Promises of Peace, Realities of War

Some anti-war Americans see hope in Donald Trump’s aversion to neocon interventionism but the peace mantras of campaigns often turn into war policies in office, observes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

A common observation about the role of foreign policy in the current presidential race is that Donald Trump’s candidacy is profiting from a lack of appetite among much of the electorate for continued heavy and costly U.S. involvement in overseas conflict.

With Trump having made some remarks that sound critical of that involvement, support for Trump gets interpreted as a rejection of establishment thinking on foreign involvement and of Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness (insofar as foreign policy rather than domestic issues might be shaping any voters’ sentiments).

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Donald Trump speaking with supporters at a campaign rally at Veterans Memorial Coliseum at the Arizona State Fairgrounds in Phoenix, Arizona. June 18, 2016. (Photo by Gage Skidmore)

Some intelligent proponents of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy see hopeful signs in Trump’s comments; Ivan Eland does, for example, and just wishes that Trump would “fill in some of the details on his strategic vision for a proper American role in the world.”

There is no denying that Hillary Clinton epitomizes whatever can be described as establishment thinking on foreign policy. There also is no denying her hawkishness, including when comparing her to the incumbent president. Those hoping for more restraint in U.S. foreign policy have reason to be concerned about that and to look for hopeful signs elsewhere. But to look to Trump in this way is a set-up for unpleasant surprises.

Consider some modern history that is relevant to how the pronouncements and postures of American presidential candidates do or do not relate to their policies on war and peace once in office. A winning campaign slogan of Woodrow Wilson in 1916 was “he kept us out of war.” Five months later Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany.

In the 1940 election campaign Franklin Roosevelt promised that he would “not send American boys into any foreign wars.” Thirteen months after winning the election, Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan. Roosevelt had not been especially regarded as a peace candidate, but it is worth noting that Republican nominee Wendell Willkie criticized Roosevelt for not adequately preparing the country for war and had been more strongly in favor of supporting Britain in the European war that was already under way than were other GOP presidential hopefuls such as Robert Taft and Thomas Dewey.

A central theme of the 1964 presidential campaign was that Barry Goldwater was the warmonger in the race. The Lyndon Johnson campaign’s effective use of tactics that scared people about the prospect of Goldwater’s finger on the nuclear trigger helped to produce Johnson’s landslide victory. Less than a year after the election, Johnson began the escalation in Vietnam that would lead to 58,000 American deaths.

In the 2000 election, George W. Bush disavowed large nation-building exercises and gave no hint of any inclination that he would take the United States into another war. A couple of years later he launched the first major U.S. offensive war in over a century.

Stuff Happens

Several reasons account for the glaring discrepancies between the campaign postures and the later decisions about going to war. One is that stuff happens. Some stuff (unrestricted German submarine warfare; a Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) can reasonably call for an armed response. Other stuff (9/11) might be used in a more contrived way to build public support for an unrelated agenda.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his "Mission Accomplished" speech about the Iraq War.

President George W. Bush in a flight suit after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln to give his “Mission Accomplished” speech about the Iraq War.

Presidential neuroses and responses based on gut feelings and emotions can have a larger impact on presidential policies than anything involving statements made during a campaign. Much of Wilson’s policies, concerning his handling of the peace at least as much as taking the country to war, can be explained in terms of Wilson’s neuroses. And George W. Bush’s need to match or exceed the impact in foreign affairs of his father, who had presided over a successful end to the Cold War, is not just pop psychology.

Other reasons have to do with how most of the electorate responds, often primitively and from the gut, to what the public thinks a candidate represents, rather than taking a more carefully reasoned approach toward what policies a particular candidate is most likely to follow when in office.

Votes cast as an expression of dissatisfaction with the status quo are counterproductive when they lead to policies that only make the sources of dissatisfaction even worse. This happens all the time on domestic policy, with unhappy voters dissatisfied with stagnant wages and a sluggish economy voting for legislators who oppose the very sort of demand-stimulating measures that would be needed to energize the economy.

We should not be surprised when something similar happens on foreign policy. Campaigns waged in terms of slogans and slurs rather than in terms of strategy and specifics only encourage such non-thinking responses by the electorate.

