Foreign Policy

Endless War? "What is the Alternative?"


The newly monthly American Conservative visits a conference of the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), which it fingers as the ur-source of Obamite foreign policy (and foreign interventionist) thinking. Reporter Kelley Beaucar Vlahos pins down their foreign policy tradition and captures this interesting exchange:

COIN [counterinsurgency] today is the realm of CNAS, as if Frederick Kagan and AEI had never existed. But it won't do to deny the family resemblance says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor: "You will hear the same things at the Center for a New American Security as you will at the American Enterprise Institute. Nation-building at gunpoint, democracy at gunpoint. What's the difference?"

Adherents of the old neoconservative vision and these new security policymakers all "drank the Kool-Aid," said Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich, the only real dissenter invited to speak on June 11. Both groups, he added, see war as "a perpetual condition," employing massive firepower and boots on the ground, draining "billions, if not trillions of dollars," in pursuit of goals based on skewed assumptions about American interests abroad.

"Would it not be best to reconsider the alternatives and not continue on this path?" Bacevich asked. To which [retired Army Capt. Andrew] Exum retorted, "What is the alternative?"

What, indeed? Perpetual war for perpetual democracy, we better learn to love you, because it doesn't look like we'll get a chance to leave you.

NEXT: The Light Was Pink, Officer!

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  1. The only thing that has changed since Obama was elected is that the Neo-Libs have taken over from the Neo-Cons. The only difference between the Neo-Libs and the Neo-Cons is some rhetorical, tactical and personnel changes but the goal of supporting an American led and enforced globalists system, sometimes called the “International Community” is the same

  2. Let’s not forget that “nation-building” was invented by Democratic administrations–Wilson, FDR, or JFK, depending on how you want to look at it. Foreign-policy hubris easily jumps partisan boundaries.

  3. Here’s an area where I differ with more purist libertarians. Yes, war is bad and used as an excuse by statists for more control, blah blah blah. But while it takes two to tango, it only takes one side to have a war. So when Al Qaeda and company declared war on the US in the ’90s, we really were at war whether we liked it or not. We tried to ignore it for a few years, but after 9/11 we couldn’t ignore it any longer. You can argue about where we should have the battlefield (Afghanistan, Iraq, waiting to respond to terror attacks, or whatever), or whose fault the whole thing is, or go back to ignoring it, but as far as I can see there’s no way out of the state of war until the other side stops creating it.

  4. Papaya, I know you’re a Republican shill, but where are you getting the “purist libertarians” eschew defensive war? The post was specifically about nation-building exercises, so get with the program.

  5. As long as there are people living on this Earth, there will be violence and war. No, it won’t end. Ever.

  6. Can someone explain the “purist libertarian” position on war and foreign policy in general? I’ve never really heard a coherent position from a libertarian on foreign policy and war. Usually when someone tries it quickly descends into a rant about American meddling and empire building.

  7. TAO: I criticize Democrats, Republicans, and yes, libertarians, too. My beliefs don’t fall neatly into any one camp. I fail to see how that makes me “shill” for anyone.

    If you really think many libertarians around here see Afghanistan and Iraq as defensive wars, you haven’t been paying attention. And the post is clearly as much or more about the current war as about nation-building, so try reading more carefully.

  8. So when Al Qaeda and company declared war on the US in the ’90s,

    Full stop. Al Qaeda and company are not a country, so they cannot declare war. The closest analogy from a constitutional point of view is that of pirates, and the correct response is to (a) have the armed forces find and enforce international law against them, and/or (b) issue letters of marque and reprisal.

  9. War is for defensive purposes only. It is not our job to police the world nor have troops stationed in 155 countries worldwide. It is not our job to provide support to foreign countries either. If a foreign country directly attacks our soil, we have more than enough resources to repel the attack, without entangling alliances worldwide.

  10. Can someone explain the “purist libertarian” position on war and foreign policy in general? I’ve never really heard a coherent position from a libertarian on foreign policy and war. Usually when someone tries it quickly descends into a rant about American meddling and empire building.

    I think these quotes from Jefferson might be a good starting point for finding the purist libertarian position.

    This is basically what I believe (may not be sufficiently purist enough ;)):
    1) No offensive/defensive alliances
    2) No meddling in the internal affairs of other nations.
    3) Free trade
    4) War should only occur when attacked
    5) Military should be small, but sufficient to repel invasion*

    *Some days I lean towards what Costa Rica did with its military.

  11. Papaya – Gosh, libertarians don’t see Iraq as a defensive war? Wow, what ignoranmuses we must be. Please tell me the offenses that the Hussein regime engaged in that justified nation-building in that country.

