The case for restraint in American foreign policy
In a speech delivered to Congress on July 4, 1821, John Quincy Adams rightly argued that America must hold high the banner for “Freedom, Independence, Peace,” but exercise restraint in foreign policy. He understood that we should offer our prayers and voices to others who seek liberty while avoiding the trap of venturing abroad “in search of monsters to destroy.”
While we don’t oppose all overseas military action, Adams’ warning has never been more relevant. After 15 years of war, Americans are weary of constant conflict, and our interventions have made us less safe. When we were attacked on 9/11, most Americans, including the two of us, supported striking the terrorists in Afghanistan. But our limited and appropriate mission to defend our homeland has morphed into a broader pursuit of regime change abroad.
Invading Iraq, toppling Gadhafi in Libya and interfering in Yemen and Syria have been strategic blunders. After 9/11, Al Qaeda was mostly contained in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Today, the Islamic State network is spreading across the world. We have destabilized regions and, in so doing, helped strengthen a new generation of terror groups.
We should reject the establishment consensus, whether neocon or neoliberal, which too readily defaults to the use of force.
Defending our country remains the federal government’s foremost constitutional priority. To effectively carry out that responsibility, we must craft a 21st century foreign policy based on the restraint Adams envisioned. We should reject the establishment consensus, whether neocon or neoliberal, which too readily defaults to the use of force in the pursuit of perceived American interests and values when there is no direct threat to our national security.
Consider the case of Yemen. Without approval by the American people’s representatives, we have been supplying arms to Saudi Arabia, which is using them to fight the Houthi rebels, a group closely aligned with Iran. We have no stake in this fight, and the policy of arming Saudi Arabia has been counterproductive. Yet we are being blamed by civilians in Yemen, who hold us responsible for the bombs the Saudis are dropping. Nearly 17 million Yemenis face the threat of famine because of this conflict.
What makes matters worse is that the Saudis have formed a temporary alliance of convenience with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, also known as AQAP, to fight the Houthi rebels. AQAP is our enemy. The group claimed credit for the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the “underwear bomber” in 2009 and the intercepted plot to send bombs to Jewish organizations in Chicago in 2010. By supporting the Saudi war against the Houthis, we are creating a vacuum for Al Qaeda to gain power.
Instead of changing course in light of Saudi Arabia’s track record and actions, our country is agreeing to what a Pentagon official called “the largest single arms deal in American history” with the Saudis, involving nearly $110 billion in immediate defense equipment sales and training, and up to $350 billion across 10 years. The deal comes less than a year after Congress voted overwhelmingly to allow the families of 9/11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. Such a comprehensive commitment with an ally that is questionable at best, especially one with a poor human rights record, should not be finalized without thorough congressional debate, and we therefore support a joint resolution of disapproval in order to force such a discussion. Continuing to send billions of dollars in arms to Saudi Arabia will only further destabilize the region without eradicating terrorism.
Syria is another example of failed American foreign policy. Our calls for regime change since 2011 have helped make Syria a magnet for terrorism. No one disputes that Syrian President Bashar Assad is a brutal dictator. But instead of intervening, which has made matters worse, we should seek regional cease-fires involving all the players in the region, including Russia and Turkey. A political solution will not be easy, but reactive and sporadic military involvement does nothing to advance peace.
American political leaders have been tempted to call for military action in recent decades because that is seen as decisive and strong, but restraint often takes more resolve and strength. “Supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting,” wrote the ancient Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu. “If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle."
By repeatedly undertaking interventions without a proper understanding of our enemy, we have weakened our national security. We need to return to the founding principles articulated by Adams; we need to craft a foreign policy that reflects our values yet does not prioritize the use of our power.