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Foreign Policy And The Road From Etchasketchistan


This is Part 1 of a four-part series.

American foreign policy is currently languishing in a netherworld of indeterminacy that goes by the name of Etchasketchistan.

I borrowed that from a one-line fake headline gag in The Onion: “Earthquake Wipes Out Etchasketchistan.” It’s a pretty good metaphor to describe the breaking point in foreign policy caused last year by President Obama’s abortive proposal to bomb Syria. Here is how I described it at the time.

The Syrian intervention has finally shaken loose all of the foreign policy alignments that fell into place during the Iraq War, and it’s as if someone grabbed the foreign-policy commentariat, turned it upside-down, and shook it so we can start all over again from a blank slate. You can no longer guess where anyone on the left or the right will stand, or who will come off sounding like a realist, a neocon, an isolationist.

The ironies were pretty stark. The debate over Syria pitted “skeptical anti-war Republicans” against “hot-headed neocon warmonger Democrats.” It was as if “everyone has decided to switch sides since the last go-around, just to keep things interesting.”

And now the Etch-a-Sketch has gotten another big shake. Just as folks on the right were starting to settle in to their new anti-war attitude, along comes Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine to remind them that they’re supposed to be hawks. After all, standing up to the Russkis somehow feels comfortable, familiar. It’s what Reagan would have wanted us to do.

American foreign policy is adrift and unaligned, with everyone simply reacting to events ad hoc. There is no direction, strategy, or overarching principle.

A foreign policy shaped by events is not as big a disaster as it might seem, because foreign policy always involves judgments about the specific circumstances of specific threats and opportunities. For long periods, American foreign policy has had one overarching threat or event to give our policy a long-term framework. After World War II, the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s biggest threat. So for forty years, foreign policy was always about the same basic question: how do we oppose Communism? After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the question was: how do we capitalize on this opportunity to pursue peace and trade with more of the world? For about ten years after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the basic question was: how do we oppose radical Islamists? (While that question remains, it has been considerably muddled by the aftermath of the Arab Spring.) You could say that during each of these periods we were reacting to events, but there was some one big event that provided a framework and gave a degree of long-term stability to our foreign policy.

Today, we don’t have a framework, and we’re just getting whipsawed by events.

We need to take advantage of this Etch-a-Sketch moment to pull back, look at the big picture, and rebuild a foreign policy consensus for the right by going back to basic, pro-liberty principles.

Sitting Out the Last War

But first, there is a big obstacle to get out of the way. A new consensus is trying to establish itself on the right, one that is reflexively anti-war and anti-intervention. Ayn Rand once argued against the use of the term “isolationist” as a smear—but boy is it tempting to use it against some on the right who it seem like they have never found a vigorous foreign policy action they could support.

Partly, this is a consequence of the rising influence of the libertarian wing of the right, which has a long history of borrowing its foreign policy from the blame-America-first anti-war left. The situation in Ukraine has served as a reminder of the bizarre and destructive stance of the Ron Paul libertarians. This is a guy who quit the Republican Party partly in protest over Reagan’s opposition to the Soviets, and who is backing Vladimir Putin in the current conflict. Does anyone else find it strange to find a libertarian who is so comfortable with dictatorships?

But the issue is wider than the Paulite influence. There is a whole group of disillusioned conservatives who are still politically shell-shocked from the war in Iraq.

This is a variation on the old phenomenon of fighting the last war—responding today with whatever you wished you done last time around, whether it’s appropriate or not. The most famous example is the Maginot Line, an impregnable defense against the kind of trench warfare the Germans used against France in World War I—which turned out to be useless against the new mechanized maneuver warfare of the blitzkrieg.

The difference this time is that it’s not about how the last war was fought, but about whether it was fought. There are many on the right who wish, in retrospect, that we had sat out Iraq. So now they’re determined to sit out whatever happens next.

