Daniel Larison

Americans Don’t Want a More Aggressive Foreign Policy

US Embassy Kabul/Flickr

Pew released a survey earlier this month on American attitudes on foreign policy and America’s role in the world. Notably, only 27% said that they thought the U.S. does too little in trying to solve world problems:

Shifting partisan opinions on U.S. efforts to solve global problems

There is still not much support for a more activist foreign policy, and a plurality (41%) continues to say that the U.S. does too much around the world. This figure is significantly lower than it was three years ago before the ISIS panic, but even during the summer of 2014 it didn’t drop below 39%. Those saying the U.S. does “too little” haven’t been more than a third of respondents in any of the surveys over the last three years.

There are a few other interesting details. Republicans and independents are both more likely than Democrats to say that the U.S. is doing too much abroad, while a plurality of Democrats is satisfied with the current level of involvement. No doubt the fact that the president is from their party makes more of them comfortable approving of how much the U.S. is doing right now. More Republicans and independents say that the U.S. does too much rather than too little, but a minority also think the U.S. should do more. Relatively few from either group wants to keep things as they are.

Trump supporters are by far the most likely to believe that the U.S. does too much, followed by Cruz and Sanders supporters:

Majority of Trump supporters say U.S. does ‘too much’ globally

Clinton supporters are most likely to say that the U.S. is doing the right amount abroad. That is amusing since it is practically guaranteed that the U.S. will become significantly more activist under Clinton. It is not so surprising that Kasich supporters are most likely to think that the U.S. doesn’t do enough, and that is much more consistent with Kasich’s own reckless foreign policy views.

Americans have no appetite for the more aggressive foreign policy we are all but certain to get from a Clinton administration. The prevailing view in Washington that the U.S. has not been activist enough around the world in recent years is absolutely not shared by most Americans, and demands to “do more” in response to various conflicts and crises speak for little more than a quarter of the public. While there have been some fluctuations in the level of support over the last few years, there continues to be a broad and persistent constituency for a less activist and meddlesome foreign policy, and that has been reflected in the primary results over the last few months.

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The American Conservative: Restraint and Peace

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The American Conservative has been an indispensable outlet for the ideas and arguments of dissident and traditional conservatives for more than thirteen years, and it continues to offer a vitally important and necessary alternative to movement conservatism and its tendency to subordinate conservative principles of wisdom, prudence, and restraint to the needs of partisan loyalty and ideological obsessions. Since its founding, the magazine and its website have been the principled voice of conservative opposition to the many follies of the Bush and Obama eras, and they have also been the reliable defender of local communities, constitutional government, a broad distribution of power and wealth, and the causes of liberty and peace. That defense is needed now as much as it has ever been.

Over the last twenty-one months, TAC has been a consistent critic of the ill-conceived military intervention in Iraq and Syria, and we have been leading opponents of calls to escalate that war in recent months. We have also been calling attention to U.S. support for the appalling Saudi-led war on Yemen since it began last March, and we are one of the only American publications to pay close attention to U.S. support for this conflict and the devastating effects of the war there. Thanks to the generous support of our readers, we hosted a successful conference promoting a foreign policy of realism and restraint last November, and this spring we held another well-received panel on the foreign policy implications of the 2016 election.

We continue to warn against the folly of wars of choice and the dangers of enabling reckless client states, but we have also been arguing for the importance of diplomatic engagement with Iran and Cuba. TAC is a valuable resource for all Americans that want to rediscover a foreign policy conservatism that is dedicated to securing the national interest without being wedded to perpetual war. We offer a thoughtful conservative answer to both the excesses of demagogues and the fanaticism of ideologues. We have been promoting the cause of reforming and improving the foreign policy debate in the Republican Party and in the country as a whole since our inception. Our arguments are more necessary than ever as the U.S. will be fighting the new war in Iraq and Syria for years to come.

As the next general election approaches, the need for a conservative message of peace and restraint is clear. Both parties continue to be dominated by their most hawkish factions, and there is today virtually no debate within either party over whether our government should continue to wage open-ended wars. This year’s election results so far show that there are large constituencies in both parties that are open to and interested in a much less meddlesome and interventionist foreign policy, but they continue to be grossly underrepresented in Washington and in our foreign policy debates. TAC offers a critically important voice for all Americans that want a foreign policy governed by respect for the Constitution, an understanding of the limits of American power, and the responsible and just use of that power abroad.

