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In Defense of Restraint

The national security establishment is bringing out their heavy hitters, but we're striking them out, one by one.

Pfc. Jordan Wagner, an infantryman with the 82nd Airborne Division's 1st Brigade Combat Team, greets loved ones during a homecoming ceremony Sept. 9, 2012, at Fort Bragg, N.C. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod)

Over the last ten years, foreign policy restraint has emerged as the biggest challenger to the U.S. foreign policy status quo. The persistent failure of policies of endless war and the costly, aggressive pursuit of primacy have left an opening for the alternative strategy that restraint represents.

As a result, it has also become a natural target for criticism from the defenders of U.S. hegemony. Much of this criticism has been of the knee-jerk, dismissive variety that critics of American policies are all too familiar with, but there has been some more serious engagement with the ideas of restrainers as well. Unfortunately, even the more serious engagement with pro-restraint arguments tends to devolve into polemic.

Michael Mazarr recently wrote an essay for the summer issue of The Washington Quarterly in which he identifies what he sees as the failings of the restraint camp. It is probably the fairest response to arguments for restraint so far, but it does not score any significant hits. It is frustrating in that it cites the works of leading restrainers, but fails to reckon fully with what they are saying. Mazarr is familiar with restrainers’ arguments, and he makes a number of debaters’ points about them, but he doesn’t make a persuasive case against restraint.

He identifies what he considers to be restrainers’ errors in a few broad categories: 1) a binary definition of the foreign policy debate; 2) caricaturing U.S. foreign policy as an aggressive drive for primacy; 3) overstating the failures of U.S. post-Cold War foreign policy; 4) inconsistency in prescription. The first three of these criticisms don’t hold up, and the fourth is not a serious objection to the views of a broad range of writers and analysts.

The first objection is that the restrainers’ contrast between primacy/liberal hegemony and restraint is too simplistic. According to Mazarr, this “overlooks a huge, untidy middle ground where the views of most U.S. national security officials reside and where most U.S. policies operate.” Here he appeals to the diversity of views among foreign policy professionals to counter restrainers’ objections to the current strategy of primacy without actually addressing the pitfalls of primacy that restrainers criticize.

It’s not clear that the “huge, untidy middle ground” is as vast or as wild as he suggests. The vast majority of people in that “middle ground” favor the continued maintenance of U.S. primacy or liberal hegemony. The fact that there is a narrow range of views among adherents of the current strategy is not surprising. It also isn’t terribly relevant to the objections that restrainers have made against the strategy.

For restrainers, as Mazarr puts it, “the reigning concepts that guide America’s role in the world embody a limitless drive for supremacy and power that has produced an infatuation with militarism and a litany of interventions and wars.” That is a fair summary as far as it goes, but Mazarr never manages to refute this claim.

Consider each part and ask yourself if it rings true. Is the U.S. government guided by a belief that it should pursue supremacy and power on the world stage? Yes, it is. This is what is euphemistically referred to as American “global leadership.” This is as close to an unquestioned assumption in mainstream foreign policy circles as there is. Has this produced an infatuation with militarism? Our massive military budget, militarized foreign policy, and intrusive response to many foreign conflicts bear witness that this is so. Not only is there a bias in favor of action in our debates, but action is almost always defined in terms of military options, and choosing not to use military options is routinely ridiculed as “doing nothing.” Has this infatuation with militarism resulted in a litany of interventions and wars? We know it has and continues to do so. Mazarr claims that restrainers are using “extreme and unconditional language” and set up “caricatures and straw people,” but, if anything, most pro-restraint arguments are rather mild in their description of the last few decades of unchecked militarism.

Have restrainers oversold the failure of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy? It’s possible, but I don’t think it’s true. If U.S. “leadership” is judged on the terms set by its own advocates, how can we judge it as anything but a failure over the last thirty years? Has it made the world more stable and secure? On the whole, it has not. The U.S. has been one of the most destabilizing actors in the world for decades with its wars and interference in other nations’ affairs. Has it reduced nuclear proliferation? It has not, and its wars for regime change have made it more difficult to convince would-be nuclear weapons states to dismantle their weapons programs.

The biggest effort that the U.S. made in the name of counter-proliferation was a terribly costly blunder and an attack on international law. Has it reduced the incidence of terrorism? On the contrary, the “war on terror” has exacerbated and encouraged the spread of jihadist terrorism in the world. Has the U.S. deterred great power competition? Far from it. Mazarr’s defense of this record amounts to saying that it was not as ideological and destructive as it might have been, which is not really much of a defense. Are restrainers too extreme in their indictment of this record of failure? In light of the persistent denial and whitewashing of the disasters unleashed by our policies, I would say that we have been too diplomatic.