Vietnam Syndrome Lite

If we’re living through 20th Century Lite—a re-enactment, in miniature, of all the errors of the last century—then this is Vietnam Syndrome Lite. The failure in Vietnam (which was not a failure on the battlefield, just as Iraq wasn’t) was used to pound in the idea that the US should never do anything like that ever again. It made us gun shy when it came to using our military power, because we assumed that any intervention would just end up being a quagmire. Does any of that sound familiar? We only overcame the Vietnam Syndrome after two things happened. First, events spun so far out of control at the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration that it became clear the US had to become more assertive again. Second, we managed to produce a few conspicuous examples of American military success—most notably the Gulf War in 1991—that gave us our confidence back.

How can we overcome our current reprisal of the Vietnam Syndrome? Unfortunately, I don’t think we can argue our way out of it. I suspect it’s going to take some big event—bigger than the current crisis in Ukraine—to shake us out of our lethargy. But we can prepare the ground by examining three basic arguments made by the anti-interventionists: appeals to the expense of American action, to the difficulties in executing it properly, and to a greatly constricted conception of American interests.

Let’s start with the expense of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The fact is that these are small wars, both in terms of money and lives. The cost is great, of course, for the individuals who bear it, for those who have been injured and for the families of those who have died. But until or unless we can get drones to do all of our fighting for us (a strategy that has disadvantages of its own), all wars will result in the death and maiming of service members, and most wars have had a far greater cost. Iraq and Afghanistan put together cost less than half as much money relative to GDP (which is the appropriate measure) as Vietnam, and less than one twentieth as much as World War II. The difference in the cost in lives is even starker. The war in Iraq cost about 4,500 American lives—less than one tenth the cost of Vietnam, and almost one one-hundredth the cost of World War II. So if Iraq was “too costly,” how could any other conflict be justified? To oppose even these relatively small wars on the basis of their cost is, in effect, to oppose war as such.

And after all, war is not bankrupting the nation. There are plenty of other things that are bankrupting the republic: bailouts, stimulus, and above all else, the vast entitlement state. But defense spending is relatively low by historical standards, and positively tiny as a percentage of federal spending. As recently as the 1950s, the federal budget was about 80% defense spending and 20% everything else. If we had that same ratio today, the federal budget would be no more than $1 trillion total, giving us a massive surplus that would allow us to rapidly pay down the debt. So please don’t repeat the anti-war talking point about how defense spending is bankrupting the nation. No, it’s everything else that’s bankrupting us.

Similar complaints have been made about the poor execution of the war. One veteran comments:

Speaking for a not-insignificant number of veterans of the last dozen years of war, may I raise a point of order? Before we go too far down the road of discussing whether and how interventionist we shall be, can we at least discuss how much we failed in the execution phase of the last round of interventions? A philosophy of muscular engagement fails when the execution of that engagement is—how shall I put this charitably?—lacking.

This has led to a common view on the right—a way to square the circle of the right’s hawkish legacy and its present anti-interventionist mood—that they would favor intervention, if only we would use enough force and do it right.

I respect this outlook, and certainly a legitimate complaint about some of President Obama’s proposed interventions, from Afghanistan to Libya to Syria, is that they are so half-hearted that we are likely to experience significant cost without any benefit.

But then again, when have soldiers ever returned from a war and thought, “Well, that went perfectly.” The history of war is a history of blunders. All too often, a single such mistake has cost as many lives in a day as the entire wars in Iraq and Afghanistan over ten years. And even the most brilliant commanders have made them.

Remember that previous conflicts have given us the phrase “SNAFU” to remind us what the “normal situation” of war is.

To all of these arguments, let us add one other important observation: “intervention” is not synonymous with “war.” In fact, most foreign policy interventions are diplomatic and economic. Some consist of offering indirect military assistance—training, weapons, supplies, intelligence—or just offering moral support. Certainly, most of what we did to oppose the Soviets during the Cold War was not fighting.