In order to keep doing this important work, The American Conservative needs the continued support of its readers, without whom we would be able to do nothing. All donations to the magazine are tax-deductible, and anything that you are able to give would be greatly appreciated. If you are able to donate something, please donate here.

If you would like to make a donation by check, you can make your check payable to American Ideas Institute (the foundation that publishes The American Conservative) and mail to: the American Ideas Institute, 910 17th Street, NW, #312, Washington, DC 20006-2626.

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Obstacles to Foreign Policy Restraint

Juan Camilo Bernal / Shutterstock.com

Emma Ashford reviews the recent Advancing American Security conference, and adds this:

Despite these attempts at engagement, realist and restraint-oriented perspectives, whether from inside or outside the Beltway, remain a relative rarity in Washington, where broadly interventionist ideas tend to dominate among both Democrats and Republicans. Indeed, last week also saw the release of a report by the Center for a New American Security, co-authored by former officials from both the Obama and Bush administrations, which argued for the extension and expansion of American power and presence around the globe. With the report’s 10 signatories dominated by liberal internationalist and neoconservative voices, it is no surprise that it calls for various expansive policies, including a no-fly zone in Syria, a focus on undermining Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, providing arms to Ukraine, and a call to “significantly increase U.S. national security and defense spending.”

Continuing bipartisan support for overseas meddling in the name of global “leadership” remains a major obstacle to a more restrained U.S. foreign policy, and so it is worth thinking a bit more about why that support persists in spite of numerous costly failures since the end of the Cold War.

One reason why restraint hasn’t gained more adherents in Washington is that it is always easier to accept the prevailing consensus than it is to dissent from it. Poor and distorted information about the state of the world probably also has something to do with it. Foreign conflicts in which the U.S. has little or nothing at stake seize media attention, and that prompts calls for “action” and reinforces the false impression that much of the world is in chaos. The reality that the world is overall more peaceful and secure than it has been in over a century receives virtually no coverage because there is nothing dramatic or attention-grabbing about the absence of conflict. Some of the relatively few pockets of instability around the world garner that much more attention because there are so few of them, and it is taken for granted out of habit that the U.S. has both the right and obligation to police these areas. The extent of U.S. power and the lack of any major threat to America itself makes our policymakers overconfident and reckless, and it causes them to look for new conflicts to join rather than find ways to steer clear of them.

One might think that the extraordinary security of the U.S. would make our foreign policy less activist and meddlesome because it is no way necessary to keep Americans secure, but it is because we are so secure that our government can “get away with” being heedless and irresponsible in its conduct of foreign policy. The U.S. can interfere in numerous countries, take sides in civil wars that have nothing to do with us, and even embark on disastrous wars of our own without really putting the U.S. in grave jeopardy, and that allows every administration regardless of party to intervene more freely and unnecessarily than a less secure government could. Bad policies are often cast aside only when their costs become intolerable for a large number of people at home, but the costs of U.S. foreign policy are usually borne by a relative few in the U.S. and are otherwise borne by the peoples of other countries.

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Report: Ryan to Endorse Trump

meltechfoto / Shutterstock.com

Paul Ryan will reportedly give in fully to Trump:

Senior level Trump campaign sources confirmed to ABC News Wednesday that House Speaker Paul Ryan will be endorsing presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.

As I noted last week, Ryan has a record of falling in line behind his party leadership. The same instinct not to rock the boat during the Bush years that made him a reliable vote for the previous administration’s costly and reckless agenda is the one that appears to be leading him to get behind Trump. It’s not a surprising choice for Ryan, but it will be amusing to see his fans in conservative media treat it as one. I have never understood Republican enthusiasm for Ryan, but it’s probably a phenomenon I won’t have to try to understand for much longer. Many of his admirers have presented him as some fiscal conservative hero that was completely at odds with his voting record for most of his career in the House, but a Trump endorsement will give them reason to remember that record in detail. Ryan has received such glowing coverage in conservative media for the last five years, but now I assume that this sort of coverage is going to diminish for the foreseeable future.

