The Illogical Fantasy of American Retreat
One of the more nettling elements of the paradigm in America is the debate surrounding foreign policy. Such an area is where one might bear witness to some of the most acrimonious exchanges between the “establishmentarian elite,” the recalcitrant “populists” and “non-interventionist doves.” The first of these groups are comprised of those who desire to maintain what’s considered the status quo proselytized by a large cabal of internationalists. The second is the pious “neoconservatives,” who are regarded by some of the more strident members of the populist insurgency as the warmongering old guard of the conservative movement whose time has met its end.
Though ravished by division on the majority of the issues weighing on the American conscience, there is a consensus that has been emerging that America’s mission as the superpower has run its course; and the time has now come for the “Empire of Liberty” to forfeit its long-held responsibilities. Thus rendering the idea of Pax Americana an obsolete reverie for idealists. American retreat is, no doubt, a delectable prospect for many, but it definitely crystallized during Obama’s presidency. Bret Stephens analyzed this in his book, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder. He described the feeling that Americans were yearning to retreat to an “isolationist garden of Eden,” and would “soon find themselves living within the shooting range of global pandemonium.” An astute analysis, I’d say, but the sentiment has only blossomed since then, while the world continues to make its foray into lawlessness.
It’s a delicate circumstance and purely reflective of the discrepancy between foreign policy obligations and one of the democratic pillars that is most devilish to politicians: public opinion. Though always fluctuating, the populace largely wants to see a day in which American commitment is markedly reduced. Polls from the Centre of American Progress demonstrate that while citizens believe that terrorism and the economy need to rightfully remain priorities, a majority thinks that those in Washington should focus more on domestic issues. Other polls present a loss of confidence among the public. A mere 9.5 percent believe that America is the “indispensable” nation, and international peace and prosperity is dependent upon its stewardship.
Viewing this from a citizen standpoint, I can understand this. The case for an America that “polices the world” isn’t too enticing from their vantage point. For the average policy salesman, foreign policy is perhaps the area that might be the hardest. Efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan seem way too costly while the strategic objectives are poorly articulated and become mostly impenetrable to citizens the longer the conflict goes on. Veterans appear to agree, as is indicated by recent findings. Much of this can be attributed to the furtive nature of foreign policy and the failure of politicians to explain their decisions. Citizens usually aren’t spending their days contemplating grand strategies. Nevertheless, the case for American leadership still needs to be made — -and made well — — as reality continues to be a great determinant. This is especially true now as the issue is prime territory for rabble-rousers.
Yes, Trump campaigned on isolationist rhetoric. He has regularly lamented American’s involvement abroad in “stupid wars,” as well as the pressures of being a superpower. However, the conditions within the international order have forced him to begrudgingly engage in ways that in the absence of counsel, he likely wouldn’t have. His approaches to North Korea and Russia are, in many ways, objectionable, but his administration’s robust posture when it comes to powers like Iran and China is morally and strategically right. Trump’s foreign policy has vast room for improvement, but it’s a tolerable strategy. Those in his cabinet deserve the credit, as they appear to understand the nature of opponents, and acknowledge the limits of America’s footprint in spite of its primacy (as Bush did not), but don’t cower in the face of aggression (as Obama did). The emphasis should be on deterrence to avert war, and assessing adversaries for what they are and their capabilities to avoid humiliation in the long run.
And this is where such a vital debate descends into tin-foil hat inventions. A notorious offender of which is the Democratic candidate Tulsi Gabbard, who, if you never heard her soliloquy, is a military veteran. Gratitude and appreciation are due for her service, of course, but not for her analysis, which is appealing to leftist pacifists and rigid libertarians who are possessed by an obtuse hatred of any sort of action. Suppose her or a like-minded Democrat wins the presidency (god forbid), the doctrine would be a classic “Blame America First” doctrine in which the approach would be: observe events, instinctually ask what the United States did to provoke, then retire to the commodious dwellings as the rogue brigade plays tug-of-war over a sphere of influence of their choice while the President prepares for thoughtless negotiations that would only enrich their standing — -the grandest of grand strategies. But in all seriousness, for a military veteran especially, Gabbard is dangerously unscrupulous and so blinded by her opposition to war it’s a matter of religious faith. And as such, she’s willing to carry the water for those who have their sights trained on global domination if America ever retreated. She has little to offer besides appeasement since she so desperately wants America to be idle. According to her, propagandist lines are true that Bashar al-Assad (who she sycophantically went to go meet in 2017) is not the West’s enemy and Putin is the one doing the noble work of bombing terrorists in Syria. In fact, ask her to provide her conflict diagnosis, the answer will likely be a variation of a narrative in which the fault can always be placed at America’s feet.
