Why do so few politicians challenge America's emphasis on military action?
Does the United States have a strong foreign policy, or a foreign policy simply based on strength? This question is particularly pertinent in an era of seemingly perpetual confrontation and conflict. But it has not been adequately addressed by either Barack Obama or Mitt Romney during the current presidential election cycle. Both have made clear their preference for taking a muscular approach to foreign policy — President Obama doing so as early as his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which was, oddly, to a significant extent about the justified use of force. For his part, former Governor Romney has made it clear that, if elected, he intends to act forcefully in the world too and that he will begin by beefing up the U.S. military further.
Both Obama and Romney support regime change by forceful means in Syria. Both are wary of employing the U.S. military directly, preferring instead to help channel arms to the insurgents. But each candidate has stated publicly and repeatedly that President Bashar al-Assad "must go." Both men also threaten military action against Iran as well, if Tehran persists in crossing an admittedly blurry "red line" on the path to nuclear proliferation. And when it comes to denying terrorists their various havens, diplomacy has clearly taken a back seat to drone strikes and extrajudicial killings — even of U.S. citizens. Obama has embraced this last policy with vigor in his regular "Terror Tuesday" targeting sessions; Romney has not raised even a whisper of criticism of this policy. Truly, it seems that American military policy has largely become American foreign policy.
The militarization of American foreign policy is no doubt partly the result of the outrage sparked by the 9/11 attacks and the wars that followed in its wake. But the first shoots of this growing approach to the world were poking up to the surface over 20 years ago. This was a time when many thought that the United States was the "last great power standing" and had, in the words of the elder President Bush, the sheer strength to mold a "new world order" — an assertion strengthened by the annus mirabilis, 1991, when the U.S. military won a lopsided victory over Saddam Hussein, the Soviet Union dissolved, and American high-tech firms were making the advances that led the information revolution.
It was also a time when Gen. Colin Powell’s doctrine of "overwhelming force" was acclaimed by almost all in both major political parties. Powell helped President Bill Clinton craft a coercive strategy against a military dictator in Haiti — Raoul Cédras — who fled when he learned that U.S. airborne troops were "wheels up" on their way to depose him. Events in Haiti were then followed by Clinton’s 1996 "National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement," which was designed to spread democracy. This put policy on a track that contemplated "enlargement" by either diplomatic or military means, with increasing emphasis on the latter as time passed.
Even the long, costly struggle in Iraq and current travails in Afghanistan have done little to cool the ardor of policymakers for pursuing American aims in global affairs militarily. At least not the ardor of the brain trusts in the major political parties. In an era when bitter partisanship is displayed on almost all meaningful issues, Democratic and Republican leaders have linked arms around an approach to foreign policy that might be labeled "right takes might." Liberals, who care deeply about bettering the lot of the world’s benighted peoples but have long been loath to go to war, have now accepted the notion of using military force, harsh economic sanctions, and coercive diplomacy as means to this end. Conservatives, wedded to notions of the intrinsic value of material strength, have lost their traditional aversion to going to war only when considerations of realpolitik demand.
How did this come to pass? Historian Charles Beard may have predicted this development. Writing over 70 years ago, Beard noted in A Foreign Policy for America that three strands of thought were apparent in U.S. history. The first and earliest had to do simply with securing the homeland — "continentalism," a view often vilified as "isolationism." Next came imperialism, which the United States began to manifest in the latter half of the 19th century by seeking to extend American influence over others and their resources. Last came internationalism, personified by President Woodrow Wilson’s mission to improve the world by spreading democracy.
Beard was a clear-eyed critic of imperialism and thought that internationalism in the name of democracy — both in his time and in the future — would prove a costly folly. But he was writing in 1940, a time when the American failure to engage more actively in the world nearly led to the triumph of the Axis powers. So his critique was largely discredited then, and it remains relegated to the edge of U.S. foreign policy now. Beard’s fear that an internationalist approach to world affairs would become dominant has been fully realized. He predicted that the results of such a strategy, pursued over the long term, would inevitably lead to a "melancholy performance … based upon some misconceptions respecting the nature and propensities of men and nations."
Among presidential contenders over the past year, only Ron Paul was willing and able to articulate a clear critique of the internationalist bent in U.S. foreign policy that was widely heard, if not heeded. His message was picked up by most of the other minor-party candidates, but all told, they will amass no more than a percentage point or two of Nov. 6’s votes. This despite the fact that very significant portions of the American public, across the political spectrum, prefer a much less interventionist role in the world.
Indeed, according to the 2012 Chicago Council Survey, only one-fourth of Americans express concern about protecting human rights in other parts of the world, while four-fifths list "protecting the jobs of American workers" as their highest foreign-policy priority. Further, a Pew Research Center poll released in September notes that over half of retired military officers think that the use or threat of force is relied on too heavily in U.S. foreign policy. Nearly two-thirds of government experts in international security share this view, and the same degree of disapproval is expressed by professional scholars in the field.
Given these important indications of concern, it is clear that a national discussion about foreign-policy strategy is overdue. And maybe, just maybe, the debacles of the past decade, the disorder of the present, and the darkening prospects for a world that lies so clearly beyond our ability to control will at least open up the possibility of a thoughtful discourse about America’s future role in it.