Fred Hiatt is unhappy that some people call warmongers by the proper name:
Those who argue for a more vigorous international role are sometimes caricatured as war-loving and unilateralist when, in fact, an activist stance has been favored by Democrats from Harry Truman to Madeleine Albright and Republicans from Richard Nixon to Colin Powell. It would be no fairer to label them all bellicose neocons than to call Obama a pure isolationist.
Not all internationalists are “war-loving and unilateralist,” and it’s obvious that neoconservatives and other Republican hard-liners do not represent the majority of internationalists, but it is quite fair to describe people who routinely call for unilateral and/or U.S.-led military action in response to virtually every international crisis in that way. The most hard-line advocates for “a more vigorous international role” would be less likely to be criticized in these terms if their idea of “vigor” weren’t so often limited to the imposition of cruel sanctions regimes, bombing and invading other countries, and deposing foreign governments. When these people speak of a “robust” or “forward-leaning” or “vigorous” U.S. role, we know that in practice this means more wars, increased costs to the U.S. military, additional lives squandered, more destabilized and chaotic countries, and more anti-Americanism around the world.
When they warn against “disengagement” or “retreat,” as Hiatt does, the rest of us hear demands that the U.S. maintain an unsustainable, hyper-active foreign policy regardless of the costs and benefits. The debate is not between supporters of an activist foreign policy vs. their critics, but between the hyper-activist hard-liners and everyone else. The Hagel debate is one microcosm of that larger argument, and Hiatt and his paper have been on the wrong and losing side of both.
The silliest part of Hiatt’s article is the claim that previous U.S. “retreats” have somehow invited trouble:
But if the United States retreats too quickly and too far, history will reach out to grab us back.
Of course, “history” isn’t doing anything, and there is nothing that says that the U.S. is fated by history to have a particular role in the world. What dragged the U.S. into the last decade and more of conflict wasn’t an overly hasty retreat in the 1990s, but an ongoing, deep involvement in other countries’ affairs that comes back to bite us every so often. The response beginning in 2001 was to deepen and intensify that involvement even more, which has cost the U.S. a great deal and resolved very little, and to create new generations of enemies that may “grab us” again in the future.