A few predicaments through the lens of the Gabbardian universe:
Americans will force us into a new Cold War, fomenting hostilities in places like Venezuela, possibly leading to another catastrophic confrontation with Russia. Same goes for China if America continues with its firm stance against what is perhaps its most formidable rival. And when it comes to Tehran, Trump is escalating towards war due to his departure from the highly erroneous Iran Deal. She also took issue with deploying troops to the region as a deterrent force, which will “ignite the fuse” of war.
Or alternatively, the Putinist regime — -along with China and Iran — — has long been endeavouring to shift the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere, continually “beefing up” the Venezuelan military and helping to strengthen Nicholas Maduro’s hold on power. While China herself has long been in the process of becoming a global hegemon, rapidly enhancing its military and technology and seeking to enlarge its sphere of influence in regions like the Arctic. And before, during, and after the Iran Deal, Iran has been a subversive force, simply because moral suasion proves ineffective with a deceitful regime guided by Allah. With “Death to America” being a philosophical and cultural mainstay of this regime, it’s a rather arduous task to argue that they might reverse their conduct such as: habitually pledging to exterminate Israel, imprisoning Americans, funding terrorists around the world, and impeding foreign oil tankers. Similar questions are to be asked of the others who have made it their vocation to enfeeble the West, ruling out any desire for equilibrium in the international order. But who is seeking war, here? How might “working with” these rogues in the manner for which most Democrats advocate going to bring about relations that are not based upon one-sided concession?
This is not to pose the argument for war, I’m inclined to say to those whose judgment is severely diminished by the current black-and-white construction, but it’s just to speak to the reality: it’s one liberal superpower and its allies against a horde of rogue powers that are hell-bent on expansionism. Why must the only power capable of enforcing normalcy retreat in the face of outlaws who, in its absence, would gladly alter the geopolitical landscape according to their depraved designs? Such a point may be a tautology, but it continually needs to be said as a reminder since there’s more than one side when it comes to these match-ups.
But this is the current malaise afflicting the debate: a paralyzing fear that any display of strength is an augury of events for which America will be responsible. And such thinking has defined the debate on false terms, making for some risible arguments.
Supporters of Gabbard, for example, enjoy the denouncements of the establishment “chickenhawks” who push for war. Left-wingers are intrigued because of their pacifism and anti-imperialism, and right-wingers because they carry such distrust for the state. But it’s to an extent that it somewhat verges on zealotry. “Chickenhawk” — -someone who advocates for war while not fighting in them — — is a favourite in their arsenal. But it’s excruciatingly inane coming from either side, not least because it’s the same line of argument weaponized by those who say one can’t discourse on the welfare state because they’re not welfare recipients. And I’d expect them to cavil if someone said they couldn’t comment from afar on Israeli responses to Hamas’ attacks because they’re not under that threat. And what of the generals who have advocated against rapid withdrawal from Afghanistan for strategic reasons? I assume their voices are at the bottom of the hierarchy of whom we should listen to because political convenience takes priority. But I digress. From the left, the “chickenhawk” craze sanctifies the “lived experience” and judges the quality of argument based on the person and not the substance. And from the right, they are taking cues from radical libertarians like Murray Rothbard, who believed that “war” nourished the big state or the “military-industrial complex.” The two are united on this point.
They enjoy the luxury of the linguistic legacy of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s farewell address of 1961, wherein he apprised the American people to remain skeptical of “the acquisition of influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex” and how the “potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Though an understandable warning regarding researchers that could possibly hold public policy “captive,” Eisenhower wasn’t reducing their importance. He was acknowledging that the military establishment — which admittedly took up more of the US budget in those days — — was a “vital element in keeping the peace,” especially during the struggle against the perfidious Soviet Union. But like any government entity, it can be corrupted by gratuitous enlargement.
