The U.S. Military Cannot Solve Everything

By Daniel DePetris

Of all of the major newspapers and editorial boards in America, the Washington Post has been the most consistent in advocating for U.S. “leadership” around the world.  By "leadership," the Post means using the U.S. military when any turmoil emerges or some atrocity takes place in some corner of the world.  Leadership, in their thinking, is synonymous with unapologetic military action first and foremost.

In an editorial published this week and titled "The next president and the Middle East," the Post delivers a stinging rebuke to Washington's “disengagement” from the region over the past eight years.  The fact that the United States operates several large air and naval bases in the Persian Gulf, stations tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the region on a continuous basis, is a strong participant in numerous peace negotiations, and is the architect of a 60-plus nation coalition against the Islamic State apparently doesn't qualify as engagement in the eyes of the Post's editorial writers.

"[W]hat’s needed," according to the paper's opinion pages, "is a president who recognizes the need for American leadership in the Middle East."  It doesn't take a mind-reader to realize what leadership means in this context: a U.S. military on a constant state of alert, ready and willing to trade in the supposed standoffish reluctance to get involved since the invasion of Iraq for riskier and bolder policies.  Those bolder policies would include the establishment of a No-Fly Zone (Americans shooting down Syrian and Russian airplanes) to protect civilians and air strikes on Syrian military bases in retaliation for the killing of civilians. Both of these suggested military actions are acts of war not authorized by Congress.

The Washington Post, of course, isn't the only paper that holds this view.  Washington is the national headquarters and home base for think tanks, policy research organizations, congressional offices, columnists, pundits, and former executive branch officials who genuinely believe that the U.S. hasn't done itself a service by not putting "more skin in the game."  Part of this belief emanates in the fact that America is the world’s problem-solved, the defender of democracy, the slayer of dictators and despots, the firefighter you can always rely on to come to the rescue when everybody else is twiddling their thumbs and watching the house burn down.  

Through repetition of the same argument, and by virtue of America's vast military power and economic wealth, the foreign policy establishment in general terms has been conditioned to believe there is no quandary the U.S. can't solve with our military or bully that the U.S. can't knock back (the question of what comes next is rarely asked these days).  

The lesson of the past fifteen years, though, is something else entirely - that the world is actually an immensely difficult place to navigate even for a superpower with unprecedented defense spending and a GDP in the tens of trillions of dollars.

Military engagements that were thought to be relatively straightforward and cost a far less amount of casualties and money have tended to go on longer, cost more in lives, and have taken more out the treasury.  Since the war in Iraq, the American people are in fact far ahead of their politicians in grasping the necessity of questioning our assumptions, assessing all the benefits and risks imaginable at the time, and reviewing all other options before their sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, and friends in uniform are again deployed to meddle in the internal affairs of another country or right a perceived wrong.

For one reason or another, much of the foreign policy community and the commentariat continue to miss the point: American leadership is not only about exercising military power.  It is also about setting an example the world can emulate; ensuring American diplomats are afforded every opportunity to resolve a situation at the negotiating table; realizing innovation and prosperity at home is central to America's overall strength as a nation; understanding the legislative branch is an essential component of U.S. foreign policy by overseeing the work of the national security bureaucracy; and accepting the idea that being smart is as essential a tool as being strong.

It is critical that the next Commander-in-Chief comprehends the fundamental difference between adopting a reflexively interventionist attitude -- the way the Washington Post wants -- and being the scrupulous, pragmatic, prudent decision-maker the American people expect and deserve.  

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Hill on November 3, 2016. Read more HERE.