They’re Back: The Shoot-First, Sanction-Later, Would-Be Leaders of America

A military-first foreign policy didn’t work for the last Republican administration, and it’s not going to work for any of the party’s gun-totin’ presidential hopefuls.


The Oscars may be behind us, but a lot of people were auditioning for the Republican Un-Diplomatic Oscars in Washington, D.C., last week. And most leaned toward the “shoot first” school. See if you can guess who made these (mostly) hawkish pitches at or while in town for the Conservative Political Action Conference (answers follow below):

  • America needs “a leader who will stand up and say we’ll take the fight to them and not wait until they take the fight to American soil.” (Determination Award)
  • America’s needs “a commander in chief who will actually stand up and defend the United States of America.” (Vertical Challenge Award)
  • “If ISIS wants to establish a seventh-century caliphate, well, let’s oblige them by bombing them back to the seventh century.” (Best Aggressive Bumper Sticker Award)
  • “If we don’t get rid of them, we are going to be fighting them over here.” (Uncommon Analytical Stupidity Award)
  • “We didn’t start this war, nor did we choose it, but we will have the will to finish it.” (Best Cowboy Boots Award)
  • “Our allies no longer trust us, and our enemies no longer fear us.” (Supremely Empty Rhetoric Award)
  • “I love my father and my brother. I admire their service to the nation and the difficult decisions they had to make, but I am my own man.” (Award for Separation and Individuation)

How many did you guess correctly?

Yes, they’re back, all those tough-talkin’, boots-wearin’, would-be gun-totin’ conservatives, whipping the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) into a froth. They all believe U.S. President Barack Obama has weakened America. Most of them want to fight the Islamic State and arm Ukraine with real weapons, but as far as I can tell, only one of these war hawks — Rick Perry, who served as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force — has ever worn military boots. (The same comment applies to Chris Christie, who won no award because he pretty much stayed away from foreign policy, and Mike Huckabee, who got the No Show Award.)

One way or another, they all seem to be ready to go to war. The only exception at the CPAC conference was Rand Paul, the libertarian’s libertarian, who revealed very little about his military views (though he did say he wants a military that is “unparalleled, undefeatable, and unencumbered by nation-building”), and did not reveal any role for that military when he said we should defend the United States against ISIS, but made it clear that he wanted an end for foreign aid for the “haters of America.”

Of course, one could argue that Jeb Bush, in his talk, did not make a full-throated call for war in the Middle East. But he did announce his foreign-policy advisory team in Chicago the week before last and, guess what? Most of them worked for his brother, the guy who brought us the last embarrassing military failure in the Middle East. Seriously, one of them is Paul Wolfowitz, who thought the Iraq invasion should be small, and that U.S. ground forces would return home quickly as the Iraqis took responsibility for their own security. As for the others on Jeb’s team, some of them beat the same drum as Wolfowitz during the march into Iraq, but of those who have signed up for Bush III, surely Wolfowitz and Condoleezza Rice qualify for an Award for Uncommon Foreign-Policy Failure. And Rice, who foresaw a mushroom cloud coming out of Iraq, thinks Jeb would be a “fantastic” president.

So we have a gang of Republican hopefuls who want to shoot their way out of America’s foreign-policy challenges, straight or not, and who have little experience with the military or foreign policy in general. And we have one guy — Paul — who is now Hamlet-like about the role of U.S. military forces, and an “old team” that wants to return, presumably to do it just one more time. Many of these folks (Rand Paul aside) were cheerleaders for the last American invasion in the region. It’s a group that either knows nothing or helped bring us the national security challenges we face today.

None of them, absolutely none, have ever apologized for the failure of the two big policy myths foisted on the nation: the myth of a democratic Iraq at peace with itself, and a Taliban- and narcotics-free democratic Afghanistan. Both of these are policy failures that are also strategic failures. The actions of the Bush advisors systematically undermined American influence in the region for decades to come, dramatized all the shortcomings of American would-be nation-builders, warped the work of the intelligence community (where was Condi Rice’s mushroom cloud when she needed it?), and left us with their greatest legacy for the future — the Islamic State.

The shortsighted, ahistorical naiveté and inexperience of the CPAC speakers is enough cause for despair, and one certainly wonders about the foreign-policy judgment of a leading candidate who surrounds himself with the architects of aggressive and failed policies of the past. And one might even despair of the American press, at its incapacity for imagination, as it uncritically drones out the current round of nonsense offered by these speakers, as if it were anything other than political manipulation and propaganda. After all, the press is willing to give ample air time to Rudy Giuliani and his stupidities about the president, as well as allowing John McCain and Lindsay Graham to blather on about the urgent need to put American boots on the ground in Iraq.