With Donald Trump, and with the political habits that engendered his gaining the Republican nomination, these reasons for discrepancy between campaign hopes and in-office performance are present in abundance. Trump illustrates splendidly the clinical definition of the personality disorder known as narcissism.

The most persuasive future explanations of the foreign policies of a Trump presidency, including decisions on war and peace, probably would be based in large part on presidential neuroses. Hillary Clinton’s speechwriters have a valid point when noting, in their candidate’s convention acceptance speech, that giving “a man you can bait with a tweet” the powers of the presidency has grim implications for the conduct of foreign and security policy.

Trump’s Incoherence

The nonspecific, ever-changing, and often self-contradictory pronouncements by Trump give little basis for a voter to reason out what a President Trump’s foreign and security policies would be even if the voter wanted to apply such a careful process to his or her decision and tried hard to apply such a process.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaking to the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016. (Photo credit: AIPAC)

To speak of “Donald Trump” and “strategic vision” in the same sentence is oxymoronic. Even when Trump has stuck to a teleprompter and a script in talking about foreign policy, the product has been a largely vision-free string of slogans.

The sources of — not to put too fine a point on it — the dumb way a substantial portion of the electorate is currently approaching issues of war and peace and what this implies regarding how they should cast their votes go well beyond Donald Trump.

Max Boot speaks directly and bluntly to this subject in an op-ed in which he discusses how the Republican Party has become the “stupid party” in fact and not just as an act to appeal to the poorly educated whom Donald Trump has said he loves. Boot correctly observes, “Mr. Trump is as much a symptom as a cause of the party’s anti-intellectual drift.”

Boot is one of those neoconservatives who has been tearing his hair out over Trump’s rise because of the hints Trump has dropped that he might actually favor some restraint in foreign policy and because his nomination marks at least a partial loss of the lock that neocons have had in recent years on Republican Party foreign policy.

Obviously Boot believes that making the anti-intellectual party more intellectual would mean hewing to the intellectual line of, to quote from his piece, “conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation and publications like The Wall Street Journal editorial page and Commentary.”

But Republican anti-intellectualism is at least as much a rejection of sound and distinctly non-neocon reasoning regarding the need for a more restrained U.S. foreign and security policy. It is even more a rejection of that reasoning rather than of neocon thinking, given the conclusions that should follow from careful consideration of what has and hasn’t worked in U.S. foreign policy in recent decades.

Mention of the neocons leads to a final observation about the way in which dissatisfied American voters are reacting to the Trump phenomenon. The inexcusable failure to plan better for what would follow in Iraq after the forceful overthrow of Saddam Hussein reflects how that neoconservative endeavor was based on the Jerry Rubin strategy of tearing things down and grooving on the rubble.

So confident were the neocons in the power and appeal of the democratic and free-market values they were attempting to inject into the Middle East that they were sure whatever fell into place after Saddam’s overthrow was bound to be better than what was there before.

Today the people — including those on the anti-interventionist left and the libertarian right — who would like to tear down a militarist “establishment” or “blob” that has dominated American foreign-policy thinking and who see Trump as a vehicle for such destruction risk making a similar mistake.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

16 comments for “Promises of Peace, Realities of War

  1. Brad Benson
    August 4, 2016 at 20:10

    So what’s the point? With Hillary we know we’re getting more war, murder and mayhem. With Trump, we might not. I’ll take my chances with the guy that says he’ll talk to Putin.

    • J'hon Doe II
      August 5, 2016 at 17:15

      Do these have a voice? Or are they simply obfuscation artists?

    • steve brown
      August 6, 2016 at 08:39

      exactly. trump said he’d talk to kim jung-un of north korea as well. good enough for me.

      • dahoit
        August 7, 2016 at 12:47

        And me.Enough of this game of thrones idiocy.Enemies everywhere,except right here in River City,at the news and political outlets,that are the actual enemy.
        Other than Uszion,I see absolutely no global threat anywhere else to mankind.
        Incredible the propaganda,its like Sara Palin and Russia from her window,which was widely laughed at last cycle by demoncrats,but now its a plank in their platform.

