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Foreign Policy Priorities and the Hawkish Desire to Be “Focused Everywhere”

Ross Douthat faults [1] Republican hawkish candidates for their refusal to set priorities in foreign policy:

The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.

Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once.

Douthat could be right about this, but it depends on what one means by escalation. Practically every Republican presidential candidate has gone out of his way to say that he would reject any deal with Iran. A few have speculated recently about attacking Iran. Beyond that, the Republican field is almost unanimously in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine, doing “more” against ISIS (including sending ground forces into combat), and trying to “roll back” Iranian influence. They don’t have any “clear strategic priorities” because they have no interest in setting any. That isn’t an oversight. It is a reflection of their belief that the U.S. must be “leading” everywhere in response to whatever the latest conflict happens to be. The obsession with always “leading” in every case makes it almost impossible to respond effectively anywhere, because U.S. attention and resources are spread too thin and the public quickly grows tired of being told that every problem around the world is ours to solve.

Reading Douthat’s column, I was reminded of something Tom Cotton said in his interview [2] with Jeffrey Goldberg from a couple weeks ago:

I think there’s something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower can’t pivot. You have to be focused everywhere [bold mine-DL].

It is not possible to be “focused everywhere.” By definition, to focus on certain parts of the world requires that the U.S. pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the rest. If one region is in focus, the others are not going to be. Recognizing that U.S. resources and power are finite, it is necessary to choose how they will be employed. Hard-liners like Cotton don’t believe that this choice has to be made. To imagine that the U.S. could be “focused everywhere” is to admit that one has no clue how to conduct foreign policy. Hard-liners such as Cotton may be deeply enamored of America’s role as “the global superpower,” but they can’t grasp that some interests are more important and take higher priority. They don’t understand the need to make trade-offs, and they can’t tell which interests are truly vital and which are not. All of this comes from the hawkish obsession with “American exceptionalism” and “leadership.” That blinds them to the limits of American power and the reality that the U.S. does not need to take an active, much less leading, role in response to every crisis that shows up in the headlines.

11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Foreign Policy Priorities and the Hawkish Desire to Be “Focused Everywhere”"

#1 Comment By Tom On April 27, 2015 @ 2:28 am

Is Tom Cotton some kind of Rip van Winkle who just woke up from the year 1945?

Somebody needs to tell him that we don’t control 50% of world GDP anymore. We don’t have the resources to stick our fingers in everybody’s pie. If we try that, we’ll go broke.

#2 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 27, 2015 @ 5:12 am

It’s remarkably bipartisan. SOS Kerry had his own Road to Damascus (and every other one-way passage to conflict) moment on the way back from Kiev, when he bloviated he’s discovered that there was no spot on Earth so remote that what happened there was not essential to American interests. Palin was at least accidentally right to ask who the real Americans are, because whoever’s interests those are, they’re surely not mine nor likely yours, either.

#3 Comment By Uncle Billy On April 27, 2015 @ 6:41 am

So Cotton wants the US to be world policeman, and “focus” on every problem on earth? Perhaps we should invade, occupy and install puppet governments all over the world? Oh wait, we tried that in Iraq, and how did that go? Cotton is not fit to be a county alderman, much less in the US Congress. The man is dangerous.

#4 Comment By AnotherBeliever On April 27, 2015 @ 8:34 am

“By definition, to focus on certain parts of the world requires that the U.S. pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the rest. If one region is in focus, the others are not going to be. Recognizing that U.S. resources and power are finite, it is necessary to choose how they will be employed.”

The neocons think national security policy works like an action movie, where the good guy never has to reload, just is his cause, and his clip of ammo infinite.

#5 Comment By collin On April 27, 2015 @ 8:44 am

After reading Ross’s points against Obama’s second term, you would wish there was only a peace deal with a large Middle East nation we could finalize.

#6 Comment By John Spragge On April 27, 2015 @ 10:23 am

In 1945, the United States controlled 50% of the world GDP… and the top marginal tax rate was 94%. At that time, Americans didn’t wage war on the never-never; they understood that choosing military power and political influence meant paying for these goods. That made Americans aware of the painful trade-offs inherent in using military power. Selling a belligerent policy with unrealistic promises has a long history in American politics, from the assurances that the Iraq war would pay for itself, right back to Jefferson’s “mere matter of marching”. It never makes sense to trust politicians who promise an “easy” war.

#7 Comment By Essayist-Lawyer On April 27, 2015 @ 12:02 pm

It’s things like this that convince me that winning the Cold War was a mixed blessing. Seeing the supposedly invincible Soviet Union fall without firing a shot convinced way to many people that the US is invicible and has infinite power to get what it wants if only we have enough “will power.”

#8 Comment By cfountain72 On April 27, 2015 @ 12:14 pm

I tweeted this line about Dan’s blog on Bush as well. And so I offer it for Cotton as well..

“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” -Mark Twain

Peace be with you.

#9 Comment By Kurzleg On April 27, 2015 @ 12:29 pm

Setting aside whether or not it’s even possible to focus on every foreign policy issue in the world, why is that the financial implications of foreign policy choices are always ignored by Republicans while the financial implications of domestic policy choices are never ignored by them? Money is never an obstacle to sending our soldiers and weapons all over the world, but it’s always an obstacle when it’s spent here in our own country for the benefit of our citizens.

#10 Comment By Unready On April 27, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

Arkansas made a mistake sending this punk to DC as a full-fledged senator. He’s 38 but talks and acts like an 18 year old college kid and has said and done more stupid things in his first few months in office than others will over their whole careers.

#11 Comment By Junior On April 27, 2015 @ 7:14 pm

I beg to differ! The GOP’s foreign policy priorities are INCREDIBLY focused just like me. Take for example when their — LOOK! SHINY THINGS!