    Doubt you’ll do it,


  12. Anyone, let alone libertarian, who sees the Iraq war as defensive is a fool

  13. Brian, M. Moynihan and M. Young must really dislike you.

  14. Yup, the nation-building is justified there, IMHO. Saddam had to go for several reasons: support for terrorism and violating ceasefire conditions were just two, and since both of those were offensive actions toward us and our allies, our reaction counts as defensive. The nation-building followed afterwards to prevent another strongman from taking over. And no, I don’t think it’s foolish, any more than it was foolish for FDR to invade French North Africa in the first US offensive of WWII, even though the French/Africans/Germans had nothing to do with the attack on Pearl Harbor.

  15. Brian Lockwood,

    Can someone explain the “purist libertarian” position on war and foreign policy in general? I’ve never really heard a coherent position from a libertarian on foreign policy and war.

    There’s really not much coherence to it, but M. Rebmann at 7:53pm and Mr. Chartreuse at 8:28pm are about the best you’ll get.

    The “necons” and “neolibs” are naive in one direction, for reasons both obvious and beaten nearly to death in recent history. Like what the hell are we really “building” in Iraq and Afghanistan, after spending all the wads of money and the (relatively little in terms of war) blood that it’s cost us.

    “Purist libertarians” are naive in the other direction. They are, as best I can tell, deliberately not going to look at the fact that the US is vulnerable in ways it simply was not in 1776. In Thomas Jefferson’s day the back bone of the US economy was farming and most what got produced was eaten by — US farmers.

    Today, if you cut off our international trade channels you could bring substantial portions of the US economy to its knees in short order. This opens up whole new ways for enemies to wage war on us, and it’s a chief reason why a big mean Navy with carrier battle groups, and the ability to “project military force around the globe”, might in fact be rational things for the US to have.

    But don’t try arguing this with most libertarians, many of whom are borderline-to-full anarchists, and who don’t think we need much more than some barbed wire and trenches here at home. B’gosh, national defense begins and ends with keeping the bad guys out of California and NYC.

    Oh, and forget about the bullies you met on the play ground back in elementary school. Most libertarians also believe that “if the US doesn’t mess with others, then others won’t mess with the US”. I mean they really like this fantasy-dream and they get mad quick if you try waking them up.

    As far as I can tell, the American public is just basically confused on the whole issue, though they may have a strong feeling or two about it here and there.

    The Dems and Reps, meanwhile, have no real thoughts of their own anymore, and apparently end up absorbing whatever ideas the most influential think tanks of the moment can pawn off on them.

  16. Yo, Ebeneezer splain me this.

    Phillipines, turn o the century. Cuba then, and in the 50’s. Why? to what end? How did these actions enhance/fail to enhance nat’l security?

    How would have choosing not to meddle in those examples damaged nat’l security? (warning, this is a trick question)

    The meta answer is that in matter of OUR natl security, it mattered not what we did, either way. So why do it? boredom? need to flex?

    Iraq/n falls somewhere between Turkey and the Congo in matters of nat’l importance to America. If either of them got nukes we might consider that an aggressive posture and begin bombing. Beyond that they can and should be ignored.

    What exactly are we trying to do in Afghanistan anyway? We removed the Taliban. Time to come home. If they come back, The U.S. military takes another three day weekend and removes them again, maybe bombs them back to 1100 this time.

    Democracy only trounces ethnic tribal politics in the minds of those to whom tribal politics no longer accomplishes anything. They still think they got plenty of blood to bleed over there. Lets let em.

  17. Phillipines, turn o the century. Cuba then, and in the 50’s. Why? to what end? How did these actions enhance/fail to enhance nat’l security?

    There’s logic here. A huge fraction of the US economy breaths in and out through the Mississippi river basin. A hostile fleet stationed in Cuba could cut that flow off with ease. It’s the same sentiment that gets Russia really pissed when the US starts messing with the Ukraine and other border areas.

    And, if you aim to put a fleet in the Pacific, the Philippines is a nice place for the US to have a base.

    Iraq makes no sense whatsoever. Afghanistan — well, the Taliban invited their own destruction. What we’ve accomplished since then is little of nothing good. Although whether we pulled out before, or now, or some tomorrow, they’ll just come back. And probably do just about the same things they were doing before.

    Afghanistan, it isn’t clear to me what we should be doing with that one. Though I’d have pulled US troops back out of there a long time ago, given the obvious futility.

    My criticism is that most libertarians don’t seem to think we need any military power to speak of, outside US borders. That I adamantly disagree with. We need to project a lot of military power to make sure nobody wants to mess with our commercial interests on the open seas.

    But that’s the purpose of a strong military in my book, beginning and end.

    OTOH I’m not into meddling where there’s no need. And we’ve done lots of that (needlessly) [ha ha: trick answer]. I’m on board with the libertarian philosophy of “don’t dick with people when you don’t need to”.

    I’m not a dumb nationalistic warmonger. I just think we ought to have more than a minimalist level of military power.

    Of course most of the minimalist defense level libertarians are also anarchists.


    This is what we spent 4000 American Servicemans lives and a trillion dollars for, and made ourselves a pariah in the muslim world. For this!

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