There Seems to be No Cure for Warmongering Syndrome
H.R. McMaster’s case against retrenchment unwittingly demonstrates how sclerotic and bankrupt Washington has become.
Nothing alarms defenders of the U.S. foreign policy consensus more than the prospect of American retrenchment after the last thirty years of overexpansion and failed wars.
If there is one unquestioned assumption in conventional foreign policy thinking, it is that retrenchment is undesirable and dangerous and must never be allowed to happen. The hostility to the idea of retrenchment is so strong because it threatens to reduce U.S. ambitions and opportunities for entanglement in other parts of the world, and the defenders of the status quo thrive on both.
H.R. McMaster is the latest in a line of enforcers of Washington’s prevailing orthodoxy to denounce advocates of retrenchment and restraint. In a new essay in Foreign Affairs called “The Retrenchment Syndrome,” the former general and National Security Advisor to Donald Trump takes it upon himself to respond to Stephen Wertheim and others making the case for foreign policy restraint earlier this year. The essay is remarkably stale and replete with hawkish clichés, and his broadsides against those he calls “retrenchment hard-liners” never hit home. McMaster’s case against retrenchment unwittingly demonstrates how sclerotic and bankrupt the dominant view in Washington has become.
Perhaps the most tired argument in McMaster’s essay is the claim that the public’s frustration and dissatisfaction with interminable foreign wars is a “syndrome” that needs to be overcome. The “syndrome” rhetoric has always been a way for hawks to treat legitimate skepticism about unnecessary war as an aberration to be removed. The implication is that constant, desultory warfare in strategically irrelevant parts of the world is healthy and normal and only someone suffering from some sort of psychological or physical malady would disagree. This is as false as it is insulting.
The crux of McMaster’s argument is the false conceit that restraint and inaction are costlier than intervention and endless war: “Retrenchers ignore the fact that the risks and costs of inaction are sometimes higher than those of engagement.” This might be a more compelling objection if this were a fact rather than a hawkish talking point. When we consider the trillions of dollars wasted, thousands of Americans killed and tens of thousands of Americans wounded, plus the hundreds of thousands of other people killed in our recent wars, it is absurd to think that the “costs of inaction” could be higher than that. Consider how many people in Iraq alone might still be alive today had the U.S. not “acted” by invading their country and throwing it into chaos.
In fact, the risks and costs of inaction are always lower in that there aren’t any. Refusing to intervene in another country’s internal conflict poses no risks to the U.S., and it costs the U.S. nothing. By definition, inaction is without cost. Hawks need to make people think that inaction is so costly to make them swallow the high costs of military intervention, but it simply isn’t true. Coming from the same former National Security Advisor who entertained the idea of waging preventive war on North Korea, it is laughable.
He refers to “evidence that U.S. disengagement can make a bad situation worse,” but he doesn’t actually present any evidence. He mentions that Obama did not launch useless airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2013, and contrasts this with the useless airstrikes Trump ordered in 2017 and 2018, but otherwise he doesn’t acknowledge the U.S. was anything but “disengaged” from the conflict. On the contrary, the U.S. was one of many governments funneling weapons into Syria. The U.S. was meddling in Syria practically from the start of the war, and that meddling contributed to making the conflict longer and more intense. McMaster’s account isn’t just misleading. It is so wrong that it turns reality completely upside down.
McMaster faults advocates of retrenchment for their alleged national narcissism: “Their pleas for disengagement are profoundly narcissistic, as they perceive geopolitical actors only in relation to the United States. In their view, other actors—whether friends or foes—possess no aspirations and no agency, except in reaction to U.S. policies and actions.” This is so false that it is almost funny, because one of the main complaints that most advocates of retrenchment have against our current foreign policy is that it frequently ignores or dismisses the interests and agency of other states. We are the ones constantly imploring policymakers to imagine how other governments look at the world in order to understand why they act the way they do. McMaster has a history of faulting others for the very narcissism that he displays.
His attack on restraint serves as a follow-up to the article he wrote on China this spring. In both of these arguments, he abuses the concept of “strategic empathy” to justify the continued pursuit of hegemony. McMaster defines strategic empathy as “an understanding of the ideology, emotions, and aspirations that drive and constrain other actors,” but while he touts the importance of the concept he shows no sign of understanding it. As Jon Askonas says, “Never does McMaster try to get inside the heads of the actual leaders and decision-makers of the countries he is writing about.”
In his earlier article, he projects his own ambitious view of U.S. foreign policy onto the Chinese government. Ethan Paul noted this in his response to McMaster: “In other words, McMaster’s rendition of strategic empathy is, ironically, little more than a manifestation of his inability to escape his own strategic narcissism, to view the world from any other standpoint but his own.”
He does the same thing he accuses retrenchers of doing when he warns about the danger of retrenchment. He assumes that the continued U.S. pursuit of primacy is essential to the security of other regions, and he sees any reduction in U.S. involvement anywhere as an invitation to chaos and aggression by others. But it is because other states have their own agency and act in their own interests that we can be reasonably sure that U.S. retrenchment doesn’t have to lead to the destabilizing and destructive outcomes that McMaster describes. As in all things, the details and the execution would matter greatly, but McMaster doesn’t even want to entertain the possibility that the U.S. can lay down some of its excessive burdens.
McMaster makes a sweeping statement at one point that is hard to take seriously: “American behavior did not cause jihadi terrorism, Chinese economic aggression, Russian political subversion, or the hostility of Iran and North Korea. And U.S. disengagement would not attenuate those challenges or make them easier to overcome.” The role of U.S. policy in driving and exacerbating many of these “challenges” is debatable, and once again McMaster fails the test of strategic empathy when he refuses to understand how U.S. behavior is perceived by others. Even if McMaster were right about the first part, the conclusion does not follow at all.
In some regions, it may be wiser for the U.S. to have a much less prominent role so that our allies and partners can work out more constructive relations with their neighbors. At present the U.S. is an impediment to inter-Korean rapprochement, and that actually makes the peninsula less stable and secure. Given that more than eighteen years of the “war on terror” has greatly increased the number of jihadist terrorist organizations in the world, it is preposterous to think that continuing with more of the same will in any way “attenuate” this threat. A modus vivendi with both Iran and North Korea is possible if the U.S. would be willing to abandon some of its ambitious goals and scale back its military presence. To a great extent, the hostility of these governments is fueled and sustained by their perception of the threat that our military poses to them. In those cases, retrenchment could very well have a stabilizing effect. A smaller U.S. presence in Europe could reduce tensions with Russia and allow for improved relations between Russia and its immediate neighbors. The fact that McMaster rejects all of this out of hand with nothing more than trite slogans and fear-mongering is testament to the weakness of his position.
When Donald Trump was elected, the foreign policy establishment was on alert for any indication that Trump would preside over a period of retrenchment, but they need not have worried. Instead of ending wars and bringing troops home, as he still claims he will, Trump escalated every war he inherited, deployed more troops overseas, and took more aggressive military action than his predecessor in some cases. He picked McMaster to replace Michael Flynn, and then picked John Bolton to replace McMaster. The first three National Security Advisors differed in many ways, but they were all hawks and Trump was mostly simpatico with all of them.
Since he left the White House, McMaster has taken up at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), the notoriously hard-line, anti-Iranian think tank that has had considerable influence in shaping the administration’s failed Iran policy both during McMaster’s tenure and after. If McMaster had his way, U.S. foreign policy would be extremely aggressive in every region, and that is much more likely to produce disastrous conflicts that would sap our strength and bankrupt us.