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Bush and Hawkish Magical Thinking

Jeb Bush made a familiar assertion during his visit to Poland:

Bush seemed to suggest he would endorse a more muscular foreign policy, saying the perception of American retreat from the global stage in recent years had emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to commit aggression in Ukraine.

“When there’s doubt, when there’s uncertainty, when we pull back, it creates less chance of a more peaceful world,” Bush told reporters. “You’re seeing the impact of that in Ukraine right now.”

Bush’s remarks are what we expect from hawks, but they are useful in showing how they indulge in a sort of magical thinking when it comes to the U.S. role in the world. They take for granted that an activist and meddlesome U.S. foreign policy is stabilizing and contributes to peace and security, and so whenever there is conflict or upheaval somewhere it is attributed to insufficient U.S. meddling or to so-called “retreat.” According to this view, the conflict in Ukraine didn’t happen because the Ukrainian government was overthrown in an uprising and Russia then illegally seized territory in response, but because the U.S. was perceived to be “retreating” and this “emboldened” Russia. It’s usually not clear what hawks think would have discouraged Russian interference and intervention in Ukraine under the circumstances, but they seem to think that if only the U.S. had somehow been more assertive and more meddlesome there or in some other part of the world that the conflict would not have occurred or would not be as severe as it is.

This both greatly overrates the power and influence that the U.S. has over the events in other parts of the world, and it tries to reduce every foreign crisis or conflict to how it relates to others’ perceptions of U.S. “leadership.” Hawks always dismiss claims that other states are responding to past and present U.S. actions, but they are absolutely certain that other states’ actions are invited by U.S. “inaction” or “retreat,” even when the evidence for said “retreat” is completely lacking. The possibility that assertive U.S. actions may have made a conflict more likely or worse than it would otherwise be is simply never admitted. The idea that the U.S. role in the world had little or nothing to do with a conflict seems to be almost inconceivable to them. One of the many flaws with this way of looking at the world is that it holds the U.S. most responsible for conflicts that it did not magically prevent while refusing to accept any responsibility for the consequences of things that the U.S. has actually done. Viewing the world this way inevitably fails to take local conditions into account, it ignores the agency of the local actors, and it imagines that the U.S. possesses a degree of control over the rest of the world that it doesn’t and can’t have. Unsurprisingly, this distorted view of the world reliably produces very poor policy choices.

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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