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Realism and Restraint Put America First

We must learn from the last two decades of war and loss.
Realism and Restraint Put America First

Editors’ note: The following is adapted from remarks that were delivered at The American Conservative’s foreign policy conference, held on December 2, 2021, in Washington.

I come to you as a retired soldier who spent most of his adult life at war or training for war, and I would not have it any other way. I say that because we will always face threats and so need to use or project some degree of power to keep our nation safe. In saying that I am not committing to perpetual war, I am simply acknowledging human nature.

I advocate for a restrained foreign policy for one simple reason, it works. To protect peace, we must be able to project power; we can only do that when we are strong at home, when we produce what we need, when our borders are secure and we are poised for action, not bleeding at the ends of the earth.

To understand why restraint is the way forward we must be honest about why the post-9/11 wars failed and made us weaker as a nation.

As a soldier who fought on the front lines of these wars, I wish I could claim victory with pride like my grandfathers could. As a veteran, I wish I could say that the deaths of countless brothers in arms earned us something. As a gold star husband, I wish I could tell my sons that their mother gave her life for a grand mission that liberated a nation and made us safer.

I know that my wife and every other American who gave their last full measure in battle over the last two decades did so for the people of this nation because they loved their country and believed in answering our nation when she called. Without men and women eagerly volunteering to fight for it, we simply don’t have a nation.

But to truly honor our fallen we must, simultaneously, never forget their sacrifices and ensure that we never make the same mistakes again. Most importantly, we must never let those who lied for personal gain or ego escape accountability.

There are many lessons to learn from the past two decades. The biggest lesson is that deploying U.S. troops to fight wars with no clearly defined end state is a recipe for wasting the lives of our bravest, adding trillions in debt, and allowing our enemies to slowly bleed us—either via guerilla warfare or simply by exploiting our overreach and spending.

Realism and restraint work because they truly put our nation and people first as they allow us to guard against hostile nations and nonstate actors. At the core of the failed neoconservative or liberal doctrines is the idea that America will never truly be challenged, that we will remain so strong that we can afford to spend resources building other nations in our image. Unfortunately, there was no end of history, and while we took our eyes off the world to bleed in the mountains of Afghanistan and in the deserts of Iraq the world maneuvered on us.

The disgraceful exit from Afghanistan and our ongoing economic crisis both leave us wondering, “How did we get here?” The Biden administration’s incompetence and malice is the immediate answer, but the truth is much more ingrained in the fabric of our institutions.

After the Cold War, we disconnected our economy from our nation security. This was unbelievably foolish because we won the Cold War by forcing the USSR to spend more than their economy could support.

The CCP was watching; they saw that they could not go head-to-head with us in economic or kinetic competition, so they made us an offer: They would produce goods in China, driving down the cost for American consumers and, most importantly, making the shot callers of our ruling class in the Beltway and Wall Street handsome profits.

We allowed our corporate class to dictate national security—allowing CCP into WTO and shipping manufacturing overseas. And what happens next?

Manufacturing leaves and brings the global, on-demand economy. Americans have, we’re told, “evolved past blue collar.” The future is college education for all, with no emphasis on what kind of a degree—just a degree—leading to a college debt trap. And thus the bleeding of manufacturing, skills, and grit from America, as the middle class, working class, and rural communities are hardest hit.

None of this was viewed as a national security threat. We were the world’s only superpower and foolishly assumed that future wars would look like the Gulf War, high tech strikes followed by a quick victory and redeployment.

It wasn’t just China that was studying the gaps in our strengths, the radical Islamic extremists of Al Qaeda and the Iranian revolutionary guards were testing our will.

The Iranians and Al Qaeda are great examples of letting threats fester. Iran started its war against us in 1979, killing American troops and diplomats with impunity until 2020, when President Trump finally struck back. Al Qaeda declared war on us and attacked two embassies, the World Trade Center and the USS Cole all before 9/11. A risk adverse and distracted President Clinton prevented us from being proactive. Turning a blind eye to threats led to 9/11.

