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Ignore the Free-Riding International Peanut Gallery

Control Washington and you control the world. At least, that is what many foreign interests believe. Other countries have long had strong opinions about what America should do internationally, and have sought to see those ideas implemented in D.C. No surprise, then, that what they propose usually benefits them more than Americans.

America’s policymakers should ignore this advice, no matter how fervently it’s offered. And if any president is willing to tell this self-interested chorus to shut up, it is Donald Trump.

Among the notable nations lobbying for America’s attention are Israel and Taiwan, otherwise isolated and vulnerable governments that seek Washington’s military backing. Greece and Turkey have carried their battle in the eastern Mediterranean back to D.C., as they fight over America’s role there. Kosovar insurgents worked with ethnic Albanians in the U.S. to push Washington into the Yugoslav civil war in 1999. Gulf countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, spread cash lavishly around the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to pressure American policymakers into such atrocities as the Yemen war.

The consequences can be long-lasting. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the governments of the newly freed Eastern European states lobbied to join NATO. Their diasporas in the United States—derisively called “hyphenated Americans” during World War I—helped win Washington’s support. The result was a rapid expansion of NATO to Russia’s borders, compounding humiliation with hostility, which continues to bedevil the West’s relations with Moscow today.


Sometimes foreigners talk as if they should be consulted and heeded whenever U.S. policymakers act. In many cases, Washington has created this problem. Alliances in which other states theoretically have authority over American military deployments encourage foreign meddling. For instance, the Obama administration intervened in Libya at least partially in response to pressure from Rome and Paris, which wanted to use the transatlantic alliance to oust Libyan strongman Moammar Gaddafi. Europeans were essentially returning the favor by which Washington had dragged them into the seemingly endless Afghan war, which never made sense for them.

NATO is particularly problematic, since it’s made ever less sense as foreign threats have diminished, Europeans’ capabilities increased, and gaps between allies’ interests expanded. Although America remains the big kahuna, recently empowered “friends” assert authority over U.S. decisions and behavior. Today, the transatlantic alliance is made up of one transcendent military power, America, and eight moderately important nations with serious, or at least potentially serious, militaries: Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain, Turkey, and the United Kingdom.

The remaining score of NATO members are, well, largely irrelevant. That doesn’t mean they don’t contribute to and suffer losses in Western military operations—as The Netherlands has, for example. But what they do doesn’t and never will make much of a difference. Yet they sit at the NATO table as nominal equals. Of these 20, three have populations of less than one million, while another 11 come in at under 10 million. Incoming member (Northern) Macedonia barely breaks the two million barrier.

Why the pretense that the opinions of micro-states Iceland, Luxembourg, and Montenegro matter to Washington? Why should governments with more than their shares of controversies—Albania, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Hungary, and even Poland—theoretically have a say on the use of the alliance’s one military that really matters? Imagine if Georgia, which helped provoke war with Russia in 2008, and Ukraine, which ended up in conflict with Moscow after a street putsch backed by the West ousted their elected president, joined NATO. Tbilisi and Kiev would push to borrow the U.S. military to fight their wars. Who would blame them? But it certainly would not be in America’s interest to let them.

This presumptuousness reaches beyond European security. French President Emmanuel Macron apparently called President Donald Trump to complain about the latter’s decision to withdraw from Syria, which he said he “deeply” regretted. Added Macron, “An ally must be dependable,” which apparently means that America must forever maintain a deployment illegal under both U.S. and international law. Macron said that French troops would remain, proclaiming: “To be allies is to fight shoulder to shoulder.” But that fight should stop when the justification for fighting has ended.

Around the same time, an unnamed Israeli official was quoted as being “in shock” at the president’s decision. Obviously Trump hadn’t read his intelligence briefing, explained the Israeli: after all, there were Iranians in Syria! But so what? Perhaps President Trump decided that Washington doesn’t have to do everything for everyone in the Middle East. There is a very powerful, nuclear-armed nation next door to Syria that so far has done quite well protecting itself. Perhaps that country could take care of the Iran-in-Syria problem, in the unlikely event that it poses a serious threat.

