Forever Pounding the War Drum

Official Washington’s “tough-guy-ism” eschewing diplomacy in favor of military force has slammed the United States into a series of foreign-policy disasters, such as the Iraq War. But key promoters keep denouncing anyone favoring less aggression as an “isolationist,” as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

Former Senators Joseph Lieberman and Jon Kyl, identified as co-chairs of the American Internationalism Project at the American Enterprise Institute, offered the other day a statement of what they mean by American internationalism. Their piece exhorts us to resist “calls from Democrats and Republicans alike for neo-isolationist policies” and instead to “accept both the burdens and the benefits of a robust internationalism.”

The image of bipartisanship is clearly important to the Republican Kyl and the Democrat-cum-independent Lieberman, the latter of whom when still in the Senate was one of the Three Amigos along with John McCain and Lindsey Graham.

Former Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

The rhetoric of Lieberman and Kyl about not withdrawing from the world sounds fine as far as it goes, but it does not go very far. Their one-dimensional treatment of their subject, in which everything gets reduced to a simple but grand choice of the United States playing or not playing a major role in world affairs, is divorced from the real policy choices the nation confronts and from any distinction among the varied policy tools available to it.

A ghost from the past about which they warn, the isolationism that constituted a significant and influential current of opinion in the United States between the two world wars of the Twentieth Century, is today less of a ghost than a straw man.

It would mean favoring severe cutbacks in military capability such as those that occurred after World War I and a withdrawal from global diplomacy reminiscent of staying out of the League of Nations and autarkic economic policies reminiscent of the Smoot-Hawley tariff. Whoever may represent this combination of views today is, for better or worse, on the fringe.

Maybe the compression required to fit thoughts into an op-ed is a factor, but to argue in a single breath, as Lieberman and Kyl do, against both “diplomatic retrenchment” and “military budget cuts” is to seem oblivious to the main lines of contention in policy debates on hot topics of the day such as Syria, Iran and much else.

Some of the most prominent divisions of opinion pit those who would emphasize the diplomatic tool against those who would rely on the military one. Neither side is isolationist; the issue is one of what is the best way to be an internationalist.

Lieberman and Kyl do not get into such current policy choices. One is left to wonder whether when they argue against diplomatic retrenchment and in favor of “a robust international economic and political presence” they would favor, say, the sort of U.S. diplomatic and political effort required to achieve a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and creation of a Palestinian state. One would have reason to doubt that they do. Or how about vigorous U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at a political resolution of the Syrian civil war? There is also reason to doubt they would favor that.

Their simplified version of internationalism that conflates multiple dimensions and foreign policy instruments into one leads to what can only be described as bad analysis. To talk reproachfully about the “slashing” of defense spending after the Soviet Union collapsed before the September 11th attacks “reminded us of the risks of assuming that peace will always prevail” suggests that a Cold War superpower and a terrorist group should be met by the same level and type of military capabilities.

They make a similar mistake in criticizing “proposed cuts in aid and military strength” and having a “small footprint” in the world as negatively affecting “our ability to deter the threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Syria, a more assertive China, al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and individuals.” With some of those adversaries a large footprint has been more of a provocation than a deterrent and, in the case of al-Qaeda, has even been a goal of the adversary.

This sort of talk from Lieberman and Kyl is, at a minimum, unhelpful to public understanding of real choices and real foreign policy problems. But they may have a further agenda, in which their talk is not just sloppy and oversimplified analysis but serves a more specific purpose for them.

The purpose might be gleaned from some of the positions earlier taken by the former senators and by the Three Amigos, who seem never to have met a war they didn’t like. If their principal purpose is to push for more rather than less military spending and more rather than less use of the U.S. military, it is useful to argue that opponents of their positions are “isolationists” bent on repeating mistakes of the past.

The argument obscures the fact that many of those opponents have at least as robust an internationalist perspective as Lieberman and Kyl do, even though they have different ideas about where and how to use different foreign policy tools.