Ryan’s predicament all along is that he can’t openly oppose Trump without undermining his political future, but he has had to appear reluctant to support Trump or risk being written off by the same media boosters that have supported him until now. Once he finally endorses, he’s bound to lose most of the latter. It is doubtful that he will win much goodwill from rank-and-file Republicans later on.

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Why Hillary Clinton Is So Disliked

David Brooks wonders why Hillary Clinton is so unpopular:

There are two paradoxes to her unpopularity. First, she was popular not long ago. As secretary of state she had a 66 percent approval rating. Even as recently as March 2015 her approval rating was at 50 and her disapproval rating was at 39.

It’s only since she launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to impress the American people that she has made herself so strongly disliked.

This isn’t a paradox at all, since this is what was bound to happen once she became a candidate again. For whatever reason, current and former Secretaries of State usually enjoy high favorability ratings. It seems that these people are viewed as being above politics, or at least they are not judged as harshly when they are serving in a Cabinet position. When Clinton moved back into electoral politics and started pursuing her own ambitions, she started to be judged more severely by Republicans and Democrats alike. Everyone has been reminded of the things that they don’t like about her over the last year and a half.

The presidential campaign has made voters remember her coziness with Wall Street and her foreign policy hawkishness, neither of which endears her to the left. She is still in the midst of a nomination fight against a generally well-liked opponent who has been hitting her on this record, and many of his supporters have come to view her unfavorably over the course of the campaign. Many of them will likely come around to voting for her, but for the moment they view her negatively. Almost all conservatives dislike her out of a combination of ideology and habit. Bear in mind that she has been a figure of consistent loathing on the right for almost a quarter century, and she has been a fixture in Washington for almost all of that time. There is an entire generation of Republicans that have been told since they were kids that she is horrible, and she has not done much to disabuse them of that idea. For a lot of the rest, she is an embodiment of the political class at its worst: calculating and cynical.

Brooks supposes that Clinton is not liked because she is perceived to be consumed by her public career. That may be part of it, but I suspect the bigger problem for her as a political figure is that she has been on the national stage so long that most of us are just sick of seeing and hearing her. Familiarity breeds contempt, and Americans are very familiar with Clinton. As Brooks points out, she has been in “public service” for decades, but then most Americans nowadays don’t consider that to be admirable or praiseworthy. When they consider what Clinton has achieved during that time, they are probably even less impressed.

Once the Democratic nomination fight ends and their party unifies, her favorability numbers are likely to improve as Sanders supporters begin to appreciate the things they do like about her, but those numbers aren’t going to improve that much. Clinton is simply too well-known to us, and our opinions of her are too well-formed to be changed now.

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A Trump-Corker Ticket?

US Embassy Moldova/Flickr

Sen. Bob Corker met with Donald Trump yesterday:

Sen. Bob Corker, who is rumored to be on Donald Trump’s short list for vice president, said Monday that he had “a good meeting about foreign policy and domestic issues” with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

Corker, who said he’d never met with Trump before, downplayed the VP speculation, adding he had no reason to believe he was being considered for the #2 slot.

Corker had previously given Trump’s foreign policy speech a qualified positive review, and Trump has expressed interest in finding a running mate that understands the workings of Congress, so adding Corker to the ticket would seem to make some sense. It would still be a somewhat curious choice for Trump to make. Immigration isn’t the only issue that matters to Trump supporters, but they wouldn’t be pleased to have a supporter of the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill on the ticket. If the first rule in selecting a running mate is supposed to be to do no harm it is hard to see how Corker would be a good choice. Corker is usually seen as a moderate in the party, and Trump needs to shore up support with ideological movement conservatives, so it doesn’t really help him in unifying the Republicans head of the convention. The idea of putting Corker on the ticket is receiving some support from other Senate Republicans, but it’s not clear who else would be reassured or encouraged by the choice.