Israeli Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked complained that the withdrawal would hurt the Kurds, whom she characterized as “allies” and “great heroes.” Moreover, the pull-out “strengthens [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, an antisemitic war criminal who carries out massacres of the Kurdish people, and does so with a wink from the international community.” Well, why doesn’t her country—the one with nuclear weapons and a strong conventional military force—rescue the Kurds? Israel is there and has far greater interests at stake than does America.

It is not just foreign leaders who complain about U.S. policy. There is hardly a war that some foreigner somewhere is not busy advocating that Washington join or start.

For instance, The Economist, a British magazine, recently headlined an article: “A deal to end the insurgency in Afghanistan would be wonderful: As long as it is not a figleaf to cover an American retreat.” Really? After 17 years of unsuccessfully trying to plant a liberal democracy in Afghanistan, the only logical U.S. policy is to exit—with figleaf if possible, but without if necessary.

After the president announced his intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria, the Financial Times, a United Kingdom newspaper, declared that the decision made America appear “erratic and inconsistent.” Indeed, the United States needed a new defense secretary “to stand up to the president’s wilder impulses,” like making sure America stayed involved in the Syrian war as long as the FT thought necessary. The paper was horrified that the withdrawal “constitutes, too, an abandonment of key allies” and “signals, more broadly, a US retreat from the Middle East.” Perhaps the anonymous FT writers should form a volunteer unit to patrol the Mideast in America’s stead. After all, it was British and French line-drawing post-World War I that created the current national boundaries that are failing so badly.

Roger Boyes, diplomatic editor of The Times of London, headlined his article: “Only the US can rein in ambitions of Iran.” And not just “can.” Boyes explained, “As the Syrian war nears its end, Trump must find ways to loosen Tehran’s grip on the region.” Frankly, I don’t remember Americans asking him for his advice. Why the U.S.? Is there no one else available? Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey? That unnamed country that already possesses nukes? Toss in a little assistance from the Brits and French, too.

Truth be told, Iran is a weak regional power that uses irregular warfare because it lacks conventional strength. Missiles are its deterrence against better armed, threatening neighbors. It certainly doesn’t endanger America, with the globe’s greatest military. Israel, too, can launch a devastating retaliation against any attack. Saudi Arabia alone spends more than five times as much on its armed forces as Iran.

Perhaps Americans should be honored that so many overseas “friends” have so much free advice to offer. However, much of it is bad. Policy should be based on the interests of the U.S.—protecting its people, territory, prosperity, and system of constitutional liberties. That means advancing peace first and making war a last resort. Desiring to do good abroad cannot justify sacrificing American lives, wealth, and security in never ending war.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

23 Comments (Open | Close)

23 Comments To "Ignore the Free-Riding International Peanut Gallery"

#1 Comment By Zachary Barneyt On February 7, 2019 @ 12:53 am

Finally. It’s been articulated. Though many will cry isolationism, we cannot expand our military like we have and maintain control of anything really. We have babysat Iraq and Afghanistan but cannot solve their problems, even after so long.

#2 Comment By Client Support On February 7, 2019 @ 5:57 am

“Is there no one else available? Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf States, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey? That unnamed country that already possesses nukes? Toss in a little assistance from the Brits and French, too.”

Yes, we’ve got to stop letting foreign countries drag us into their messes, and Israel is Exhibit A, the “steadfast ally” that sat by and did nothing while we fought Middle East wars all around it for eighteen years.

(Great picture. One of Netanyahu’s many “Iran Will Have Nukes Within A Year!” speeches to Congress, right? The guy is “a fake, a phony, and a fraud!” as the late Bob Grant used to say. Speaking of which, wasn’t he just referred for prosecution for actual fraud in Israel? Is that really the kind of guy we want setting our foreign policy agenda?)

#3 Comment By Anja Mast On February 7, 2019 @ 5:58 am

Hilarious! And so true!
Perhaps if the US & Israel would admit to the world what everyone already knows—that they have hundreds of stockpiled nuclear weapons—we could abandon them to their fate in the Middle East & they might start learning how to use diplomacy with their neighbors instead of using the American military!!
Israel needs to grow up and quit whining to America to fight their battles!

#4 Comment By Michael Kenny On February 7, 2019 @ 5:59 am

The latest re-hash of the aurhor’s standard “let Putin win” line.

