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Americans Aren’t Ready for Another Big War

Christopher A. Preble

At the beginning of his book, The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain,
and the Birth of American Empire
, Stephen Kinzer explains
that Americans’ “enthusiasm for foreign intervention
seems to ebb and flow like the tides … At some moments we are
aflame with righteous anger. Confident in our power, we launch wars
and depose governments. Then chastened, we retreat—until the
cycle begins again.”

If fervor for overseas military adventures moves like the tides,
then right now we see more sand and mud than blue water. Americans
aren’t anxious to start more wars. On the contrary, they
believe that U.S. interventions have undermined our security, and
they want to try something else. For example, research jointly sponsored by the Charles Koch
Institute and the Center for the National Interest found that 51
percent of Americans believe that our post-9/11 foreign policy has
made us less safe. And they want more resources dedicated to
nation-building at home—not nation-building abroad. Nearly
eight in ten respondents favor dedicating additional tax dollars to
domestic spending, not a massive military buildup.

Meanwhile, a poll commissioned by the Committee for
Responsible Foreign Policy revealed that nearly 71 percent of
Americans want their representatives in Congress to constrain
Washington’s interventionist impulses. Americans believe that
war is a last resort. They desire “clearly defined goals to
authorize military engagement overseas, including a timeline and
what will constitute victory; [and] oversight and accountability
from Congress in regards to where troops are stationed and what is
being accomplished abroad.” A solid majority of Americans,
according to the poll, also want assurances that weapons and
equipment provided to others are not used in ways that harm
innocent civilians.

“The research showed that 67.4 percent of American voters
disapprove of Congressional leadership allowing our involvement in
conflict overseas without formally approving military
action—or even allowing a debate,” explained Bill
Dolbow, a spokesman for the committee.

Donald Trump didn’t win the presidency on the basis of his
foreign-policy views, per se, but he did do well among voters who
doubted that the country was moving in the right direction. That
included discontent with our experiences in recent wars.

And yet, for all his talk about draining the swamp and sticking
it to the establishment, Donald Trump has not embarked upon a
radical restructuring of the nation’s foreign policy.

He approved an escalation of the war in Afghanistan, and pledged
to leave U.S. troops in central Asia indefinitely. He has expanded
the number of U.S. troops in Europe, maintained a large and
obtrusive U.S. naval presence in the Asia-Pacific region, and
deepened American involvement in the civil wars raging in Syria and
Yemen. He even seems poised to initiate war on the Korean
Peninsula, one that could dwarf all post-9/11 conflicts, combined,
in terms of lives lost and treasure squandered.

Others have different targets in their sights. John Bolton, for example, inveighs against the
Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the negotiated
agreement that placed strict limits on Iran’s nuclear
program, but that Trump has always hated. Bolton favors instead a
policy of greater pressure with the aim of “ending
Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution before its 40th
anniversary.”

Bolton attempts to rally Wall Street Journal readers to
greater enmity toward Iran by invoking the memory of the American
hostages seized more than thirty-eight years ago, in the wake of
the revolution that overthrew the American-backed Shah. In an
earlier era, warhawks and jingos cried, “Remember the
Maine,” to whip Americans into a frenzy for war.

But, as before, the routine grows tiresome. Even some of the
most vocal imperialists in the late nineteenth century had begun to
rethink the wisdom of territorial expansion by military conquest in
the first decade of the twentieth century. Offered the opportunity
to take control of the Dominican Republic in 1904, President
Theodore Roosevelt replied “I have about the same desire to
annex it as a gorged boa constrictor might have to swallow a
porcupine wrong-end-to.” The distant Philippines were an even
bigger headache for Roosevelt. He worried that they might become a
geopolitical liability vis-à-vis Japan.

Explains historian David Mayers,
“Americans were tentative, in some sense abashed by their
imperium and nervous about the cost of colonial upkeep.”

They still are.

I’ve heard credible reports that senior national-security
officials in the Trump administration are frustrated by think-tank
scholars and academics who point out that there is no viable military solution to the ongoing
standoff with North Korea. The White House worries that research
estimating the scale of death and destruction that would ensue in
the event of a war undermines the credibility of their threats,
allegedly reducing the likelihood that Kim Jong-un will capitulate
to American demands.

But, if such stories are true, the Trump administration
shouldn’t blame Beltway pundits and TV talking heads for speaking
the truth. The president and his national-security advisers must
understand that the American people’s widespread dissatisfaction
with our nation’s wars is unlikely to abate any time soon. In
short, the president should reconsider his faith in military
solutions to complex, and perhaps intractable, problems.

And if he—and others around him—persist in believing
that more wars will cure what ails us, the public is likely to
start searching for new leaders who take seriously their
concerns.

Christopher
Preble
is vice president for defense and foreign-policy studies
at the Cato Institute and the author of
The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us
Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free
.