We need to be wary not so much of a new isolationism as we do of arguments that use the label isolationism to confuse and obscure.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

9 comments for “Forever Pounding the War Drum

  1. rosemerry
    May 1, 2013 at 02:55

    Do we have to hear more of these two atrocious men as”representatives” of US policies?
    How can anyone say the US was non interventionist during the Korean War, the Vietnam War and all the vicious interventions in Latin America since WW2??

  2. Otto Schiff
    April 30, 2013 at 21:25

    Remember president Eisenhower, Beware of the military industrial complex
    Rehmat is not at all responsive to the subject.
    Instead he has to voice his usual anti Israel diatribe.

  3. Hillary
    April 30, 2013 at 20:04

    Religious childlike minds like that of Orthodox Jew Joe Lieberman are incapable of seeing basic realities and blinded by what they call faith.
    Joe Lieberman is in reality a war criminal who promoted the invasion and destruction of Iraq and continues to promote a similar agenda for Iran.
    His policy of killing them “over there” has resulted in over 2 million dead Muslims and destruction of Iraq , Afghanistan , Libya , Palestine Syria etc.

  4. F. G. Sanford
    April 30, 2013 at 16:32

    Our dysfunctional foreign policy is based on a simple delusion embraced by our fatally ignorant and misinformed politicians: either a) intervene militarily or b) appear weak. This sells to the masses and pleases the corporatocracy. Most of the time, it is impractical to intervene, so we appear weak. Who could argue that Kim Jung Un won the most recent round? I predicted just before the Boston incident that we would pursue the strategy of weakness, and maintain the “status quo”. When we do intervene, it is always a disaster, but as we saw last week at the dedication of the Bush Lie-Bury, the media is always willing to forget reality and paint a nostalgic picture of the world, “Better off without Saddam”. The rest of the world doesn’t see our interventions as helpful or our inaction as an impediment. They see us more like the drunken uncle who almost always creates a humiliating scene at weddings and funerals. But nobody can afford or agree to stuff him into the back of a station wagon and get his obnoxious ass off the premises.

  5. Don Bacon
    April 30, 2013 at 11:04

    Back in the sixties there were vocal anti-interventionists in the US Senate. Now there are none, whereas there are several vocal interventionists forever appearing in the media. I wonder why that is. Why is it that not one senator, that I’m aware of, is vocally and obviously in favor of a position that has been shown to be eminently sensible and correct. It needs to be addressed.

    • lastcamp2
      April 30, 2013 at 11:24

      Of course we can only speculate. One speculation is that we have really gotten into the “duopoly” mode, for whatever reasons, where there is no room to accommodate much outside a conventional “middle,” which is really center right at best. Another has to do with the ubiquity of fear, playing into the fact that when people are fearful or feel threatened, their primal instinct is to aggression.

      And, of course, it may have to do with the fact that there are powerful vested interests who profit from war, and those are the same vested interests who comprise the 1% who now hold both the wealth and the power in this country.

      Of course all of these things work together in a synergistic way.

      As Gil Scott-Heron said, “The problem with peace is you can’t make any money from it.” – Work for Peace

  6. lastcamp2
    April 30, 2013 at 09:47

    Lieberman and Kyl indulge in the simple-mindedness of dualistic thinking, as though the only choices were between war and diplomacy. It is easy to argue that they are being disingenuous, and in doing so hiding the fact that there is a vast range of alternatives from which to choose. If that be the case, their analysis is a cynical but shrewd attempt to manipulate the opinion of those not sophisticated enough to see past their dishonesty.

    So which would be worse? Their dualism or their dishonesty?

  7. incontinent reader
    April 30, 2013 at 09:20

    Excellent article but I’d put it more bluntly- i.e., for conspiring to bring the nation into wars of aggression which have caused so much devastation, I’d urge the prosecution and conviction of these war criminals.

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