#5 Comment By Bd14 On February 7, 2019 @ 6:06 am

Just be careful Mr. Bandow. You could be accused of anti-semitism.

#6 Comment By Sid On February 7, 2019 @ 9:23 am

We have ourselves to blame for the world’s attitude that we are in their service. We have been pushing into (or staying in) every corner of the world since the end of WWII, ostensibly to solve the problems of other countries, not ours. We’ve set ourselves up as the 911 global police for every external or domestic dispute they have.

They are puzzled when we talk of “homeland” or “America first”. Even half our politicians openly scoff at the notion. So it should come as no surprise when the US is perceived more like a central fire station, a border-less public park, a disneyland, a warehouse of raw material — more of a staging area than a country. They’ve come to believe our propaganda, through words and actions, that we are “selfless”.

#7 Comment By Fred Bowman On February 7, 2019 @ 10:14 am

NATO just another way of saying “Need America to Take Over”. America would be much better off and have more more money to rebuild our infrastructure and create jobs if we would get rid of that “free-loading” organization and others like it.

#8 Comment By Ludwig Watzal On February 7, 2019 @ 11:04 am

An excellent piece. Trump should not only pull out of the whole Middle East but also from NATO. Nobody needs this war-prone organization anymore. If the European vassal states wont to stay in Afghanistan, Syria or elsewhere, they should stay and fight. The US should not lift a finger for the Zionist occupation regime. If Iran or the dictatorship of Saudi Arabia feels threatened by Iran, they should take care of the imaginary threat. Not Iran threatens Israel, it’s the other way around. A country that has over 200 nuclear warheads feels threatened by a state that has none is a joke. Netanyahu tried, especially under President Obama to drag the US into a confrontation with Iran. Trump shouldn’t be stupid to let that happen under his watch. Trump withdrawal plans run counter to the appointments he made. Two warmongers and ardent Zionists (Bolton and Abrams) were appointed top jobs. Instead, he should have chosen realists such as Mearsheimer, Walt and others who are much more in line with Trump’s realistic approach.

#9 Comment By Richard E Levandowski On February 7, 2019 @ 11:49 am

kinda like our “ally”, Mexico in WW2 who contributed 4 oil tankers to the cause.

#10 Comment By david On February 7, 2019 @ 11:55 am

LOL. This hypocrite author, a so-called “libertarian”, has no problem calling for selling arms to Taiwan, asking US to support the “democracy” in the island, or whatever that can help those nations in South China Sea to cause troubles with China.

Yeah, not all wars are created equal – some are more equal than others. Can’t get better irony than from this author.

#11 Comment By money back guarantee On February 7, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

Israel isn’t a “free rider”. It’s worse than that. We actually pay Israel.

We like to think of ourselves as shrewd players on the international stage, but the deal we’ve got with Israel is one of the worst ever made. A total ripoff. As of this year, the payoffs have been going on for over 40 years.

#12 Comment By JeffK On February 7, 2019 @ 3:36 pm

This is why I read TAC. True conservatism.

Is it just me, or are others getting tired of Rod’s continuous outrage over extreme outlier behavior that he always ties to progressives and leftists? The ‘Lie down with dogs’ article specifically, but other articles in general.

#13 Comment By Whine Merchant On February 7, 2019 @ 4:06 pm

I do not quarrel with much of this, but also remind readers that there is great pressure from the Military-Industrial-Information Complex within the US that fiercely drives this. The US Congress: finest government capitalism can buy!

#14 Comment By MyTwoMAGACents On February 7, 2019 @ 5:45 pm

The question is, what is in the U.S.’s (and no one else’s) national interest? U.S. involvement is more 19th and 20th century oriented, than 21st.

Middle East? Now that the U.S. is energy independent via drill baby drill and fracking, do we need to be involved, or even protect everyone else’s oil shipments from the Middle East?
I doubt it.

NATO? It’s been 70 years. Let’s be brutally honest. Europeans don’t value NATO and the U.S.’s military efforts. They see NATO as a free socialist welfare benefit they are owed, and mama U.S. protects them. Time to cut the welfare queen nations lose and reform NATO into a modern 21st century alliance – and smaller alliance – of equals and willing, e.g. U.S., Brits, etc. The rest of Europe are democracies that will remain friends, but U.S. commitment, U.S. presence, and U.S. involvement should be dialed back.