After 9/11 the American people rallied around our dead and grieving and gave President Bush the mandate for war; the nation agreed that we needed crush Al Qaeda and the Taliban who harbored them. Within weeks of 9/11 CIA paramilitary teams and special forces infiltrated Afghanistan, toppled the Taliban, and had the enemy on the run.

By December 2001 Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and his deputy Ayman Zawahiri had escaped into Pakistan. Shortly thereafter the Bush administration shifted the focus of the new Global War on Terror from a focused punitive mission against Al Qaeda to nation building. Bush explained this in the spring of 2002, saying he viewed Afghanistan as the ultimate nation building mission.

Iraq hawks within the Bush administration had been attempting to link Al Qaeda to Saddam immediately after 9/11; now it was full steam ahead. The Department of Defense and intelligence community knew what the boss wanted to hear and they delivered. We were soon told that a massive invasion of Iraq was needed due to Saddam having weapons of mass destruction and links to Al Qaeda.

The DOD was eager to deploy their forces in a real war. Afghanistan up to that point had highlighted the low cost, high impact efficiency of special operations and air superiority; Iraq would allow the big army to deploy armor and infantry divisions in the kind of combined arms maneuver warfare that most conventional officers had only studied and trained for.

From this experience, we must learn that the Pentagon will always offer up war as an option. That’s their job. But we need leadership capable of using all the elements of national power, not just the military.

In Afghanistan and Iraq we never had a realistic goal and were incapable of honestly saying what was possible; the answer was always more troops, more time and money, no real results or end dates, until ill-planned dates were demanded by elected officials.

Toppling Saddam had multiple catastrophic effects, and Iran gained control of the Iraqi government, squeezing the Sunnis of the region between Baghdad and Damascus to the point that Al Qaeda or ISIS became their best chance for survival and recourse.

Throughout the various iterations of the Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan conflicts, we gave our enemies in the region several great gifts: First, proximity, for they could finally reach out and touch us; and, second, the ability to join U.S. funded government organizations that gave them access to funding, weapons, and training.

So how do we go forward? If we want to say never again to “endless war,” how do we protect our nation from threats that range from the CCP to detached cells of ISIS operatives to Iranian surrogates?

First and foremost, we strengthen our nation by economically detaching from the CCP, aggressively onshoring our manufacturing, seizing CCP assets in the U.S., and kicking the CCP out of our capital markets. Our elites on Wall Street can get on board with nationalist economics or be the first casualty in this war. The CCP is waging an economic and information war against us; it is time to recognize that and strike back.

Second, energy independence and once again becoming a net exporter of energy must be made a top national security priority. We can’t be allow ourselves to be at the mercy of OPEC or any nation.

Third, we must also secure our borders. That includes cleaning up our broken immigration system. The untold story of 9/11 is our visa system; the Al Qaeda terrorists who conducted those horrific attacks exploited our weak and vulnerable immigration system.

Fourth, to fight on the information battlefield we must break up big tech as it attempts to destroy us by suppressing speech and sowing anti-American ideology, selling off our data for our enemies to exploit.

Fifth, to address terrorism, we must narrowly define the mission, hunting and killing those who would do us harm. To do this we don’t need massive deployments of divisions or corps; we need accurate intelligence and limited strike capability. But we must maintain the most powerful military in the world; restraint can quickly become weakness without the ability to rapidly project overwhelming power.

Realism and restraint are about putting internal strength first. In doing so we can lead a great American revival of our economy and our national spirit. We must learn from the last two decades of war and loss. We owe it to those who came before us and we owe this to our children. America is too important for humanity to fail; we must safeguard our power and our people.

Thank you, and God bless America.

Joe Kent is a candidate for Washington State’s 3rd congressional district, and a retired Green Beret. 

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