On foreign policy, Corker has a mostly bad record. He was one of a handful of Republicans to vote for New START ratification in 2010, but other than that I am hard-pressed to come up with an example of something Corker has gotten right. Hard-liners see him as the facilitator of the nuclear deal, but the reality is that the Corker-Cardin bill was an unnecessary bit of Congressional meddling that could have sabotaged the agreement. It failed to derail the deal only because most Democrats stayed on Obama’s side. Corker wanted the deal stopped, and said so many times. He has also affirmed his support for the appalling backing the U.S. has given the Saudis and their allies in Yemen. A Corker aide said that the senator believed that the Saudi-led intervention would “end the conflict, facilitate humanitarian relief, and restore the legitimate government of Yemen,” which would be laughable if it weren’t so obnoxious. Corker says he liked parts of Trump’s speech because he thought he heard “a degree of realism stepping back into U.S. foreign policy,” but since he took over at Foreign Relations Corker’s own realism has been notably absent.

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Kristol and the Anti-Trump Protest Campaign

Gage Skidmore / cc

Bill Kristol unwittingly confirms that there will be no anti-Trump protest candidate:

It’s unclear whether a credible independent candidate will choose to step forward. But there are many more such candidates than are dreamt of by conventional commentators and operatives. Recent attempts to write obituaries for the Never Trump/Never Clinton effort are wildly premature [bold mine-DL]. Something new and different can be difficult to imagine for the old and tired. And our political class and pundit elites are nothing if not old and tired.

Kristol’s pronouncements on all sorts of things are useful for identifying the things that won’t or can’t happen. If he believes there is still a chance for something to occur, that chance never existed or has since vanished, and if he is certain that something will not take place it is a safe bet that it will. His involvement in trying to recruit a protest candidate this year was probably the earliest, best indication that the effort was doomed to fail. Kristol is the quintessential pundit elite, and he has the incredibly shoddy record to prove it.

There is something especially absurd in describing the protest presidential campaign he wants to have as being “new and different” when the point of the protest effort has been to affirm a stale, discredited party agenda that at least half of Republicans have rejected to one degree or another. It isn’t difficult to imagine what this would look like, because we have seen it on display many times before, and most Republican primary voters wanted something else this year. Nothing could be more “old and tired” than trying to create a splinter faction devoted to unreconstructed Bushism, and that is one reason why there is so little support for it.

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Saudi Distortions and the War on Yemen

UN OCHA / Philippe Kropf, via Flickr

Thomas Juneau explained last week that Yemen’s Houthis are not Iranian puppets:

Saudi Arabia claims that the Houthis are an Iranian proxy, leading it to frame the war as an effort to counter Iran’s influence. The Saudis are not the only ones to label the Houthis puppets of Iran. Politicians and media in the West, in particular, also frequently describe them as Iranian proxies.

Yet as I argue in a recent article in the May 2016 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal, Tehran’s support for the Houthis is limited, and its influence in Yemen is marginal. It is simply inaccurate to claim that the Houthis are Iranian proxies [bold mine-DL].

Instead, the war in Yemen is driven by local grievances and competition for power among Yemeni actors.

I have pointed out Iran’s negligible role in Yemen several times before, but it bears repeating because so many of the reports on the Saudi-led intervention have accepted the Saudis’ self-serving, dishonest framing of the conflict. The Saudis’ intervention has received very little scrutiny or criticism in the West, and one reason for that it is that it been presented to Western audiences as a “response” to supposed Iranian “expansionism.” The reality is that any influence Iran has gained in the country has come about as a result of the Saudi intervention:

The irony, of course, is that one of Saudi Arabia’s stated objectives for intervening in Yemen in March 2015 was to roll back a mostly fictitious Iranian influence. The intervention, however, is having the opposite effect: The Houthis are a small non-state actor attacked by a regional power with deep pockets and advanced weaponry. It is then only rational for the Houthis to seek assistance, albeit only small amounts, from the only external power willing and able to support them — Iran.

The false claim that Iran is “on the march” in the region has been a standard talking point for opponents of the nuclear deal with Iran, because they were desperate to change the subject and to make Iran seem much more powerful than it is. That claim has also become an excuse for endorsing whatever reckless action our regional clients happen to take and spinning it as a “reaction” to Iranian behavior. It has helped the Saudis to present their aggressive and unnecessary military intervention in Yemen as a “defensive” measure, and it has obscured the fact that they and their allies are the ones doing the most to destabilize the region. The U.S. and Britain would presumably have gone along with supporting the war on Yemen anyway, but the specter of growing Iranian influence has helped to mute criticism of the war and U.S.-British backing of it.

