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Foreign Policy Priorities and the Hawkish Desire to Be “Focused Everywhere”

Ross Douthat faults Republican hawkish candidates for their refusal to set priorities in foreign policy:

The problem is that Republican hawks have too many wars where they seem intent on turning up the heat, too many Viennas that they want to take at once. There is no sign as yet that the president’s would-be successors have clear strategic priorities; instead, the tendency is to treat every conflict that comes into the headlines, whether it involves Libya or Iran, Syria or Ukraine, AfPak or the Islamic State, as a theater where there’s no substitute for American-led victory.

Some of this is just posturing, and if elected no G.O.P. president (well, except maybe Lindsey Graham) would actually escalate militarily on every front at once.

Douthat could be right about this, but it depends on what one means by escalation. Practically every Republican presidential candidate has gone out of his way to say that he would reject any deal with Iran. A few have speculated recently about attacking Iran. Beyond that, the Republican field is almost unanimously in favor of sending weapons to Ukraine, doing “more” against ISIS (including sending ground forces into combat), and trying to “roll back” Iranian influence. They don’t have any “clear strategic priorities” because they have no interest in setting any. That isn’t an oversight. It is a reflection of their belief that the U.S. must be “leading” everywhere in response to whatever the latest conflict happens to be. The obsession with always “leading” in every case makes it almost impossible to respond effectively anywhere, because U.S. attention and resources are spread too thin and the public quickly grows tired of being told that every problem around the world is ours to solve.

Reading Douthat’s column, I was reminded of something Tom Cotton said in his interview with Jeffrey Goldberg from a couple weeks ago:

I think there’s something to that, if he wants to try and create a balance of power between Sunni and Shiites and simply exit the Middle East, or at least continue an ill-advised pivot to East Asia. I say ill-advised not because East Asia is not an important part of the world, but because the global superpower can’t pivot. You have to be focused everywhere [bold mine-DL].

It is not possible to be “focused everywhere.” By definition, to focus on certain parts of the world requires that the U.S. pay less attention and devote fewer resources to the rest. If one region is in focus, the others are not going to be. Recognizing that U.S. resources and power are finite, it is necessary to choose how they will be employed. Hard-liners like Cotton don’t believe that this choice has to be made. To imagine that the U.S. could be “focused everywhere” is to admit that one has no clue how to conduct foreign policy. Hard-liners such as Cotton may be deeply enamored of America’s role as “the global superpower,” but they can’t grasp that some interests are more important and take higher priority. They don’t understand the need to make trade-offs, and they can’t tell which interests are truly vital and which are not. All of this comes from the hawkish obsession with “American exceptionalism” and “leadership.” That blinds them to the limits of American power and the reality that the U.S. does not need to take an active, much less leading, role in response to every crisis that shows up in the headlines.

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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