In his April 29 op-ed column for the New York Times (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/opinion/when-wolves-attack.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss), David Brooks wrote the kind of foreign-policy piece that used to appear regularly during the early Cold War years. It exhorts the US and the West to stand up once again for democratic values at a time when “we” are being sliced to pieces by all manner of enemies—not just the Russians as in days of old, but Syrians, Iranians, Chinese, you name it. Everyone is out to get us, just as that venerable foreign-policy expert, John McCain, keeps saying.
Brooks’ article is precisely the sort of “we-must-do-something (militarily)-about-everything” idea that Obama testily spoke about on the final day of his just-concluded Asia trip. He was upset, and rightly so, about the criticism being leveled at him for not getting tough with Putin, al-Assad, Kim Jong-un, Xi Jinping, and all the other bad guys who just won’t listen to reason and are challenging American power across the globe. Obama’s chief point is the limits of US power, the need to act in unison with allies, and the desirability (sometimes) of engaging adversaries such as Iran. The US is simply not going to jump into more wars just because things aren’t going our way and international norms are violated, Obama is saying.
Obama challenged his critics to come up with an alternative to war. “Why is it that everybody is so eager to use military force,” he asked (www.nytimes.com/2014/04/29/world/obama-defends-foreign-policy-against-critics.html?src=me). Strange, isn’t it, that as the US divests itself of Iraq and Afghanistan, voices emerge urging the administration to find another battle? Loss of empire is the unspoken theme of critics; the title of Brooks’ article, in fact, is “Saving the System.” Granted, it’s hard not to be Number One anymore, and to accept that the American Century is over. There’s not a little Cold War nostalgia here. Whereas we used to see communists everywhere and stand up against them, now smaller monsters seem to be everywhere, Brooks writes. What they all have in common is their opposition to “liberal pluralism.” But McCain, Brooks, and other much more immoderate conservatives provide no answer other than showing more toughness, as though that will help build liberal pluralism. They really don’t want to send US troops back into battle in Syria, Ukraine, or North Korea; nor does a firm response to repression in Egypt or China sound attractive. Yet they almost desperately want to “do something.”
“Doing something” is not a policy, and it’s dangerous. I think back to Vietnam when, with the realization that the war could not be won, US decision makers searched fruitlessly around for a winning strategy. They simply couldn’t let go because, in their view, Vietnam was a test of American steadfastness. (If not us, who?) Today’s critics likewise can’t let go, not of a particular country but of a global strategy that is the product of a bygone era. Letting go means defeatism to them.
Brooks’ argument, with its undertones of American exceptionalism, may be the sort that will score political points in the next election cycle. Americans, accustomed to being on top and seeing everything in win-lose terms, may respond to arguments about “restoring American greatness” and demonstrating “leadership.” Unfortunately, the world has plenty of tyrants and lots of instability, but what would be the cost of making them targets of opportunity? And what makes Brooks et al. think that the United States now, despite many past failures, has found the formula for building liberal pluralism around the world, especially when that project is still a work in progress here at home?