  2. J'hon Doe II
    August 4, 2016 at 15:40



    I covered the war in Yugoslavia, and I find many parallels between what’s happening in the United States and what happened with the breakdown of Yugoslavia. What is it that caused this country to disintegrate? It wasn’t ancient ethnic hatreds. It was the economic meltdown of Yugoslavia and a bankrupt liberal establishment that, after the death of Tito, until 1989 or 1990, spoke in the language of democracy, but proved ineffectual in terms of dealing with the plight of working men and women who were cast out of state factories, huge unemployment and, finally, hyperinflation.

    And the fact is that these neoliberal policies, which the Democratic Party is one of the engines for, have created this right-wing fascialism. You can go back—this proto-fascism. You can go back and look at the Weimar, and it—Republic—was very much the same. So it’s completely counterintuitive. Of course I find Trump a vile and disturbing and disgusting figure, but I don’t believe that voting for the Democratic establishment—and remember that this—the two insurgencies, both within the Republican Party and the—were against figures like Hillary Clinton, who spoke in that traditional feel-your-pain language of liberalism, while assiduously serving corporate power and selling out working men and women. And they see through the con, they see through the game.

    I don’t actually think Bernie Sanders educated the public. In fact, Bernie Sanders spoke for the first time as a political candidate about the reality the public was experiencing, because even Barack Obama, in his State of the Union address, was talking about economic recovery, and everything was wonderful, and people know that it’s not. When you dispossess that segment, as large as we have—half the country now lives in virtual poverty—and you continue to essentially run a government that’s been seized by a cabal, in this case, corporate, which uses all of the machinery of government for their own enrichment and their own further empowerment at the expense of the rest of the citizenry, people finally react. And that is how you get fascism. That is what history has told us. And to sit by—every time, Robert, you speak, you do exactly what Trump does, which is fear, fear, fear, fear, fear. And the fact that we are going to build some kind of
    amorphous movement after Hillary Clinton—it’s just not they way it works.

  3. Ol' Hippy
    August 4, 2016 at 12:57

    We are all witnessing the country devolve before our very eyes. Elections for first chair are always a popularity contest for who will lead team USA for what usually amounts to business as usual and people either glad or sad if their captain won the top spot. Most times it doesn’t matter too much for who wins. This year is a bit different because it does and there are no good choices for team USA because third party candidates never win. This country has been at war almost my entire 62 years; a few short periods in the 90’s being the only reprieve. Maybe I’m just cynical but maybe this time there’s no real way out of this quagmire and I hope for the future generations there is but I believe we are heading for darker times because besides the political unrest all over we have a real global warming problem that WON’T go away by wishing or ignoring it and the next leader has to do something concrete before it really is too late toward polar melting. Time indeed is getting short and our next captain has to address these issues and not start another unnecessary war.

  4. exiled off mainstreet
    August 4, 2016 at 12:17

    This is an unprecedented time in history, and, as the above comments indicated, the certainty of the Clinton threat makes the usual situation, as discussed by Pillar, inapplicable. We must also bear in mind that the media is so much in the bag for the power structure and deep state, that many of what appear to be the faults of Trump are manufactured by the propaganda structure. Even his attacks on this Khan, which have been blown out of proportion, have been shown at least partly accurate in light of his paid role as an immigration lawyer and actor for Saudi interests and the positions on sharia law favored by the Saudi and jihadi elements. The fact is, if Clinton gets in, we can’t be assured of surviving the next few years, and the evolving dictatorial power structure will be consolidated as never before.

    • Rikhard Ravindra Tanskanen
      August 4, 2016 at 16:07

      Can you prove that statement, bigot?

    • Gregory Herr
      August 4, 2016 at 22:08

      You and Luther Blissett have stated things so well, and I especially appreciate your point about the consolidation of the power structure.
      One thing about Pillar’s article that I can’t let pass:
      “So confident were the neocons in the power and appeal of the democratic and free market values they were attempting to inject into the Middle East…” Give me a break!

