The Era of Interventionist Dominance Is Over

The Era of Interventionist Dominance Is Over

Americans’ tepid response to calls for war in Yemen show the first glimmerings of a new, restraint-oriented political consensus.

(Photo by James Leynse/Corbis via Getty Images)

When Eliot Cohen speaks, there’s an instinctive rush to battle stations. Neoconservative establishmentarians like Cohen—who has never seen a war for which he did not demand more blood and more treasure as a pledge of national commitment—love to cajole Washington leaders into even more reckless military behavior as a seeming matter of course. 

Yet today—unlike in the aughts when conservatives were drowned out or cowed by Cohen’s predictable pose—a growing number ignored him when he called last week’s U.S. airstrikes on Yemen targets “therapeutic bombing,” adding that “people are harder to replace than things, and instilling fear is more effective than dreaming of deterrence.” 

In fact, restraint is more effective when you have an opponent who does not conform to conventional ideas about meeting the enemy with violence—“the only language he knows”—as our retired TV generals are wont to say. Today, right-leaning realists aren’t afraid to use the word “restraint,” because the experience of the U.S. over the last 20 years has proven that it is neither naive nor weak. It’s common sense.

“[Strikes] won’t work. They won’t sufficiently degrade Houthi capability or will stop their attacks on shipping,” Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, told this author. “Why do something that is so evidently reckless? Restraint reminds us that no such law says we must conduct airstrikes that won’t work. We always have the option not to employ pointless violence.”

John Allen Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society, noted that restraint at “a minimum” must challenge Biden claiming Article II powers to direct U.S. forces to engage in multinational action against the Houthis. “Actions like this are for Congress to choose, not the President,” Gay wrote in an email. “Congress has lost its muscle memory of defending its Constitutional prerogatives against presidents, regardless of party and regardless of who the enemy is.” 

It must be noted that progressive Democrats like California Rep. Ro Khanna blasted the strikes that evening, saying that Biden had overstepped his authority. Khanna was immediately supported by conservative Republicans Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky.

“This shows that even in an era of growing hyper-partisanship, a principled left-right pro-restraint coalition will continue to be a force for presidents to reckon with,” said Erik Sperling, executive director of Just Foreign Policy, which is supporting the restraint from the left. He said the energy for transcending political parties on this issue is often reflected in members working with each other, albeit a small number—like the Republican Sen. Rand Paul joining several Democrats Tuesday night to support a bill by Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, to place modest monitoring restraints on how Israel is using U.S. weapons in Gaza.

Beyond the Constitutional question, it is critical to assess if such a course of action is in America’s best interest, something that hasn’t been seriously taken into account through Biden’s “whatever it takes, however long it takes” Ukraine policy of the past two years, says Gay. 

“I think any red-blooded American wants to see those who take shots at us get smacked. And it is true that the Red Sea is an important commercial waterway,” Gay added. “However, the vast majority of the commerce there isn’t American. It’s not going to or from America. The crews aren’t American. The ships aren’t American—indeed, they fly flags of convenience to avoid paying U.S. taxes and giving their employees U.S. labor law protections. Then they turn around and want U.S. help. It shouldn’t be automatic that America defends these ships for some global interest.”

Daniel McCarthy, editor of Modern Age and contributing editor to The American Conservative, agrees. “Regional actors and Europe have far more at stake here, economically and otherwise, than we do, and they should sort out the mess for themselves,” he told me. “It certainly won’t do the United States any good to get involved in another conflict that, like the Iraq and Afghan wars, only exposes the inability of pure military power to secure us a satisfactory outcome.” 

Something important has happened on the American right when it comes to war: the opening of a space, many say by Donald Trump, for regular voters in the base to question the policies of the previous Bush and Obama administrations just as vociferously as they would any other failed Washington institution. Foreign policy occurs in the same swamp. That space has widened and grown through the U.S.-led regime change in Libya, the failed war in Afghanistan, the two-year conflict in Ukraine, and now Biden’s decision to bomb the Houthis, who have a seemingly endless supply of weapons and mettle, honed in the last nine years of the U.S.-aided Saudi war against them.

Today, conservative influencers like David Sacks and Tucker Carlson are calling for restraint (just as the ex-Fox New host did when he cautioned Trump not to start an all-out war with Iran in January 2020). Recent veterans on the right have been outspoken in their demands that the U.S. not continue to be the world’s policeman and make nation-building or democracy promotion a core mission of the U.S. military. Many have joined the left to question the mantra of “American exceptionalism” as a justification for a giant military footprint overseas, and entangling foreign alliances that stretch our manpower and resources, and embroil Washington in other nations’ conflicts. 

“Seemingly unaddressed in this [Houthi] crisis are the lives of 3,500 American service members stationed in remote and vulnerable bases in Iraq and Syria,” pointed out Reid Smith, vice president of foreign policy for the Stand Together philanthropic network. Just this weekend, a large contingent of New Jersey National Guardsmen were deployed to replace soldiers from the 10th Mountain Division in Syria and Iraq. It was the largest cohort to leave the state for an overseas deployment since the height of the Global War on Terror.

“These ground deployments add little to America’s ability to project overwhelming force in the region but they do provide our opponents with an attractive target,” Smith added. Small wonder they’ve been attacked more than 1300 times since October.”

The growing chorus of conservative restrainers pushing into the mainstream has no doubt been helped along by a confluence of opportunities (social media) and political trends (populism and Trump), making it that more difficult for shopworn neconservative orthodoxy to parade around unchallenged. 

“These people are lying. These are the same people who told you about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that invasion didn’t know the first thing about it if they send thousands of our sons and daughters to go die. The same people who told you the same in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is still in charge. Twenty years later, seven trillion of our national debt due to these toxic neocons,” blasted the erstwhile GOP candidate Vivek Ramaswamy during an Alabama debate in early December. “You can put lipstick on a Dick Cheney, it is still a fascist neocon today.”

This marks a new chapter in a long history of conservative foreign policy which, despite the mythologies generated by the Republican party mainstream, has not been entirely dominated by the Robert Kagan-style urge to impose liberal-democratic values across the globe at the barrel of a gun. In fact, the opposite is becoming more normalized in political discourse on the right as voices like Eliot Cohen find refuge among the liberal establishment gatekeepers at the Atlantic magazine.

“I think the value of having that conversation in respect to people who still are neoconservatives is learning the lessons from the past so we don’t repeat them in the future,” said Heritage Foundation president Kevin Roberts, who called himself a “recovering neocon,” in a February 2023 interview

“If there’s a common thread in our conversation this afternoon,” he said to me, “it’s that what Heritage is saying is [that] it’s not 1983 anymore. It’s not 2003 anymore. America in 2023 is a lot weaker, in large part because of the fiscal irresponsibility by both Republicans and Democrats for decades and because we have not updated our own thinking about lessons from the end of the Cold War.”

The post The Era of Interventionist Dominance Is Over appeared first on The American Conservative.

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