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Argue Like It’s 1991

It’s tough to believe in the context of today’s imperial paralysis, but for a fleeting moment at the end of the Cold War, the foreign-policy community was so off balance that America had a meaningful, wide-ranging debate about the ends of American foreign policy and the means to pursue them. In a series of essays published first by The National Interest, and then compiled into a 1991 book titled America’s Purpose, conservatives, neocons, and libertarians hashed out their differences. Or tried to, anyway.

The depth of the analysis demonstrated a much greater willingness than has existed at any point since to respond to questions of why we have a foreign policy and what it is supposed to do. One of many strange-bedfellows moments came in the opening paragraph of neoconservative author Nathan Glazer’s essay, “A Time for Modesty”:

There is a good deal of extravagance, to my mind, in the first two chapters in this volume, by Charles Krauthammer and Nathan Tarcov. Whatever other disagreements I may have with Patrick J. Buchanan, I find nothing objectionable in his flat assertion, ‘When this Cold War is over, America should come home.’

Just a few years later, however, Washington had settled on an uneasy compromise: no direct plunge into empire, but no coherent strategy for shedding the myriad commitments America had taken on during the Cold War either. Moreover, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and the first President Bush’s effective shepherding of an international coalition to repel it, led much of the world to believe that the “new world order” was a sort of managerial unipolarity whereby America would marshal the world’s resources and legitimacy to protect the globe against threats collectively agreed upon.

Since then, obviously, the bloom has come off the rose. After the first Bush administration, hard questions had to be answered. Should NATO expand or disband? Should we liquidate or sustain U.S. military bases in South Korea, Japan, and Europe? Was Russia a defeated enemy to be held down or a new partner to be embraced? Could China be trusted? And over time, conservatives and liberals alike came to embrace a sort of imperialism by default: keep and ultimately expand NATO; maintain our defense commitments to South Korea, Japan, and Europe; and drift uneasily between attempts to engage Russia where we saw leverage and contain her where we saw ambition. The China question was bandied about in the mid-1990s, with the establishment deciding to engage her economically and contain her militarily. And so it went.

But in truth, since that brief fracas at the end of the Cold War, there has not been a sustained, serious debate about U.S. foreign policy. Indeed, the discussion in Washington has grown increasingly crabbed, with members of the interventionist consensus merely haggling over process questions, mostly on partisan lines. Think tanks, ostensibly in place to foster open debate, have become insular and riddled by groupthink. The American Enterprise Institute, for example, with far more influence on the current administration than any other, has stretched the bounds of intellectual honesty to the breaking point.

To assess the viability of the Iraq surge strategy, AEI invited the two authors of the surge, Frederick W. Kagan and retired Gen. Jack Keane. To provide the impression of balance, the institute invited as a critic James Miller, a scholar from the center-left Center for a New American Security, whose report on Iraq agrees that the United States should stay in Iraq—but leave around 2012. Thus, for AEI the range of debate on what to do in Iraq in 2007 runs from “stay until victory” to “stay another 5 years.”

As another example, to discuss Michael Ledeen’s book on Iran, AEI invited Clifford May and R. James Woolsey. May is a hawkish former communications director for the RNC, and Woolsey is the neoconservative former director of the CIA who praised Norman Podhoretz’s World War IV as “a huge service to truth and history.” Ledeen, in turn, authored in the New York Sun a fawning review of John Bolton’s memoir—despite the fact that Bolton is his colleague at AEI. The replacement of forums with rallies and queries with fatwas has crippled the debate in Washington.

But there are several signs that the interventionist consensus is coming under increased scrutiny. The first is the undeniable success of Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s campaign for president. Though still languishing in in the polls, Paul shattered the single-day Republican fundraising record by pulling in more than $4 million on Nov. 5. The campaign had been garnering major attention from a media that is certainly not favorably inclined ideologically, with Paul appearing on the “Tonight Show” and in other high-profile venues. Paul is running on two major policy issues: returning to the gold standard and reversing the U.S. policy of attempting to run the Middle East. It’s left to the reader to determine to which of those policies we should ascribe his success.

There has also been a flurry of discussion in the foreign- policy community that hearkens back to the sweeping debate in 1991. Barry Posen, the head of the security studies program at MIT, penned an essay on grand strategy in the November/December issue of the The American Interest entitled “The Case for Restraint.” Posen’s argument includes three main proposals: “The United States needs to be more reticent about the use of military force; more modest about the scope for political transformation within and among countries; and more distant politically and militarily from traditional allies.”

After making a thorough case for his strategy, Posen cannot resist noting in closing that the interventionist consensus arrived at after the Cold War has been tested and failed. By contrast, he proposes that America should “conceive its security interests narrowly, use its military power stingily, pursue its enemies quietly but persistently, share responsibilities and costs more equitably, watch and wait more patiently. Let’s do this for 16 years and see if the outcomes aren’t better.”

While the essay elicited surprisingly positive comments from reformed neocon Francis Fukuyama as well as from others, it sent interventionists of all stripes into apoplexy. From the left, former Princeton professor John Ikenberry complained that “the Iraq war will be rendered all the more tragic if it leads America to pull back from its European and Asian security partnerships and its leadership in maintaining the institutional bases of global order.” Likewise, conservative Josef Joffe complained that Posen’s strategy amounts to the familiar bogeyman of “isolationism.” Joffe then turned President Reagan’s dictum about “peace through strength” on its head by arguing that “a great power must carry great burdens or else it stops being one.” By this feeble logic, America would be even greater by taking on more commitments.

On the heels of Posen’s article came an essay in the November/December issue of Foreign Affairs by Columbia professor Richard K. Betts making the argument—unthinkable six years ago—that the defense budget is too big. Not including the supplemental spending for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States spends roughly as much on defense as does the rest of the world combined—and still almost all political figures insist we need to spend even more. Betts argues,“Washington spends so much and yet feels so insecure because U.S. policymakers have lost the ability to think clearly about defense policy.”

Betts’s most devastating point is that even the increases in military spending that have been proposed by the most hawkish presidential candidates would be woefully inadequate for supporting their imperial foreign policies. He sees “a defense budget caught between two stools: higher than needed for basic security but far lower than required to eliminate all villainous governments and groups everywhere.” It is this disconnect that has precipitated the most striking development in the debate over American national security in recent years: the bold entry of uniformed U.S. military officers into the debates over grand strategy and foreign policy.

Since the military lives or dies on the solvency of American foreign policy, it is understandable that the men and women who have been harmed most by the Bush administration’s foreign policy are feeling the need to weigh in. Although traditionally reticent about voicing their policy views in popular media, uniformed military personnel, both active duty and retired, have increasingly been speaking out. From Army Lt. Col. Paul Yingling’s article “A Failure in Generalship” in the Armed Forces Journal, to the pessimistic August New York Times article authored by seven officers stationed in Iraq, to retired Gen. John Abizaid’s recent comments that the United States could live with a nuclear Iran, military officers are entering the debates over foreign policy, perhaps concerned that the discussion as it stood was failing to provide the kind of strategy worthy of their sacrifice.

All of this intellectual ferment taken together is only a small sign of change taking place post-Iraq. Domestic lobbies, the military-industrial complex, and particularly the media and political leadership will all have significant influence on the narrative of “who lost Iraq?” And it remains to be seen whether that disaster will be taken as a misstep in an otherwise sound policy or an indictment of the policy more broadly. But there are heartening signs that, at this point, we could be headed for a serious re-evaluation of how we got here. Grading on a curve, it would be a good first step.

Justin Logan is associate director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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