Obama does not, and should not, get a free ride on six years of stewardship of U.S. foreign policy. But the criticism should not be about his “failure” to arm the Syrian moderates (both of them), or his decision not to “reconstruct” Libya. It is because he has failed to convince the nation that a realistic view of this country’s role in the world will show that America’s ability to “shape” the world is significantly more constrained than most Americans think, and that pretending this is not so is the most dangerous course any administration could take on our national security.

The danger this crowd of presidential wannabes poses is that they are indulging a poorly informed, outdated view of the role of America in the world. Like small children, most of them stomp their feet, stick their fingers in their ears, and let loose a tirade about military power and leadership. As they indulge the fantasy that “boots on the ground” is the archetype of a great national security policy and the talisman of American leadership, they are leading the electorate down a garden path that will cost lives, create even more enemies, and weaken American security and leadership even further.

The CPAC prize-winning tantrum-throwers are desperate for (or want to be seen as) heroes of mythical proportions, men like Shakespeare’s Prospero, who in The Tempest “bedimm’d / The noontide sun, call’d forth the mutinous winds, / And ’twixt the green sea and the azured vault / Set roaring war.” The last round of this paroxysm of force in Iraq and Afghanistan was followed by a sea of men and women led to death and PTSD, creating even more America-haters and enemies. Prospero, lest it be forgotten, knew that in the end, his domination of the universe was an illusion and a dream that “melted into air, into thin air.”

Sadly, cowed (as many of them have been for decades) by the threat that they will be called weak on national security, the Democrats are almost certain to ride into the ring with a leader who backs away from Obama’s “world is complex” and “don’t do stupid shit” reality and plants her own banner squarely in the center of the party’s version of “I got bigger ones than you do.”

And indeed, the Democratic Party has its own Wolfowitzes — the chattering advisors who criticize Obama for not arming the Syrian opposition earlier, and call for big increases in the defense budget to show toughness and take on the Chinese. In late February, a bunch of them, from the center of the Democratic Party (not the left), joined hands with a gaggle of neocons (like Bill Kristol) and a few defense notables (Bob Gates lent his name to the exercise) to call for higher defense budgets. The Democrats in this group are already gathering around Hillary Clinton, writing white papers, arguing points, searching for the way to make sure she talks equally tough.

As we walk further into foreign-policy rhetorical awards season, the pundits, pollsters, and press are going to love it — this wonderful fake battle between tough and tougher, the soft exceptionalists versus the hard exceptionalists. Who will make the American people feel more special? And who will lead us down the garden path this time?

And like lemmings, we, the American people, will in turn put up with this dangerous blather and the general trend toward a militarized foreign policy (see my recent book with Shoon Murray, Mission Creep). It is an exceedingly dangerous trend, one that risks, rather than guarantees, our future security. Make no mistake about it: Putting America’s military at the front edge of our international engagement has become counterproductive. The policy is not working. It is a failure, made even more dangerous by the reality that with each step down this road, we are encouraging more enemies of the United States to come out of the woodwork.

And this muscular international posturing, as Peter Beinart pointed out recently, will only entangle us in more struggles, civil wars, and “building” of “partner military capacity,” with more of our military forces at the cutting edge of U.S. foreign policy. As a policy, it is counterproductive, if almost inevitable, and it blinds us to the realities we face. A realist is someone who sees the world as it really is, measures and evaluates threats and conflicts carefully, husbands resources, gets a decent bang for the buck in his or her military forces, and ensures that the velvet glove (diplomacy, assistance) is strong, and properly backstopped by military capability. A realist signs up to Sun Tzu’s view: “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.”

For all his faults — and I have been a vocal critic of many Obama policies — the president has been cautious in the use of force, calculating about the extent to which America can “make things happen,” and honest about the limitations of American power. That’s not a bad start, and yes, it means we are not called on to deploy force everywhere, which means we don’t stop all wars and settle all problems. Sadly, for me, he has also been far too prepared to argue that America is exceptional, to spread covert wars (via the CIA, or special operations forces) around the globe, to entangle us in disputes that are not of our making or our solving (like in the Sahel and Niger), and to concentrate policymaking in the White House, where the staff has too little time and no monopoly on policy wisdom. It was a decent start, but no sale, and still — six years later — with very mixed results.

Sadly, the final prizewinner in this presidential sweepstakes is likely to end up totin’ a gun and calling for more — more guns in more places with more Americans at risk. And the field is crowded with award-winning inexperience in the military or foreign-policy arts. Buckle your seatbelts and wait for the next two years, because we won’t have a meaningful search for a realistic foreign policy and caution in the use of force until 2017. And, frankly, if any of this crowd is elected, we are not likely to even then.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Gordon Adams is a professor of international relations at American University's School of International Service and is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center. From 1993 to 1997, he was the senior White House budget official for national security. Twitter: @GAdams1941

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