I don’t think we can explain the current weariness with intervention by reference to the actual material costs of last decade’s efforts. No, I’m afraid to say that the biggest cost that has propelled the right’s disillusionment is the political cost. Most people on the right are not weary of the casualties or the wartime privation (which most of us have not experienced). No, they’re bruised by having lost a couple of elections, they’re seared by the memory of having to defend the war in Iraq when things were clearly going badly and all their liberal friends were gloating. They’re weary of the mere psychological and intellectual “cost” of having to care about what happens in parts of the world that they don’t particularly like.

Well, suck it up. Were you on the battlefield? Are you on the battlefield now? No? Then you don’t have permission to be tired.

What Went Wrong?

But hasn’t “intervention” been tried and failed? I think we can all agree that our foreign policy is in pretty bad shape right now, about as bad as it has ever been. Heck, the Russians are openly making snide jokes about how President Obama must be a secret KGB recruit. They can’t believe their luck in having such a patsy in the White House.

I’m pretty sure this is worse than Jimmy Carter.

So what was the Obama foreign policy theory that went wrong? Liberal idealism? No, not when Samantha Power, who made her name advocating for humanitarian intervention to stop genocide, is part of a foreign policy team that ignores massacres and deliberate starvation in Syria and seems peculiarly indifferent to human rights. So then is the Obama policy hard-nosed, unsentimental “realism”? Try not to laugh. After all, what’s realistic about Obama’s assessment of the world? Moreover, the “realist” school is fundamentally concerned with stabilizing the international system by preserving the world’s balance of power, something Obama has obviously failed to do. Obama’s policy certainly isn’t “neoconservative” democracy-promotion. From Iran to Egypt, his stance on this issue has run the gamut from indifferent to ambivalent.

No, only one theory explains Obama’s policy, and that is: anti-interventionism. We know that Obama was brought up on the ideas of the anti-American far left, which views American “imperialism” as the cause of the world’s problems. We know that he came into office openly vowing, in his 2009 speech in Cairo, to make America less important and less exceptional in world affairs. I think we can admit that this mission has been accomplished,

President Obama has offered a few sops to existing policies, such as his half-hearted “surge” in Afghanistan, but it was accompanied by an announcement of his intended withdrawal. He not only withdrew troops from Iraq but also proceeded to disengage US diplomats, pretty much ending US influence there. His only major military intervention has been in Libya, but he was only “leading from behind” after Britain and France demanded action. He then immediately forgot about Libya, leaving our ambassador vulnerable to attack. His most controversial tactics—drone strikes, special forces raids, and global wiretapping—were pursued as low-cost substitutes for bigger interventions. His response to the three-way power struggle in Egypt between Islamists, liberals, and the old regime can be summed up as: “let me know who wins.” Hint: it wasn’t the liberals. His diplomacy—in Syria, in Iran, in Ukraine—has shown a fondness for “offramp” deals, whose purpose is not to achieve an important American goal but to take the problem off of our plate.

We’ll have to examine what went wrong with the Bush administration’s interventionist policies, too. But the Obama administration can be taken as a pretty good test for what it looks like when an administration seeks to reduce and avoid American intervention in the world. We can see the results, and they are far from reassuring.

So what is the alternative we should embrace? I don’t necessarily expect to find a bipartisan foreign policy consensus. That is unrealistic, certainly in the short term. After all, the political parties exist to offer ideological alternatives on the big issues of the day. But it would be helpful if we could reach some degree of agreement on the right—and do it, say, sometime before the Republican National Convention in 2016. On the road from Etchasketchistan, it would be helpful if we could get Rand Paul and Marco Rubio riding on the same camel.

Of the anti-interventionist arguments, the only substantial one that remains is the question of whether intervention overseas is in America’s “interests,” a term the libertarian anti-interventionists generally define to mean “not anything overseas.” It is a passive, defensive conception of American interests; in effect, our only interest is not to be noticed and to be left alone. We will analyze, in later installments, how realistic that is. But the question about the nature and scope of American interests is a legitimate one.

If we’re going to chart the road back from Etchasketchistan, a journey that will carry us out of the miniature malaise of our new Vietnam Syndrome, then let’s start by defining and clarifying the interests that are the proper concern of American foreign policy.

This series will be continued.

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