Restraint requires more than “ending endless wars”

1 December 2020, 0900 EST

Voices calling for restraint in US foreign policy are getting louder. A bipartisan community has grown tired of the tired consensus on America’s role in the world and–thanks partly to the excesses of the Trump Administration–has had some success in shifting policy debates. I am generally sympathetic to this community, but worry that they are focusing too much on “ending endless wars.” We should also encourage a broader sense of humility in America’s foreign policy.

“Restraint” as a viable foreign policy orientation came together in the past few years, although it’s been building for some time. Libertarians like the Cato Institute and academic realists like John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt have been calling on America to adopt more modest goals for the world; this has been directed at both Republicans (like George W. Bush’s Global War on Terrorism) and Democrats’ interventionist tendencies as part of hawkish liberal internationalism. Peter Beinart, initially a cheerleader for muscular liberalism, later expressed regret.

This crowd has broadened. We saw bipartisan opposition to US support for the Saudi war in Yemen under Obama, which has continued under Trump. And the restraint crowd has found an institutional home in the Quincy Institute. We’ve seen useful restraint arguments in many foreign policy debates, such as Emma Ashford speaking out on America’s desire to “do something” (militarily) in response to crises, and Annelle Sheline’s commentary on US Middle East policy.

In some ways, my own views on the world have followed this trajectory (although my natural inclination to never join a group means I’m not really part of the restraint crowd). With 9/11 happening my second week of college, I initially embraced muscular liberalism as a way to defend democracy. But my education at lefty Vassar College also led me to question the desirability of American dominance. This tension continued after college, when I worked in counterterrorism and joined the Truman National Security Project, which tried to reconcile Democrats and national security. But things changed in the Obama years, when he, in many ways, continued the war on terrorism and even expanded it with drone strikes. So I resigned from the Truman Project, and became skeptical of grand political projects–both domestic and in foreign policy–which contributed in part to me leaving DC for Vermont.

I should be cheering the rise of the restraint crowd, and in many ways I am. But as Duck readers may know, I’m also skeptical, for various reasons. I’ve struggled to really put this in words, but I think it comes down to the narrow definition of “restraint.”

The tagline of many in the restraint crowd is “end endless wars.” I think that’s a good thing, and believe we need to figure out an alternative to our current strategies in Afghanistan and the Middle East. But I worry for many that “ending endless wars” is both necessary and sufficient to achieve restraint. As a result, we have the strange situation of leftists arguing Trump–who has assassinated several Iranian officials and come close to starting war with North Korea and Venezuela–is preferable to Democrats on foreign policy because he wants to pull troops out of Afghanistan and the Middle East (and I remember The Nation praising Ron Paul). So obviously restraint needs to be more than “ending endless wars.”

Another area where I worry the focus is too narrow is “the blob.” As I’ve discussed here, for many in the restraint crowd, part of the problem is the DC consensus that America must be dominant, a consensus supported by a network of think tanks and contractors. As someone formerly part of that world, I think this is fair. But opposing the blob can again become necessary and sufficient; people assume bringing in new voices will change things. The fact that the term was coined by Ben Rhodes, who is now accused of being part of the blob, validates my concern.

I’m also concerned about some of the alternatives or hypothesized effects of restraint. People suggest turning to diplomacy instead of military involvement, or starting an international campaign against corruption. Others argue restraint will actually improve human rights. This is all great, and I support these arguments. But I worry they miss the deeper source of America’s perennial overreach.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Irony of American History, discussed America’s tendency to wrap its foreign adventures in morality and the way they often go awry. However, they go awry not in spite of our good intentions but because of them (hence the irony). The problem, then, is not just coming up with non-military policies; it’s confronting the impulse deep in American society and exploring its various manifestations.

This became apparent to me in my current book project, which explores the use of religion as a power political tool. I initially intended it to be an argument for religious appeals’ utility, but as I conducted my research I found the opposite: this well-meaning, non-military policy often seems to go awry, causing more problems than it solves.

Thus, what began as an attempt to present a non-military alternative for America to advance its interests is turning into a cautionary tale about even these policy tools. I’d encourage those pushing restraint to likewise explore the potential perils of non-military foreign policy tools. I realize that may not be the best move politically, as part of the appeal is the focus on “ending endless wars.” But the ultimate goal should be to induce restraint in all aspects of US foreign policy, not just military interventions.