Only Bad Guys Want Wars

Loudmouth politicians and their armchair equivalents on cable television have spent the last few months railing against the “march to war” in Ukraine. No, not Putin’s. America’s. The facts be damned, a determined peace party has clamored to make the case to the nation and the president that America has no business in that faraway country now in Moscow’s gunsights. (See David French’s fine piece about this here.) Among the reams of data apparently unavailable to the peace party is the fact that increasingly, the United States is not in the business of trying to make the world a better place. And when America gives up on its global democratic mission, cui bono? Among others, Vladimir Putin.

Arguably, for much of its history—with notable exceptions—the U.S. has been a revisionist power. Since its founding, pace John Quincy Adams, America has been all about democracy—at home, abroad, in principle, and in practice. That hasn’t meant expeditionary forces spanning the globe, except when it has. But it has meant standing for a different, better model of governance. Yes, during the interwar years, Congress and the people were emphatically uninterested in being a shining light unto the world. Ditto after Vietnam (and whatever you think of that war, its aims were certainly in line with the fight for freedom).

Many have expressed the hope that the United States is in another lull, looking inward post-Afghanistan, post-COVID, post-fill-in-the-blank. But the reality is that America’s preoccupation with itself, and “nation building here at home” far predates the pandemic and began in earnest in the latter years of the George W. Bush presidency. It lasted into the Barack Obama years, with Donald Trump then doubling down on Obamaian isolationism. Even vaunted foreign policy graybeard Joe Biden made clear he was done with America abroad in his disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

In the post-World War II era, there has been only one major benign revisionist power: the United States. If America has decided to hang up its wings and settle into the comfortable couch of status-quo power, then who is left? Naturally, the perennial revisionists, the tyrants with views of a larger domain, a sense of their own personal and ideological destiny; in short, the bad guys. And that is very bad news for every single American, whether he or she is determined to ignore Ukraine, Taiwan, Iran, North Korea, and every other flashing red light out there in the wide world.

Advocates of “neutrality,” “America First,” “peace now,” and every other isolationist clarion call have always ignored that glitter in the eye of the hopeful revisionist tyrant in the indifferent/ignorant/misguided belief that the latest predation would be the last. Thus we believed that Hitler would be sated with the Sudetenland, Stalin with Poland, Iran with a Russian nuclear reactor, China with Hong Kong … the list goes on.

When the United States was in the business of standing up to these troublemakers, whether by supporting opposing political leaders, levying genuinely punitive sanctions (think Cuba, or Iran during the Trump administration), or with troops keeping the peace (like all those U.S. forces in Germany, Italy, South Korea, and Japan, for example), there were palpable limits on the malign plans of the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of yesteryear.

Indeed, neither Putin ­­­­nor Xi (nor Ayatollah Khamenei or Kim Jong-un) are special breeds of dictator, somehow immune to effective containment, deterrence, or outright intimidation. Rather, it is the attitude toward them that is different. Like others who came before them, they have spent their time in office testing the world … and finding it, for the most part, wanting. Few can point to any reaction to the takeover of Hong Kong, the arrest of its democracy activists and the imposition of Beijing diktat in violation of agreements with the United Kingdom, and aver that represented a deterrent to Xi to continue his march apace.

Those who have followed Iran’s path to a nuclear weapons program can hardly claim any sustained victory in efforts to either contain, deter, or slow it down in any meaningful way. Ditto Putin observers who have watched him swallow Crimea, the Donbas region, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and a variety of other sovereign territories with something close to impunity. Indeed, anyone watching America in the world would, with a few exceptions, conclude that if the Taliban can take on the United States and win, then it’s a free-for-all for pretty much anyone.

This raises the question of what should be done, or what a different United States would have done if faced with these multiple challenges. And here’s the rub for all those modern-day Charles Lindberghs: War is deterred and often avoided when revolutionary, revisionist America is abroad. When the president of the United States makes clear that he has real red lines, real economic tools, real values to defend, and real allies.

For much of the last decade plus, our red lines have been a farce, our economic tools have been wielded with half-hearted intensity, our values have been largely rhetorical and our alliances have been pro-forma, more party than war party. Is it any surprise that a country with such a foreign policy finds challenges on every corner of the earth? Perhaps, with a little reflection, our leaders will realize that it was the Founders’ America—revolutionary, revisionist, and fearless—that struck fear into the hearts of our enemies.

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