy in recent years, it has not been an excess of disengagement, but the opposite: an irrepressible urge to use force for purposes that do not enhance our security but expose us to needless risk. The result has been that we find ourselves with more enemies, weakened influence, higher costs, greater strains on our military and less safety.

After the Iraq debacle, you would think our leaders would be willing to undertake a fundamental examination of the long-established and broad-based folly that made it possible. Not a chance.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. If you can’t figure out the difference between Clinton-era multilateral intervention and Bush-league Iraq and Afghanistan adventures…

    [Shakes Head]

    It’s too fucking early in the morning for this stuff. The moral equivalence that is already becoming the dominant meme in this race is nauseating. No, Obama is not the same as Clinton is not the same as McCain on foreign policy. They have different approaches and valuations of diplomacy, trade, and military action–morally salient differences. The idea that a candidate saying they would intervene in a genocide-in-progress is somehow the same as a region-reorganizing regime change project blows my mind.

  2. After 9/11 and the anthrax scare the people in this country were after blood.Most of our policy has been run on emotion on both sides.I was against the Patriot Act for that very reason.Emotional responses to tragic events make for bad law and policy.See Megan’s law and the ‘wars’ on drugs and DUI.All of these laws have one thing in common.They take a isolated incident and expand the law in ways that effect the freedom of all and never solve the problem.There by creating new law detached from the original purpose.

  3. Chapman talks about how the Iraq haws exploited the language of foreign policy liberalism to make the Iraq Debacle happen.

    That sort of dishonest leadership is made a whole lot easier when members of the political media do everything they can to blur the issues.

  4. They take a isolated incident and expand the law in ways that effect the freedom of all and never solve the problem.

    In government wonk-speak, “isolated incident” is defined as something that happens all the time, so it’s no surprise, really.

    LMNOP,

    I agree with you on Iraq, but we did have a (now squandered) coalition to go to Afghanistan, and some logical justification. Perhaps Iraq trumps that, but at least give credit where credit is due.

    Bush has done plenty of horrible things to attack, no need to make up new ones.

  5. It’s an election year in wartime…

    Yet the public doesn’t seem to be that interested in the war.

  6. Steve Chapman,

    Do you think that interventionism (for lack of a better word) is the default position of most of the political class who might be interested in running for the President?

  7. If McCain is elected he will keep the troops in Iraq to prove that he was “right.” A Democratic president will keep some troops in Iraq because if s/he takes them all out and something “terrible” happens, the Republicans will blame the Democrats.

    On the other hand, neither a Republican nor a Democratic president will pursue new interventions, because we simply don’t have the troops. Significantly expanding the number of U.S. ground troops would be enormously costly, and would probably upset the political consensus that supports the existing commitment in Iraq. The American people will support 175,000+ soldiers and “contractors” in Iraq as long as 1) no one is forced to serve and 2) no one has to pay for it (all war costs are borrowed). War without sacrifice is politically doable. War with sacrifice, not so much. John McCain can talk about the big stick as long as he doesn’t try to pick it up.

  8. Alan Vanneman,

    On the other hand, neither a Republican nor a Democratic president will pursue new interventions, because we simply don’t have the troops.

    So, what happens if there is another attack on U.S. soil of significant proportions?

  9. I agree with you on Iraq, but we did have a (now squandered) coalition to go to Afghanistan, and some logical justification. Perhaps Iraq trumps that, but at least give credit where credit is due.

    I honestly was never crazy about the way we went into Afghanistan. Much like Iraq a few years later, it seemed like we gave short shrift to the notion that people with different cultural and political traditions are likely to react in unexpected ways when you knock over all the anthills.

    Oh, and anyone who didn’t see opium as the once and future cash crop of Afghanistan wasn’t paying attention. It must be the first time in human history that people have been bombed into being drug dealers.

