By Bonnie Kristian
“I don’t think we’re up to heroic ventures in the Middle East,” Paul Wolfowitz, architect of the Iraq war, mused in a recent Politico profile. The unrepentant regime-changer conceded the American public is war-weary, chary of the reckless foreign policy Wolfowitz himself helped entrench in post-9/11 Washington—but he hasn’t let such trifles as bipartisan national opinion damp his enthusiasm for a commitment to permanent U.S. military intervention in the Middle East.
“The alternative is to let a very important, critical part of the world go to hell literally and lose American influence,” Wolfowitz argues, envisioning a United States that settles into the role of world police, uses military force to ensure access to oil, and spreads American values at the tip of the sword.
It’s an approach that finds many champions in Washington, not least among them Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who slammed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in a New York Times op-ed for being insufficiently eager to use the American military to meddle in the internal politics of other countries. Tillerson betrayed America’s founding principles, McCain claimed, in his rather inarguable assertion that “in some circumstances if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals.”
The way McCain and Wolfowitz conflate influence and intervention is nothing new, nor—contrary the florid mantle of moralism in which McCain habitually wraps his incessant calls for war—is it defensible on ethical or strategic grounds.
This insight is not my own. Nearly two centuries ago, John Quincy Adams addressed exactly the false dichotomy of ceaseless military intervention vs. cowardly isolationism for which McCain, Wolfowitz, and pals are a sort of Typhoid Mary in the Washington swamp.
Speaking on July 4, 1821, Adams reflected on the decades that had passed since America declared her independence. Then, he posed a question: “what has America done for the benefit of mankind?”
The McCain-Wolfowitz answer to this question is evident: The United States military manages global affairs, solves regional political disputes, and spreads western democracy, even if that means endless intervention at boundless cost to American blood and treasure with little to no benefit to U.S. national interests.
Adams’ reply was different. “Let our answer be this,” he said, “America, with the same voice which spoke herself into existence as a nation, proclaimed to mankind the inextinguishable rights of human nature, and the only lawful foundations of government.”
Crucially, he added, proclaiming those rights does not mean acting as their global enforcer. America “has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when the conflict has been for principles to which she clings,” Adams said. “Wherever the standard of freedom and independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
What Adams understood and modern Washington ignores is that attempts to spread freedom by force are not the straightforward matter interventionists imaginatively describe. A foreign policy that goes “abroad in search of monsters to destroy” is all too often strategically counterproductive, fostering resentment and unintended consequences abroad while undermining the very principles of good government it ostensibly celebrates at home.
America “well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself, beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom,” Adams warned.
If you find him unconvincing, the last 15 years of U.S. foreign policy offer grim proof of this point. Interventionists promised U.S. meddling in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and beyond would bring freedom, prosperity, and stability to the Middle East while shoring up U.S. security. Some 16 years on, the Middle East is on fire; dangerous power vacuums abound; American safety has not been enhanced; our civil liberties have been undermined; and this litany of failures has been accomplished at enormous expense.
McCain and Wolfowitz claim further decades of U.S. military intervention, regime change, and nation-building are the only alternative to global misery and chaos. The truth is more complicated, but also more hopeful. The United States can—indeed, can only—maintain her example of liberty in a world of political oppression by recalling that American influence does not depend on intervention, by returning to Adams’ motto of “Freedom, Independence, Peace.”
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by The Hill on May 25, 2017. Read more HERE.