Politics & Policy

All Presidents Are Doves before They’re Elected

U.S. Army paratroopers of an immediate reaction force from Second Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, First Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division, board a C-17 transport aircraft as they leave Fort Bragg, N.C., January 1, 2020. (Jonathan Drake/Reuters)
None of them seems to stay that way in office.

Elizabeth Warren has revealed a bit more of her foreign-policy thinking in The Atlantic. And, reader, let me tell you, there is plenty to like in it.

Warren says she wants to recommit to “the constitutional requirement that Congress play a primary role in deciding to engage militarily.” Her brief contains perfectly apt descriptions of America’s desultory approach to foreign policy. “Sending our military to fight should be the hardest decision we make as a country,” she writes. “Instead, it has become the politically easy path, across political parties and administrations—a way to avoid making compromises or difficult choices about priorities.” She preached rebuilding our State Department, and doing the difficult work of “diplomacy.”

All fine and dandy. But I couldn’t help noticing the moment I began reading it that I felt like I was watching Charlie Brown gear himself up to kick a football, or Wile E. Coyote reach out to grasp the Road Runner. A pang of depression set in.

The title of her op-ed is “We Can End Our Endless Wars.” It’s a nice sentiment, but given how many politicians have promised something similar and failed to deliver, I’ll believe it when I see it. Yes, sure, we can end our endless wars, just like we can have the “humble foreign policy” that George W. Bush promised us in 1999, a few years before he said we would set a fire in the minds of men that would burn all the evildoers. He was followed by a president who also promised restraint, and more diplomacy, because he — so different and so refreshing — was “not opposed to all wars,” only to “dumb wars.” Naturally, several dumb wars were entered in his wake. He was followed by yet another president, this one who promised an America First foreign policy and railed against needless wars in the Middle East that have yielded nothing, not even the oil. “A superpower understands that caution and restraint are really truly signs of strength,” he said. Upon taking office he immediately loosened the rules of engagement, and three years in there are more troops deployed to the Middle East than when he started.

We can end our endless wars. But we won’t.

One of the reasons not to believe Warren is that her own descriptions of the task ahead already demonstrate an unwillingness to deal with reality. Consider her proposed Afghanistan policy:

In Afghanistan, we need serious diplomacy that achieves our counterterrorism goals as we bring home our troops. Trump’s haphazard approach has repeatedly upended delicate negotiations and wasted leverage. And there cannot be any workable deal in Afghanistan as long as the U.S. and Iran are in an escalating conflict.

Warren here undersells the problem, which is this: Every micron of dirt the U.S. leaves unoccupied in Afghanistan is quickly reclaimed by the Taliban. Any ongoing “counterterrorism goal” in Afghanistan requires either working against the Taliban or working with its permission.

Moreover, where her proposals aren’t dishonest about reality in such a manner, they are just useless virtue signaling. One part of her counterterrorism strategy would be aid. She writes:

The United States will again lead international efforts to provide the humanitarian and economic aid that is essential to stabilizing Syria, Afghanistan, and other conflict areas in the long term. Instead of this proven and cost-effective approach, the Trump administration has slashed assistance and instituted racist, draconian cuts in the number of refugees we allow into the U.S.

Aid to whom? Surely she doesn’t mean direct U.S. humanitarian and economic aid to Bashar al-Assad and the Taliban? After all, that would empower a dictator and an Islamist ideological group. Maybe she means their opponents? That’s likely to invite the U.S. back into the moral-hazard trap of giving aid to rebel groups short of war, which encourages those groups to act provocatively in hopes of attracting more aid, preferably of the kind that goes “bang.”

President Trump was elected while criticizing almost every feature of foreign-policy orthodoxy. His own staff and generals reacted to this by giving him a condescending lecture on the rules-based international order that they intend to defend whatever the American president or the people electing him have to say about it.

Trump took a step toward a saner foreign policy merely by refusing to believe the myths used to prop up the failing status quo. But he failed to take the next step after that one, which would be to hire new personnel committed to restraint. He also fails to control his moods, and semi-regularly slips into a more-volcanic, Jacksonian mode of wanting to “bomb the sh** out of” some troublesome spot on the map.

But what has Warren offered to do differently, or better? She’s made no notable break with the class of experts who run our failing foreign policy. Unlike Bernie Sanders, and like Trump or Obama, she hasn’t hired a foreign-policy staff committed to a different vision. And so her promise to turn war powers back to Congress should be considered as empty as Obama’s promise to do the same. Her promise to bring troops home would turn out to be as meaningless as a Trump tweet saying the same.

A former president, lately regarded as articulate in view of his successors, once stuttered. “Fool me once, shame on . . . shame on you. Fool me. . . . You can’t get fooled again!” Maybe that’s true for individuals. But the American electorate can fool themselves into voting for the more dovish candidate every four or eight years. They’ll still get more wars for their trouble.

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