    I agree with you that it was more multilateral than the preciously gooftastic ‘Coalition of the Willing’, but the distinctions I was trying to evoke between Clinton-era and Bush-league military adventures wasn’t just the number of countries we could con into joining us. It was also the differences in scope, duration, and attitudes towards mission creep.

  10. After the Iraq debacle, you would think our leaders would be willing to undertake a fundamental examination of the long-established and broad-based folly that made it possible. Not a chance.

    After the {name any Congressional initiative that starts with “War on –“] debacle, you would think our leaders would be willing to undertake a fundamental examination of the long-established and broad-based folly that made it possible. Not a chance.

  11. If there has been a flaw in U.S. foreign policy…[it is] an irrepressible urge to use force for purposes that do not enhance our security but expose us to needless risk.

    When the tools of foreign policy are constituted of the lives and money of persons not responsible for foreign policy formulation, those who decide upon foreign intervention will tend to overvalue the intervention’s contributions to security and to underestimate the intervention’s costs and risks more so than the persons whose lives and money are involved. To expect differently is to expect people to respond to incentives other than their own.

  12. Another difference to note is that in Afghanistan we actually had proxies who knew what the fuck they were doing.

    And I agree with Elemenope that the moral equivalence crap is getting tiresome. It’s easy to sit on Mt Libertariana and say ‘what a bunch of fucking wankers’, because, yeah, they are. But that doesn’t mean that the choice won’t matter.

    Think of it this way; libertarians are a guy out wandering alone in the wilderness (hehe.) There are three possible paths to follow, each guarded by a hungry beast. The wolf isn’t going to be any god-damned picnic, even with a stout walking stick at hand, but madre de dios, it’s better than the crocodile and the grizzly…

  13. Think of it this way; libertarians are a guy out wandering alone in the wilderness (hehe.) There are three possible paths to follow, each guarded by a hungry beast. The wolf isn’t going to be any god-damned picnic, even with a stout walking stick at hand, but madre de dios, it’s better than the crocodile and the grizzly…

    That was a remarkably entertaining way to put it.

    I like. May I use?

  14. What was the real logical justification for going to Afghanistan? to get back our 41 million dollars we had just given the Taliban? or to chase after CIA agent Osama Bin Laden? if we really wanted Obama maybe it would have been wise for daddy Bush to grab his daddy since they had a meeting the day before the pearl harbor event…or maybe it would have been wise to take all those bin ladens in the US in for questioning instead of chartering flights for them out of the US while the rest of the peasants were barred from air travel.

  15. peachy, I’d take the croc.

    Although, of course, as a Real Libertarian, you’d be packing heat, but that ruins the parable, so never mind.

  16. Gabe Harris –

    The Sonny Bono thread is crying out for your insight.

  17. Though others have touched on this, the problem with this slight article is that it begs the question of whether all military interventions without a clear and present security threat are the same. That they may be is a defensible enough position, but it was merely assumed rather than defended in any way, shape or form here. I suppose there wasn’t space for more in depth analysis blah blah. What I most take from this article is that yeah, probably no reason to expect Obama’s foreign policy to be any different from Mister or Missus Clinton’s, whatever one thinks of the former’s inteverventions, and Mr. O’s vacuous and demagogic spiels about “change” notwithstanding. joe, you’re more familiar with Obama’s position papers; are we wrong?

  18. Although, of course, as a Real Libertarian, you’d be packing heat, but that ruins the parable, so never mind.

    You’d be surprised just how many times that after you shoot the grizzly bear, they still up and kill you.

    Unless, of course, as a Real Libertarian ™ you’d normally carry around an elephant gun.

  19. You’d be surprised just how many times that after you shoot the grizzly bear, they still up and kill you.

    Yeah, I hate when that happens. But sounds like all the more reason to choose the croc!

  20. are we wrong?

    Obama has shown much more interest in bilateral engagement with unsavory people, arguing that any propaganda hits taken by reaching will be offset by the possibility of progress.

    Hillary is much more into the “starve the oppressed people and it will trickle upwards” mentality.

