- By Paul D. MillerPaul D. Miller is assistant professor of international security studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. He served as director for Afghanistan on the National Security Council staff under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Conservatives are in a bind. They want to support some sort of action against the Islamic State (IS), criticize President Obama for his lack of strategy, and differentiate themselves from George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq — all while avoiding the label of isolationism. The result is a mess.
Take Mollie Hemmingway, senior editor of The Federalist, an excellent conservative web magazine. I envy Hemmingway because she writes wittily on politics, culture, and religion — pretty much any topic of interest to a normally educated and inquisitive adult. Nine times out of 10, I learn something from her work.
When Obama started bombing Iraq a few weeks back, Hemmingway rightly argued that the goal of war is peace and wondered what our goal in Iraq was — a good and appropriate question. Simply bombing bad guys is not a foreign policy; it is a tactic that should be employed in the pursuit of some overarching goal. As the old adage goes, tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat (usually attributed to Sun Tzu by those who have never read him).
So far, so good. But Hemmingway also opposes "nation building" and "occupation" and "meddling in others affairs." Aside from her mischaracterization of what advocates for a broader intervention mean, the obvious question is: what if those are the only tools that can build a just and lasting peace? What’s more important: pursuing peace, or the purity of your non-interventionist ideology?
The maddening thing is that in the same breath Hemmingway argues that building peace in Iraq would "require so much more from us than we currently do." Quite true. So much more, like investing in Iraq’s political stability. "It would mean, first off, actually fighting wars," like we presumably tried from 2003 to 2011. "It would mean our statesmen would have to be clear about our expectations regarding peace,"-does Hemmingway think the problem is a lack of clarity?-"and that we would be willing to back those expectations up,"-but only, apparently, with bombs; not with any diplomacy, reconstruction assistance, coercive bargaining, stability operations, peace building, political warfare, or anything that might approach the dreaded "nation building." "It would mean not meddling in others’ affairs,"-what in her last three sentences isn’t "meddling in others’ affairs"?
Hemmingway, like many a conservative pundit, wants it both ways. She wants the United States to pursue a just and lasting peace in Iraq while simultaneously pretending not to "meddle in others’ affairs." She wants the right goal but she wants to avoid any hint of the very tools necessary to do so.
Hemmingway makes these arguments in a piece complaining about the mischaracterization of Rand Paul as an "isolationist." Yet she proves more than able to mischaracterize Paul’s opponents. No one stands up says "I stand for a meddlesome foreign policy," or, "We should nation-build the world." Rather, we argue that reconstruction and stabilization operations (as they are properly called) can sometimes be the right tool to foster the lasting peace Hemmingway rightly calls for.
Some critics argue that the United States should not undertake stability operations because they are simply impossible and always fail. This is a classic example of exaggerating the lessons of the recent past and extrapolating a general lesson from a single data point: Iraq failed, therefore all stability operations will always fail. A look at the broader history (self-promotion alert) suggests there are more nuanced lessons we should learn.
Hemmingway exemplifies the difficulty conservatives are having in interpreting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and applying their lessons to the future. If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because we invaded under false pretenses," then you are likely to argue for extreme caution and careful examination of our motives before undertaking any intervention in the future, much like many liberals currently do.
If you think the lesson is, "We screwed up because we tried to do nation-building, which is impossible and wrong-headed and foolish to even try," then you are likely to gravitate to a sort of paleo-conservatism (since Hemmingway doesn’t like the label of isolationism) and the belief that the military should only be used to blow things up, which is sufficient for keeping America safe.
I find the liberals’ explanation morally simplistic and not backed up by the facts. Our difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan were manifold and came from many, many problems. Reading it like a morality play in which the gods of war punished American hubris for invading without sufficient cause neglects the problems in the planning, management, and oversight of the wars; the drift in American military doctrine since Vietnam; the problems of coalition counterinsurgency; and the dilemmas inherent in coercive peace building.
The paleo-conservative reading (like Hemmingway’s) is no better. It will not build the lasting peace Hemmingway calls for. Killing lots of people and going home isn’t war; it is murder, and it is the way to replicate the failures of Versailles after World War I. The statesmen of 1919 famously failed to achieve any sort of political settlement to resolve the underlying causes of the Great War and succeeded only in sowing the seeds for the next one. The difference in World War II was partly in the comprehensiveness of Germany’s defeat, yes, but also in the massive and expensive forced democratization mounted afterwards.
So, similarly, we are virtually guaranteed to continue our Thirty Years’ War in Iraq and our Hundred Year War with jihadists until, somehow, achieving a resolution to the underlying political causes of them. If "not meddling" means not investing in the political and economic conditions required for lasting peace, then "not meddling" is a recipe for forever war –which is, of course, the worst and most expensive form of meddling.
My reading of Iraq and Afghanistan is that we nearly got there in Iraq until President Obama abandoned efforts to secure a lasting U.S. troop presence and pulled out all troops in 2011. A residual U.S. troops presence would not have solved Iraq’s political problems but would have given us leverage for continued bargaining and almost certainly would have blunted IS’s growth and prevented the current emergency. The failings of 2003 to 2007 were failings of planning, management, oversight, and coordination, which the United States painfully and slowly improved at the cost of thousands of lives.
In other words, we tried the right thing, but the United States is far less capable of doing the right thing than is widely appreciated — not because our military isn’t capable, but because it isn’t useful for the kinds of things we need to accomplish. For that, we need different tools — the tools of reconstruction, stabilization, coercion, political pressure, diplomacy, the whole package. This is an emotionally unsatisfying explanation because it is complicated and doesn’t come wrapped in a tidy Tweetable moralistic bow (like "Bush lied, people died!" or "nation building is hubris!").
But it is true. If you want to see the next four presidential administrations lob bombs at Iraq and Mali and Somalia and Pakistan with no end in sight, then our military is well equipped to do the job, and we will live in a world of forever war. If you want a just and lasting peace among nations, our military cannot build it alone. Some sort of broader, messy, and complicated intervention — by the United States, the U.N., NATO, the Arab League, the African Union, someone — will have to be part of it. "Not meddling" isn’t a foreign policy.