The neologism has become ketamine for the “anti-intervention” religionists, as it gives them the aura of someone raging against an illicit truth. Which is that foreign policy-makers mostly formulate strategies due to being suborned by industry. For the left, such a taxing commitment is one of the key obstacles to expanding government-funded healthcare, free college, and the rest of the illustrious list of impossible promises. For the right, it is an obstacle to curve spending and growth of government, the nationalist ambition to stay out of foreign entanglements, or simply — -in the more radically anarchist-libertarian view — — because foreign policy is something the state does.
There are legitimate disagreements with which Americans should grapple regarding the growth of the national defence apparatus. The same is true with the structural debates revolving around the roles of the executive and legislature in foreign policy.
But any claim that the defence budget is most burdensome on the national purse has been fantastical for quite some time. The share of the economy taken up by military spending has decreased well into single digits since the days of Eisenhower, while spending on other services like social security and healthcare have taken up a much greater share. As Pew Research found in 2017, spending on human services had grown to take up around 15.5 percent of GDP, as opposed to it being 1 percent during World War Two. Whereas defence spending had been reduced to around 3.3 percent by 2016. Likewise, the current budget indicates that the government plans to spend $4.7 trillion, with almost 60 percent of it being dedicated to Social Security (the largest expense in mandatory benefits with $1.1 trillion being spent), Medicaid, and Medicare. Budget requests call for defence spending to increase by around $750 billion. And as of this writing, some estimates have concluded it might round out at $989 billion with some help from the discretionary budget, but reports have suggested that the latter will continue to plummet in its historical share of GDP.
The basic libertarian despondency is understandable, though the anarchism shown by the more adamant types doesn’t make for decent argument. Nor does the left’s belief in similar misconceptions, which they espouse while seeking to enlarge the bureaucratic behemoth of social services that already surpasses their military bugaboo. The national defence, one of the crucial responsibilities of the federal government, is to be the sacrificial lamb on the altar of a utopic idea that is simply untenable.
The conversation revolving around America’s role in the world has been framed around a false choice between two forms of self-righteousness: a pacifist, isolationist-minded nation that thinks the world will just fall into place if America is friendly to everyone and negligent of transgressions; or a nation that wants to impulsively pursue war any chance it gets to reshape the world in its jingoist image.
But there’s more to foreign policy than the “neoconservative” efforts of George Bush to democratize Iraq, the debilitating leading-from-behind of Barack Obama, or the doomed adventurism of Lyndon Johnson in Vietnam.
Trump did indeed “inherit a mess” from Obama and Bush, and the mess was comparable to the disorder with which Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger were faced in 1969; therefore making reorientation of grand strategy from one based on ideological absolutes to a renewed prioritization of the national interest a smart move. Still one of America’s greatest architects, Kissinger advised Trump early in his tenure that he had a “great opportunity to build a constructive, peaceful world order.” And with rising rogue powers that seek to pivot the world order in their favour, he’d be right.
In spite of Trump’s thinking being hampered often by his impetuous nature, the doctrine can continually be refined into the successful “realistic strategy” of which Kissinger spoke. There is a balance to be struck between setting the example for morality, sustaining alliances, and doing what is necessary to “deter or defeat long-term strategic competitors” who seek to engage in aggressive revisionism. The National Security Strategy has summarized this as the sole modus operandi of policy.
Those who decry America’s role in the world must be asked to impart to us how the world order has any chance without the virtuous Goliath as its overseer. Simply because the alternatives are so clear, with a primer of motive provided in an editorial for the Chinese propaganda newspaper, Global Times. With the title, “Messy world needs Chinese stability,” it claims that the US “spreads anxiety worldwide” with an entrenched “Cold War mentality” that is causing escalation and “eroding globalization”; such conditions for which the only remedy is, of course, Chinese leadership. And the medicines might include continued militarization of the South China Sea, clampdowns on Hong Kong, provoking the US in Taiwan, and having an itinerary of other irredentist adventures. Adding to this beautiful illustration of a Chinese defined world order is the continued acts of espionage.
A mentality reminiscent of the Cold War atmosphere is obviously manifest, but the identity of the culprit is not concealed (the publishers of Global Times should locate the nearest mirror). Perhaps we should ponder this: If the desperate doves have their way with American grand strategy, and the world begins to immolate, what will the policy have to be for America and her allies, then?