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Home/Daniel Larison/Don’t Be Fooled by Pompeo’s Empty ‘Restraint’ Rhetoric

Don’t Be Fooled by Pompeo’s Empty ‘Restraint’ Rhetoric

Stephen Walt responds to Mike Pompeo’s repeated misuse of the words realism and restraint to describe the Trump administration’s foreign policy:

If the secretary genuinely believed in these concepts, and if the broad sweep of U.S. foreign policy reflected them, it would be tempting to applaud politely and offer Pompeo a non-resident fellowship at the Quincy Institute after he leaves office. Unfortunately, Pompeo’s words are mostly empty rhetoric. Viewed objectively, U.S. foreign policy under his and Trump’s leadership bears little resemblance to what a realist and restrained foreign policy would be.

For starters, let’s not forget that the Trump administration has continued to expand an already bloated defense budget, without offering a convincing justification for seemingly endless increases. Advocates of a more realist and restrained foreign policy favor maintaining a strong U.S. military, but we recognize that we have that already. It is hardly “restraint” when Trump, Pompeo, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper insist that the United States must continue to spend more on national security than the next seven or eight countries combined, while critical domestic needs go unmet.

Walt is absolutely right. As I have said before, Pompeo doesn’t know the meaning of restraint. He doesn’t know what realism means, either. The Secretary of State uses this rhetoric to distract from just how unrealistic, hard-line, and maximalist Trump’s foreign policy has been. One of Pompeo’s favorite talking points is that the Trump administration is merely “recognizing the reality” of a situation when it decides to endorse illegal Israeli territorial claims or chooses to tear up successful arms control and nonproliferation agreements. Of course, these are attempts to alter political and policy realities to the liking of hard-liners and extremists. When Pompeo talks about “realism,” he is really talking about cynical power grabs that the administration or a U.S. client is making.

Trump is the anti-restraint president. His administration’s foreign policy has been defined by arrogant ultimatums, attempted regime change, aggressive economic warfare, increased military spending, illegal assassination, and illegal wars. It does not deal with the world as it is, but seeks to force the world to bend to the administration’s will. It has not reduced U.S. commitments and liabilities abroad, but instead keeps adding to them. Even the Afghanistan agreement that Pompeo was referring to last month sets so many conditions on U.S. withdrawal that full withdrawal is very unlikely to happen. An administration that was genuinely committed to realism and restraint would have done things very differently and in many cases it would have done the exact opposite of what Trump has done.

The third pillar that Pompeo mentions is respect, and this is where the Secretary of State’s habit of making things up really gets out of control. There have been few U.S. administrations that have treated other countries with less respect than this one. Not only has the U.S. continued to violate other states’ sovereignty with impunity, but the Trump administration also presumes to dictate to other governments what their domestic and foreign policies should be. They have enabled a brutal war on Yemen for more than three years, they have punished Iran for complying with the JCPOA, and they have berated our allies for supporting the same agreement. When the Iraqi government called for the withdrawal of U.S. troops over repeated violations of their sovereignty, the Trump administration ignored them. They have tried treating allies like vassals and assume they can treat everyone else like colonies.

Walt concludes:

The bottom line: Pompeo’s use of words like “realism” and “restraint” is a smokescreen, intended to confuse his audience and make Trump’s foreign policy sound like it squares with the policies most Americans want.

Like everything else Pompeo says, his rhetoric about realism and restraint can’t be trusted.

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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