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‘Forward Defense’ Has Nothing to Do with Defense

'Defending forward' has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with power projection and domination.
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The Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) recently released a lengthy report that predictably advocates for an aggressive and activist foreign policy that they euphemistically dub “defending forward.” Like the British imperial “Forward Policy” that it calls to mind and resembles, so-called forward defense seeks to justify interventionism and open-ended warfare in far-flung parts of the world in the name of national security. The essays included in the report warn against “retrenchment” and repeatedly attack advocates of foreign policy restraint in dishonest and misleading ways, and they sound all the usual alarms about the supposed perils of extricating the U.S. from its many unnecessary foreign wars. These arguments are neither new nor particularly interesting, but they can’t be ignored because of the significant influence that their purveyors continue to have in Washington and in the Republican Party in particular. If we are going to build a foreign policy of peace and restraint, these arguments have to be answered and discredited.

Panetta sets the tone for the document right away: “More than ever, Americans must go abroad to remain secure at home.” This is the interventionists’ axiom from which everything else follows, so it is important to start by explaining how wrong it is. To the extent that American security is threatened by other states and terrorist organizations, a forward policy invites more attacks and challenges and exacerbates the dangers it is supposedly combating. Our militarized engagement in many parts of the world is simultaneously destabilizing and provocative, and it makes us far more enemies than we would have otherwise.

Forward deployments make U.S. troops targets, and those deployments then become ends in themselves. Putting these troops in harm’s way for decades isn’t making Americans any safer, and the “war on terror” has led to the metastasization of terrorist groups on two continents. The forward “defense” that interventionists believe is so critical to our security is at best a redundant waste of lives and resources. At worst, it is sowing seeds for future attacks on Americans and our allies, and it is doing so at enormous expense. Sending troops to the other side of the world is not necessary to keep Americans safe at home. “Defending forward” has nothing to do with defense and everything to do with power projection and domination.

H.R. McMaster joined FDD shortly after being fired from his position as National Security Advisor, and in the last two years he has been attacking restrainers and promoting aggressive policies in a number of prominent articles. His contribution to the FDD report is a previously published Foreign Affairs article called “The Retrenchment Syndrome.” As the title suggests, McMaster sees advocates of restraint (or “retrenchment hard-liners” as he calls them) as suffering from a dangerous malady, and his only prescription is more foreign entanglements. I have previously answered McMaster’s arguments here, but I will add a few more remarks. McMaster wrongly accuses restrainers of “national narcissism,” but he demonstrates no ability to understand the views of his domestic opponents or the thinking of the foreign adversaries whose motives he claims to know. He supports U.S. dominance and power projection in the world, and so he assumes that other major powers must have the same goal, but this is just an alibi for pursuing the aggressive policies that he already favors.

Misunderstanding and misrepresenting the views of restrainers is a running theme in the report. Mark Dubowitz and Jonathan Schanzer are some of the worst offenders. They can’t stop themselves from dubbing Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer “realists-cum-isolationists,” which is as insulting to them as it is wildly inaccurate. Both of those scholars favor a strategy involving offshore balancing, and Mearsheimer is rather hawkish on China, but they want to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the Middle East and that is unacceptable to FDD. That is why they are branded with the i-word. Dubowitz and Schanzer also mock the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft for supposedly not understanding the foreign policy views of John Quincy Adams, but this just shows how eager they are to distort the views of non-interventionists both past and present. Their contribution is long on accusations of isolationism without offering any evidence, but then this is the point of the isolationist smear. It is never meant to describe, only to distort and vilify, and they resort to this because they are afraid to engage restrainer arguments on the merits.

Like some melodramatic villain from a superhero movie, they declare, “History, unfortunately, is a forever war.” One gets the impression that they do not really regard this as misfortune, but rather see it as an opportunity. Yes, history is full of conflicts, but there is far more to our history than warfare, and one thing we should have learned from all those conflicts is how pointless and unnecessary most of them have been. At the very least, we should know to steer clear from aggressive policies that make such conflicts more likely. The Trump administration Iran policy that FDD has championed for years has done just that, and that is one of many reasons why we should regard their recommendations with suspicion.