    • steve brown
      August 6, 2016 at 08:44

      the foot soldiers are the most anti-war group, and
      the only hero in a war is one who stands up for justice and peace for all and against all criminal wars.
      all wars are crimes against humanity, instigated by the tiny ruling oligarchs to whom borders, religions and races matter not.

  5. August 4, 2016 at 11:33

    The previous comment says it all!

    • J'hon Doe II
      August 4, 2016 at 15:47

      Many thanks, Judith Bello, for sharing essential truth.

  6. Luther Blissett
    August 4, 2016 at 10:15

    Clinton is a ‘liberal imperialist’ very much as Wilson was – so he is a pretty poor example to explain that commonplace notion that election promises are not always kept. The grouping of Trump, Jerry Rubin and NeoCons as ‘Agents of Chaos’ is more interesting, but undercut by the fact that the NeoCons have all swung over to Clinton….

    The article acknowledges that Clintion and her crew are hawks representing the madness of the current Washington Consensus (i.e Putin is the ‘new Hitler’, Assad ‘must go’, ect….) and it follows that there is no hope that a vote for her is anything but a clear vote for more aggression and war.

    Trump is a horrible person, who has been a cartoonish villain to me since my childhood in the 80s, in a sane world I would not have to discuss him as a serious presidential candidate. Yet there is a -chance- that a vote for him is not a vote for war.

    The simple break-down is:
    Clinton: 100% chance there will be more wars and more Treasury positions given to Goldman Sachs
    Trump: who the hell knows….

    It is the Democratic Party’s love of war (a blood-lust proudly on display 24/7 this last convention) that makes Trump seem even remotely sane. It is the Democratic Party’s love of finance capitalists that makes a millionaire jerk seem like the ‘leftist’ candidate. In fact on many positions Clinton is running to the right of Trump, so far too the right they are actually ‘red-baiting’ Trump!

    I could never vote for either candidate – but if the choice is the orderly march to more wars under Clinton or the unpredictable chaos of Trump, I’m not clear that Clinton is the ‘sane’ choice. The sad part is that I respect why Pillar is writing this, but the Democratic Party under Clinton is far too violent and degenerate to make it a safe place to park a vote until the whirlwind of Trump passes over.

    • alexander
      August 5, 2016 at 07:12

      This is a really good comment, and I think it kinda hits the mark for most of us.

      The real tragedy is that every single nominee, from both parties, with perhaps the (quasi )exceptions of Bernie and the Donald, are really just served up to us by the party bosses and back room oligarchs, whose very agenda is anathema to peace.

      Its like they are delivering a pizza to the voters, where every nominee is nothing more than a slice of the same “perpetual war ” pie.

      Choosing one slice or the other really makes no difference, it will all taste like more war, because more war it is.

      Any “freedom ” to choose peace, which is what most of us want, is a complete illusion.

    • Peter Loeb
      August 6, 2016 at 06:31


      My Dad ran US political campaigns, was a US Ambassador etc. (Today
      I would say that he was largely wrong but a great Dad!)
      He used to bemoan the fact that US elections are never decided
      primarily by foreign policy concerns. (I would exclude times of war itself or
      immanent preparation for war by a nation.)

      Paul Pillar’s article hits many of the right spots. Like everyone else,
      we critics forget most of what happened more than a few years
      ago. We all deny it. Naturally. We are “intelligent”, right? For us,
      the world began with Bill Clinton and George Bush was terrible
      and so forth. Beyond that there was nothing for us. Until Genesis.

      Henry Ford once said “History is bunk!” It isn’t and Pillar’s
      analysis helps us just a bit down that road. It begins–just
      begins– to remind us of the past in the present.

      —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • steve brown
      August 6, 2016 at 08:27

      thank you for saying in plain english what many “uneducated, stupid” trump supporters have been thinking and trying to communicate to the “expert analysts” like pillar.

      an early trump supporter summed it all up: “we know who trump is. he is only a vehicle we are riding into the DC, to either take it over or blow it up, so to speak.”

      ending our emperialist wars, closing down our military bases abroad, and bringing our soldiers back home will solve most of other problems of ours, from terrorism to economy.

      end our own state terrorism first.

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