Mazarr writes that “[t]he restraint literature downplays the often-powerful reluctance with which successive US administrations have grappled with most decisions to intervene.” He mentions Libya as an example of this “hesitancy,” but neglects to add that the internal debate over this lasted just a couple weeks before Obama ordered unauthorized military action to help bring down a foreign government. Obama’s reluctance could not have been that powerful if he chose to start a war against another government without Congressional approval. When we consider how completely unrelated to U.S. vital interests the conflict in Libya was, the fact that the U.S. did intervene when it had no particular reason to is proof that restrainers’ complaints on this score are backed up by the record.

He touts the fact that the U.S. has “shunned” other opportunities for intervention as if the U.S. does not routinely meddle even in those conflicts where it does not directly act. The U.S. didn’t “act” in the Great Lakes crises in the late ‘90s and early 2000s because it had outsourced that crisis to its clients in Uganda and Rwanda, who then proceeded to turn Congo into a charnel house. The U.S. declined to go to WWIII over territorial disputes between Russia and its neighbors, but the escalation of those disputes grew out of an incessant, U.S.-led drive to expand Euro-Atlantic institutions to Russia’s doorstep. Each example Mazarr cites as proof that the restrainers are overstating their case just reminds us that not all failures of U.S. foreign policy involve our direct military intervention in a conflict. It doesn’t prove that U.S. foreign policy hasn’t failed during the last few decades.

In one of the oddest portions of the essay, he informs us that the U.S. has already adopted the restrainers’ agenda with respect to North Korea and Iran. That will come as news to us and to those two governments. It is misleading at best to claim that the Agreed Framework and the JCPOA amount to “normalizing” relations with North Korea and ending our “grudge match” with Iran. The idea that strong opposition to these agreements came only from “hawkish factions in two Republican administration” is simply wrong as a matter of fact. The hawkish factions were just the loudest and most vehement of the opponents. Agreements like these might be helpful for laying the groundwork for normal relations in the future, but they are just the start of what many restrainers are calling for.
Having failed to land any serious blows thus far, Mazarr turns to restrainers’ prescriptions and points out that there is disagreement about what U.S. policy should be in many places. Since restraint is a strategy that allows for a range of views about specific policies, this is to be expected, especially when advocates of restraint have not yet been in a position to implement policy.

Earlier in the essay Mazarr complains that restrainers’ language is too extreme and unconditional, and then later he disapproves of restrainers’ use of nuance:

Just which military interventions “do not enhance U.S. security”? Which areas are “of little strategic importance”? What is an “unrealistic”goal, and how big does a defense budget have to become before it is “bloated”? This same adjectival approach to analysis crops up again and again in the restraint literature.

These are not serious questions. Mazarr can easily learn from the scholars he is citing what they mean when they say these things, but instead he quibbles about the reasonable qualifications that they are making. When they make unqualified statements, he condemns them for lacking nuance, and then he accuses them of waffling when they make qualifications. Most restrainers have been very clear that the U.S. has vital interests in Europe and East Asia, and that most other regions are not that important for our security. The military budget’s bloat is a function of an overly ambitious strategy that commits the U.S. to defend dozens of countries, most of which do not need protection or could provide for their own defense. Unrealistic goals include, but are not limited to, compelling North Korea to disarm, forcing Iran to abolish its nuclear program, and using sanctions to coerce other states into abandoning their core interests.

Mazarr allows that “[p]roponents of restraint have played and continue to play a critical role in highlighting the risks of overweening ambition,” but he does not think the U.S. should significantly scale back its ambitions. He grants that “rethinking of many key assumptions of U.S. national security policy is overdue, and proponents of restraint have delivered important warnings,” but he doesn’t rethink any key assumptions and proceeds to reject many of these warnings as overwrought. He seems to see restrainers as an occasionally useful check on the excesses of U.S. interventionism, but nothing more than that.

The failures of the last thirty years stem from an excessively ambitious role for the U.S. that no government could competently execute. If we want to have a more successful and peaceful foreign policy than we have had for at least the last thirty years, we need to have a much less ambitious and overreaching one. Restraint is the best answer currently available because it accepts that the U.S. does not have to dominate and shape the world. It is that drive to dominate and dictate terms to other states that has so often led the U.S. and other countries down the road to ruin. It is time to choose a different path.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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