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There Is No Hillary Clinton ‘Doctrine’

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Jeffrey Stacey is looking forward to how Clinton will conduct foreign policy, which he assumes would have magically remedied almost all current problems overseas:

But had the Clinton Doctrine been in place over the last four years, odds are that the United States could have kept Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council happy, deterred Putin from intervening in Syria, removed the Assad regime from power, and gotten the UN to shepherd a governance transition after his removal. Libya would have been a more stable (albeit struggling) country as well. In Asia, Washington would have seen Beijing’s hard-liners have less influence in Chinese affairs. And in Europe, Clinton could have made U.S. allies provide a greater share of their own security burden. Plus, a Clinton administration would have also been able to negotiate a successful nuclear deal with Iran.

Stacey is right that Clinton would have been and will be more aggressive than Obama has been, but that’s about all that one can say for this panegyric masquerading as analysis. As far as the author is concerned, there is no situation that a more forceful and militarized response wouldn’t have made better. In practice, what he keeps calling the Clinton “doctrine” is just unfocused meddling in every conflict that comes along. That is a fair summary of Clinton’s foreign policy record, but it doesn’t have much to recommend it.

He says that she would have directly intervened in Syria early on, which might be true, but there is no attempt to explain why this would have been a desirable thing for the U.S. to do. He also assumes that Clinton would have removed Assad from power, which would have very likely made Syria even more chaotic and unstable than it is, but says nothing about the cost of doing that. It’s likely that toppling the Syrian government would have delivered the rest of Syria into the hands of jihadist groups with the resulting expulsions and massacres of religious minorities that would have presumably followed. The Clinton “doctrine” might very well produce such an outcome, but this is one reason why she shouldn’t be trusted with the presidency. The idea that Libya would have been more stable if Clinton had been in charge is a blatant attempt to wish away the serious consequences of one of Clinton’s biggest errors in government.

Some of the other assertions are even harder to take seriously. Clinton “could have made” allies take on a larger share of their own defense? How? Does she possess some mind control powers no one is yet aware of? Stacey claims that she would have also somehow caused hard-liners in China to have less influence at home. It’s not clear how that would have happened, since she is more likely to take a confrontational approach when dealing with China that would seem to play into the hands of hard-liners in Beijing. The bigger problems here are that all of this ascribes to Clinton a level of competence in executing foreign policy than is nowhere in evidence in her record, and Stacey assumes that the U.S. has the ability to compel and shape foreign behavior to a much greater degree than it actually does.

One of the more glaring contradictions in this paean to Clinton is the claim that she could have negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran and kept the Saudis and the GCC “happy.” It should be obvious by now that the Saudis and the GCC won’t be “happy” unless the U.S. does everything they want at our own expense, and part of that would have meant not pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran. Stacey wants us to believe that Clinton could have avoided making any trade-off between securing U.S. interests and keeping regional clients satisfied, but it is impossible to miss from the clients’ own reactions to the nuclear deal that they cannot be placated no matter how many weapons or how much support Washington throws at them. It also seems misguided to assume that Clinton would have pursued the nuclear deal as president, since she was consistently the most skeptical member of the administration when it came to engaging Iran diplomatically.

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The Week’s Most Interesting Reads

Clinton’s hawk-in-waiting. Philip Giraldi reviews the record of Victoria Nuland, a likely Clinton choice for Secretary of State.

Foreign policy and the failure of the marketplace of ideas. Trevor Thrall finds that U.S. media outlets have been misrepresenting the expanding U.S. military involvement in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen for years.

The false neoconservative claim of consensus. Paul Pillar objects to Eliot Cohen’s claim that neoconservatives have been part of a broad foreign policy consensus dating back to the ’50s.

LBJ, Vietnam, and the political costs of fighting a hopeless war. Michael Cohen details why Johnson persisted in a failed war.

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