  21. LMNOP,

    Doesn’t cover the “when to intervene militarily” question, but okay that’s something. And it comports with my view on “how things should be done”, so I’ll give it the tentative thumbs up, tentative cause I sure haven’t studied the issue so I hope Obie has some reason to take that position other than HOPEful thinking! (The start of a new drinking game?) 🙂

  22. You’d be surprised just how many times that after you shoot the grizzly bear, they still up and kill you.

    Having been bear hunting, with the rug to prove it, no, no I wouldn’t.

  23. fyodor,

    I’d characterize the differences between Hillary and Obama’s foreign policy philosophies as differences in style and emphasis, rather then falling on opposite sides of a clear-cut line.

    He’s more of a consensus-builder, while she’s more of a damn-the-torpedoes type, for example.

    She seems to look more favorably on the use of American military power to accomplish geo-political objectives, while he seems to be modest in what he thinks they can achieve.

  24. peachy, I’d take the croc.

    Considering wolves are skittish around larger animals and a single non-rabid wolf would be much easier to scare away than a crocodile, I think we’d end up with one less libertarian if you chose the croc.

  25. joe and LMNOP,

    You both contrasted Obama with Hilary; I should have restricted by comparison with Bill, as I originally did before adding Hilary in. I think that’s the point of the article and was more of mine, that Obama would be amenable to military intervention in the name of preventing large scale humanitarian crimes, consistent with the Clinton Administration. For better or worse. If Hilary is even more militaristic than that, well, what can I say…? (But thanks for the responses!)

  26. He’s more of a consensus-builder, while she’s more of a damn-the-torpedoes type, for example.

    That’s a pretty big difference, joe.

  27. You both contrasted Obama with Hilary; I should have restricted by comparison with Bill, as I originally did before adding Hilary in. …

    From what I can tell, Hillary is further from her hubby than Obama is on the use of force issues. There isn’t a *huge* gap between them; there is clearly more distance between McCain and Hillary than there is Hillary to Obama.

    And even still, despite this piece, I’d argue that McCain is a fair distance away from Bush the Lesser; further than most people have been paying attention to. Not in a way that would get less people killed, certainly…he just seems more Fukuyama than Krauthammer, if you know what I mean.

  28. And even still, despite this piece, I’d argue that McCain is a fair distance away from Bush the Lesser;

    I agree with you, but it doesn’t matter. There are only two establishments; the blue one and the red one. If the red one is able to hang on, even with changes at the top, the Deputy Undersecretary for Henways will still be retained. The only way to truly change course is to clean house at the political appointment level.

  29. And for the same reason, the differences between Clinton and Obama are far less than they appear. The nomination will only determine which dip/mil affairs advisors are senior officials, and which are deputies.

  30. Why do so many libertarians have ethics which stop at the water’s edge? It makes no sense.

    Even most die-hard libertarians would agree that if his or her neighbor was murdering and torturing people, the police should show up and stop it. Yet as soon as this “neighbor” lives on the other side of a sufficiently big pond, it’s none of our business, not our problem, and we can just bury our head in the sand and ignore the issue?

    Any ethical system with such idiocy in it is one that I could never adopt.

  31. Chad,
    Your analogy is flawed. Libertarians might defend their next-door neighbor against a murderer, or turn in a murderous next-door neighbor, while still not being foreign-policy interventionists. Would a good libertarian have to start a vigilante squad, for example, to wipe out crime in a neighborhood besides his own, and coerce his neighbors into donating or joining. ‘Cause that’s kind of what the government does whenever it goes to war.

  32. Just when it appeared that Clinton and Obama and the Democrats in Congress had reached the ultimate in cowardice, contempt for honor, decency and liberty, along comes one Steve Chapman to do them one better.

    Libertarians, like liberals in 1948, seem to be divided between pro and anti American camps. To its credit Reason.com allows members of both camps to have a voice.

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