Their account of the recent past is no better than their tedious comparisons with the 1930s. They write, “Al-Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks despite America’s best efforts to steer clear of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where al-Qaeda was and is based.” This is mind-boggling revisionism, conveniently ignoring that the attacks were carried out in large part in response to the continued U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia and U.S. support for the despotic government there. Dubowitz and Schanzer point to the clearest example of disastrous blowback in modern U.S. history and then have the gall to say that this example supports their argument for keeping U.S. forces permanently deployed in other countries where they aren’t wanted.

Not surprisingly, the consistent misreadings and distortions of history are some of the biggest flaws in the report. Bradley Bowman and Clifford May rattle off historical “facts” about wars throughout history that elide far more than they reveal. For instance, they speak of “Persian-Roman wars” running from the battle of Carrhae between the Roman Republic and the Parthians to the battle of Nineveh in the seventh century between the Byzantines and the Sasanians. That lumps together many different regimes and dynasties in very crude fashion, and it also misleads the reader into thinking that conflict was incessant when it was not.

While there were many wars between these two powers over the course of seven hundred years, these two states were at peace with each other for the vast majority of that period of time. Indeed, for most of Byzantine history, the emperors in Constantinople were wary of engaging in open warfare and sought to avoid it as much as possible because of the cost and the potential for disaster. This strategy did not invite aggression, and it succeeded in allowing the empire to husband its resources and preserve its strength. One could say that the Byzantines usually practiced responsible statecraft. That is one reason why their empire managed to endure for as long as it did.

Treating war as being essentially unavoidable, Bowman and May belittle restrainers for “stunning ignorance” in calling to end U.S. involvement in its foreign wars today. This amounts to little more than mindless fatalism in accepting that the U.S. is bound to be at war much more often than not. But constant warfare and the strategy that undergirds it are both choices. Vietnam was completely avoidable for the U.S. and also entirely unnecessary for U.S. security, just as our current wars are all wars of choice. Conflict may be an ineradicable part of the human condition, but it doesn’t follow that any particular conflict has to happen or that we are fated to participate in it when it does.

There may always be some conflict somewhere (though there has been much less of it in recent decades), but nowhere is it written that a major power has to be at war all of the time, much less in multiple places around the globe. The empires that have engaged in constant warfare have tended to suffer bankruptcy and ruin. Many of these states were governed by men who also believed that peripheral interests were worth fighting over, and they ultimately exhausted themselves in fruitless conflicts.

The U.S. is unusual among great powers in history in that it is relatively separated from its rivals by great distance, but it still chooses to entangle itself in the affairs of distant regions instead of taking advantage of our favorable geography. While modern technologies have reduced the importance of that advantage, they have not eliminated it. America is, in fact, extraordinarily secure from foreign threats, and so it becomes necessary to inflate these threats and overstate the capabilities of other states to make the case for a “forward” policy.

Writing for The New Republic, Jacob Silverman sums up the report very well:

That is the purpose of “Defending Forward”: to contort the English language to convince a war-weary public that there is no alternative but to continue the status quo of “forward defense-in-depth military deployments,” as Leon Panetta, the former CIA director and defense secretary, euphemistically calls them. But the FDD publication succeeds only in reminding us that, after 19 years of a catastrophic, immoral, illegal war on terror, America’s hawks are simply out of answers.

The U.S. has been following something like a “forward defense” strategy for decades. The results have been almost twenty years of expensive failed wars that have caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. The U.S. desperately needs to change its strategy and practice restraint in its use of force and the deployment of its armed forces. America does not need to police and dominate the world to be secure, and the sooner we all realize that the better it will be for our country and for the rest of the world.