International Forums, e.g. UN. Joining, and paying the majority of $$ for international forums, should be reviewed, and many cut back. An international forum, or treaty, to have something “international” is a bad deal.

#15 Comment By bgone On February 7, 2019 @ 7:42 pm

Given that TAC is full of screeds – including many by Bandow – that purport to give advice to Trump on how to best further whatever these TACticals believe to be their own worthy agenda, the projection on other nations is understandable. After all, a lot of the Cato narrative on a “conservative” foreign policy is based on the fiction that somehow, the US and its most powerfully corrupt elites fail to pursue exactly the Great Gamble foreign policy they want, and fail to profit from it.

If you honestly believe that US foreign policy is in error, we won’t remedy that problem by peddling merely a different flavor of BS. But then, that’s Cato’s raison d’etre and its funders’ mandate.

#16 Comment By GR On February 7, 2019 @ 10:12 pm

As an Australian, this gives me a bit of a bitter laugh.

Vietnam. Iraq 1. Afghanistan. Iraq 2.

Every single one of the shooting wars that Australia has been involved in the past five decades have been entirely American-initiated, and we’ve come in purely because of our alliances. In addition, we’ve been generous enough to allow the US to run signals interception and radar early warning faciities on Australian soil – which no Australian is even allowed into – and made ourselves into a giant nuclear target in the process.

Look in the mirror, freeloader guy.

#17 Comment By Dave On February 8, 2019 @ 12:08 am

The dismal foreign policies of the four presidents between Reagan and Trump are largely to blame for the present situation. Other nations recognized that if the US was willing to stay in Europe after the demise of the Soviet Union, it was probably also amenable to continue subsidizing their defense.

#18 Comment By SteveK9 On February 8, 2019 @ 4:58 am

So very true. I wish Doug Bandow had President Trump’s ear. You can’t find a more coldly rational analysis than this … rare, and perhaps that is why it is so refreshing

#19 Comment By Hitch On February 9, 2019 @ 2:37 am

Informative and insightful,I am a progressive,and I agree with Trump up until Venezuela,on foreign policy.Too bad he does not read,someone make him a video.

#20 Comment By Mark VA On February 9, 2019 @ 12:51 pm

Hear! Hear!

The American Conservative – Green Party US consensus reached! 🙂

From the Green New Deal, Section IV, paragraph 8:

“8. Rein in the military-industrial complex by

reducing military spending by 50% and closing U.S. military bases around the world;
restoring the National Guard as the centerpiece of our system of national defense; and,
creating a new round of nuclear disarmament initiatives.”


More seriously, Eastern Europe is pursuing the old “Intermarium”, since who knows, the US may one day withdraw from the world. I’m not sure what the rest of NATO countries are doing to prepare for this eventuality. Probably nothing;


However, if the US does withdraw from the world, then I hope at least Great Britain, France, and Germany will remain under US protection. I mean, chaotic, no plan Brexit, Yellow Vest revolution in France, crazy Merkel, plus their recent “empires”, make one wonder. In any case, they need US protection, mainly from themselves.

#21 Comment By Carter Hayes On February 9, 2019 @ 6:00 pm

The U.S. and “Israel” have a “special relationship”: it takes our billions; we fight its wars.

#22 Comment By Making a List On February 10, 2019 @ 9:23 am

“… wasn’t [Netanyahu] just referred for prosecution for actual fraud in Israel?”

Let’s hope the Israeli police and judicial system finish him off. Our own government has obviously given up on trying to stop him from meddling in our politics and corrupting our politicians.

“The dismal foreign policies of the four presidents between Reagan and Trump are largely to blame for the present situation.”

The older Bush should be excused from this judgment. He was very clear with Gorbachev about not expanding NATO eastward. Bill Clinton broke that promise, and later presidents kept adding to the number of countries on the American dole.


#23 Comment By first mate On February 10, 2019 @ 5:56 pm

Whatever else it may be, Israel isn’t “the peanut gallery”. Israel is into us for hundreds of billions of dollars, the most expensive “client state” we’ve ever had. That anybody ever had.