If I use the term “restrainer” what does that call to mind? A device that keeps an infant safe in the back seat of an automobile? Something Nurse Ratchet used to subdue unruly patients?
No, what I’m referring to today are those eager to see the United States pass on the hot and heavy torch of global leadership. That’s what a war-weary and no-longer-so-great Britain did following World War II. A question that should arise: To whom would Americans pass it? Sweden’s leaders are good enough but not strong enough. China’s rulers are strong enough but not good enough.
Restrainers also endlessly call for “ending endless wars.” George Orwell’s pungent observation is apt: “The quickest way of ending a war is to lose it.” What’s to stop us from simply declaring victory and walking away? Nothing. But fooling oneself is easy. Fooling one’s enemies — tougher.
The editors of the journal Foreign Affairs turned over their March/April issue to the restrainers, noting: “Feeling down these days, the United States is questioning the global role it once embraced. The empire that Washington absent-mindedly acquired during flusher times now seems to cost more than it’s worth, and many want to shed the burden.”
To their credit, the editors give space to a contrasting view in the July/August edition. The essay by Lt. Gen. (Ret.) H.R. McMaster (former National Security Adviser, current Hoover Institution senior fellow, and chairman of the board of advisers at FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power) is worth reading in its entirety. But let me highlight a few points, and add some of my own.
Gen. McMaster argues that retrenchers — he prefers that term to restrainers — chanting the “new mantra of ‘ending endless war’” ignore the rather obvious fact that “sometimes wars choose you rather than the other way around: only after the most devastating terrorist attack in history did the United States invade Afghanistan.”
Which prompted me to ask: What might a “restrained” response to 9/11 have looked like? To which I answered: Probably like the responses that followed al Qaeda’s attacks on America’s embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. Washington’s restraint achieved nothing — other than to convince Osama bin Laden that American blood comes cheap.
President Obama implemented a policy of restraint in 2011 when he pulled all U.S. troops from Iraq. That didn’t end the endless war in that country. It just made possible — if not inevitable — the Islamic State’s rise from the grave of al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
President Trump seems conflicted. In his recent address at West Point, he proclaimed: “We are ending the era of endless wars.” Yet he also praised such resolute warriors as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur, saying the latter “knew that the American soldier never, ever quits,” as well as Ulysses S. Grant who, far from demonstrating restraint during the Civil War, conveyed to President Lincoln “that whatever happens, there will be no turning back.”
Mr. Trump has been displaying restrainer tendencies vis-a-vis Afghanistan. The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February, Gen. McMaster writes, “will allow the Taliban, al Qaeda, and various other jihadi terrorists to claim victory, recruit more young people to their cause, gain control of more territory, and inflict suffering through the imposition of draconian sharia.”
He adds that “the establishment of an Islamic emirate in a large portion of Afghanistan would generate another wave of refugees and further destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation of over 220 million people. … Retrenchers do not acknowledge that U.S. withdrawal often leaves a vacuum that enemies and adversaries are eager to fill.”
What else, beyond losing wars and offloading the burdens of leadership, do retrenchers/restrainers have on the menu? A long list of items is presented in Foreign Affairs by Stephen Wertheim of the Quincy Institute, an organization founded by billionaires George Soros and Charles Koch. The former is a man of the left, the latter a man of the right, but both agree that it’s time for American “primacy” to end.
Specifically, Mr. Wertheim urges Americans to “seek to transform globalization into a governable and sustainable force.” Translation: The United States should surrender sovereignty and power — the torch of leadership mentioned above — to bureaucrats at the U.N. and similar transnational organizations.
Foreign Affairs’ editors summarized his other ideas: “Washington should withdraw from much of the greater Middle East, rein in the ‘war on terror,’ rely on diplomacy instead of force, and concentrate its attention on trying to steer the global economy toward fairer and greener pastures.” Ponder those proposals for a moment.
Would it be in America’s interest to cede the Middle East to Iran’s clerical regime, which vows “Death to America!” and is developing the nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles necessary to fulfill that promise?
Will the scores of terrorist groups around the world pose more or less of a threat if we “rein in” our efforts to foil their plots?
Can you think of a single example of diplomats who have been more effective by talking softly and not carrying a big stick?
As for “trying to steer the global economy toward fairer and greener pastures,” that’s the sort of blather one might expect to hear during an interview with the runner-up in a beauty contest.
And can anyone be so naive as to believe that the rulers of China, Russia, North Korea and Iran would become good neighbors in the global village if only we’d choose to spend the remainder of the 21st century as a second-rate power? Plow through the sophomoric ramblings of the restrainers/retrenchers, and I think you’ll answer in the affirmative.
• Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.