Today’s NY Times had op-eds by David Brooks and Timothy Egan, both commenting on Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point. Brooks expressed the neo-con view that we are faced by a world of evil autocracies that we must be prepared to restrain by military action, if necessary.
Curiously, his description of the threatening autocracies made me think about the US.
When you look at autocracies, you notice that many have undergone a similar life cycle. Autocrats may start out thinking they will be benevolent dictators. They may start out flirting with the West and talking about liberalizing reforms. But their regimes are almost always corrupt and inefficient. To stay on top, autocrats have to whip up nationalistic furies. They have to be aggressive in their regions to keep the country united on a permanent war footing. Unstable within, autocracies have to be radioactive abroad.
Brooks notes with satisfaction that Bush I and Clinton intervened with military force on the average every 17 months. Those were always with minor powers, of course. But his concern with autocracies is obviously with China and Russia. Is he really proposing we defend Ukraine with military force? Or the little islands in the China sea that China, Japan, and the Philippines are squabbling about?
Timothy Egan goes through the usual complaint – “no central vision” – but then seems to finally get the point:
Obama didn’t specifically say so, but the guiding principle for this era of nuance and shadows may be no more complex than this: Stay out of wars of unintended consequence.
“Since World War II, some of our most costly mistakes came not from our restraint,” said Obama, “but from our willingness to rush into military adventure — without thinking through the consequences; without building international support and legitimacy for our action, or leveling with the American people about the sacrifice required. Tough talk draws headlines, but war rarely conforms to slogans.”
Is that weakness, or wisdom? Well, neither. But it’s a realistic reaction to the hard fact that the last 50 years have produced the three longest wars in American history. And it’s a pitch-perfect reflection of where most Americans are today.
The US is proud of its incredible military, for which we have sacrificed so much. But history tells one lesson, over and over again. Those who go to war seldom think about the unintended consequences that often are the result. Our recent history shows how difficult it is to translate overwhelming military power into political success.