Stick a fork in it, this bird’s done

Daniel Larison

There are few stronger arguments for the necessity of foreign policy restraint than the false and misleading denunciations leveled against it by interventionists.
U.S. foreign policy has gone from one costly failure to the next for more than 20 years, and those failures have not generated half as much hand-wringing and anger from the usual suspects as the emergence of a pro-restraint coalition in the last three. The latest entry is George Packer’s article in The Atlantic, “A New Theory of American Power,” which seeks to dress up more of the same failed strategy as something fresh and new.
It seems clear that interventionists and hawks are afraid of restraint, but they will need better polemicists if they are going to make much of a dent.
The core of Packer’s argument is to tear down advocates of restraint over their alleged errors regarding Ukraine, but his criticisms miss the mark because he does so little to engage with the arguments that restrainers and other critics have made. He lists the names of several books by prominent critics of U.S. foreign policy, but it seems plain that he has not absorbed any of the lessons from them. Packer mentions Spencer Ackerman’s “Reign of Terror,” but he somehow manages to avoid confronting its overwhelming evidence of the corrupting and corrosive effects of the “war on terror” on our government and society.
The would-be crusaders of twenty years ago created a perpetual warfare mac-hine that keeps the U.S. mired in conflicts that have nothing to do with our security, but for Packer this is just a footnote on the way to making the case for Am-erican “leadership” once again. In the early 2000s, many of the same people that attack restrainers today derided critics of the “war on terror” in similar terms, and here we are again rehearsing many of the same arguments. Far from “overlearning” the lessons of this era, it seems that we are doomed to repeat most of the same mistakes.
Coming out of a thoroughly discredited tradition of liberal interventionism marred by the Iraq war and the intervention in Libya, Packer pretends that restraint has somehow been discredited by restrainers’ desire for a negotiated solution and their appropriate concern about the risks of escalation that the war in Ukraine presents. There has arguably never been a greater need for voices of caution and skepticism than during the current war, which courts the risk of great power conflict and in the worst case scenario the use of nuclear weapons. N-ow is hardly the time to cast restraint aside when there have been so many hardliners calling for increasingly aggressive measures to in-volve the U.S. and its allies directly in the conflict.
To make his case, Packer relies on a cartoonish acco-unt of the recent past. Ac-cording to this story, “We overdo our foreign crusa-des, and then we overdo our retrenchments, never pausing in between,” and he bel-ieves that the U.S. suffers f-rom “overlearning” the lessons of the “post-9/11 yea-rs.” One looks in vain for evidence that the U.S. has even engaged in much retr-enchment in recent years, much less overdone it.
There is also something very strange about giving equal weight to the excesses of “foreign crusades” with the belated efforts to end them. The former were clearly disastrous errors, and the latter were attempts to correct those errors. The greater fault always lies with those responsible for starting or joining unnecessary and unjust wars. Bringing those wars to an end was the responsible thing to do.
Plus, there hasn’t been much retrenchment in recent decades. Except for winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military footprint has remained largely unchanged and in some places it has even grown larger. The conceit that the U.S. “wildly” swings between two poles is not supported by the facts. The truth is that the U.S. greatly expands its involvement in the world, and then it retains most of that newly expanded role for decades to come before embarking on further expansions.
There is nothing to support that idea that the U.S. has overlearned the lessons of its post-9/11 wars. On the contrary, it is painfully obvious that most of our policymakers and pundits have learned nothing from these conflicts except perhaps that the public does not like American casualties. It is not an accident that the Iraq war never receives so much as a passing mention in Packer’s article. When supporters of U.S. “leadership” want to sell the public on an activist and interventionist U.S. role in the world, they are obliged to ignore the colossal blunder and massive crime that was inextricable from that “leadership” at the start of the century.
The discussion of Iran in Packer’s article is unintentionally revealing. He acknowledges that more sanctions “would further the destruction of Iran’s middle class,” but he seems unwilling to consider providing sanctions relief as a means of offering support to beleaguered Iranians. He admits that withdrawing from the nuclear negotiations “would not affect the regime’s behavior,” but still maintains that it would be “the right thing to do.” Why would that be the right thing to do? He does not grace us with his insight on this point. Reflexive rejection of diplomacy is evidently more appealing than thinking through the implications of letting the nuclear deal expire. When push comes to shove, Packer partially recognizes the wisdom of restraint in the Iranian case, but he still wants to condemn restrainers anyway.
Packer writes, “The American-led order lasted three-quarters of a century, and people struggling for democracy in other countries are less eager to see it end than the Quincy Institute is. Even when they resent our interference, they also want our support.” One could hardly ask for a better example of a failure to learn the lessons of the last twenty years than continuing to believe that aspiring democrats desire U.S. backing. If the post-9/11 era has proven anything, it is that the U.S. is not a consistent or reliable supporter of democratic aspirations. To the extent that the U.S. throws its support behind protesters and insurgents, it usually ends up undermining them.
The “American-led order” has had precious little to do with the cause of liberalism over the last few decades, and that was perhaps never clearer than at the apogee of the “unipolar moment” when interventionists wrapped themselves in the mantles of the “freedom agenda” and democracy promotion while supporting policies that trampled on the sovereignty of other states, human rights, and international law. It would almost be funny to see someone praising the “American-led order” in the name of liberalism in the year 2022, but it is simply more depressing confirmation that liberal hawks are incapable of learning from their mistakes.
America is overdue for a serious reassessment of its international commitments and responsibilities. The U.S. has more commitments than it can realistically fulfill, and that calls for cutting back somewhere. Restrainers are among the only people in this country making the arguments for this. The overconfidence in U.S. “leadership” that the war in Ukraine has fueled makes the need for rethinking the larger U.S. role in the world that much more urgent.