The Foundation for the Defense Democracies has just issued a collection of (mostly warmed over) essays that carries the title “Defending Forward: Securing America by Projecting Military Power Abroad.”But it’s the subtitle that tells the tale: The volume’s overarching purpose is to argue against any reevaluation of the existing U.S. global military posture.
Reevaluation apparently risks the possibility of retrenchment which ostensibly implies isolationism which inevitably leads to bad people like Nazis trying to take over the world. As everyone knows, history itself definitively proves this. Needless to say, in a collection like this, opportunities to quote Winston Churchill abound.
The prescriptions contained in “Defending Forward”tend to be tiresome, derivative, inflammatory, and at times simply dishonest. Proponents of a more restrained approach to policy, one contributor writes, “believe that an overly powerful United States is the principal cause of the world’s problems.” He offers no evidence to support this charge.
Another contributor poses the faux question: “What happens after the United States goes home?” In fact, Americans have never gone home in any meaningful sense, choosing even before independence to engage the world in various ways, some successful, others less so. The imagery of cowering citizens hunkered down in their basements while the Gestapo bangs on the door substitutes fear mongering for reasoned analysis.
Presumably, FDD timed the release of this brief volume with expectations that it might prove useful to the incoming Biden administration as it assesses its approach to U.S. national security policy. Note to the Biden transition team: Save yourself the trouble; you’ve got more important things to do than to read this drivel.
In his introduction to the collection, former defense secretary Leon Panetta warns against the United States “withdrawing into a defensive and insular crouch.” In fact, the various contributors strike a tone that tends to be defensive and insular. Panetta himself, for example, bemoans the fact that debating the so-called Vietnam Syndrome “has saddled American strategic thinking for decades.”
Recall that the Vietnam Syndrome marked a very brief interval when Americans were wary about launching military interventions abroad. This reluctance to intervene lasted for perhaps a decade from the 1970s to the 1980s, until definitively “kicked” as a consequence of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as President George H. W. Bush himself famously proclaimed.
In the decades since, a succession of administrations — egged on by bellicose entities such as FDD — has succumbed to the very inverse of the Vietnam Syndrome. The result has been a pattern of rashness that has cost the United States dearly while producing few benefits in return.
FDD spins a different tale, with the Iraq War a case in point. Regarding FDD’s take on Iraq, one will look in vain for terms such as catastrophe or debacle or fiasco. Within FDD’s circles, the preferred tactic is to acknowledge that “mistakes were made” while dismissing them as insignificant.
Certainly, according to FDD analysts, nothing about the U.S. military misadventures in Iraq or anywhere else in recent decades requires any major adjustments to the aims of U.S. policy or the means to be employed in pursuing those aims.
In the most telling example, one contributor — he was working for Vice President Cheney in 2003 — argues that the Iraq-related “lessons” of “greatest relevance” stem not from the reckless decision to invade and the grotesquely mismanaged years-long occupation that ensued, but from the decision to withdraw U.S. forces in 2011. Leaving was the big mistake — the equivalent of arguing that the worst thing about a career of abusing alcohol is the prospect of getting delirium tremens when you finally give up drinking. It ignores primary causes.
Or consider this choice piece of analysis that might have come from Forrest Gump: “The only question is whether the United States will meet the jihadist terrorist threat proactively overseas or belatedly in America’s homeland.” There are only two possibilities: permanent war across the Greater Middle East or suicide bombers in Times Square.
Permeating the FDD essays is an implicit assumption that we still live in the world of 2000. Back then, policy elites had persuaded themselves (along with more than a few ordinary Americans) that the United States was in history’s driver seat while possessing the military might necessary to keep history moving in the right direction.
Two decades later, FDD analysts see no reason to question continuing U.S. ideological and military supremacy. By extension, they see no need to think critically about what Washington’s recurring misuse of military power in recent decades has actually produced and who has paid the bills. Nor are they willing to acknowledge the possibility that while the United States preoccupied itself with needless wars, history headed off in directions that American policymakers failed to anticipate and that employees of FDD would seemingly prefer to ignore.
2020 is not 2000. The operating premises that guided U.S. policy after 9/11, leading to an array of indecisive and protracted military campaigns, simply no longer pertain. That’s a hard truth that FDD will not acknowledge.
An important debate awaits the incoming Biden administration, centered on the question of whether military activism informed by ideological narcissism can form the basis for sound policy — or whether the time has come for a wholesale reorientation of basic U.S. policy, abandoning self-destructive militarism in favor of pragmatism, prudence, and military restraint, combined with plenty of diplomatic, economic, and cultural engagement.
Based on the evidence available in ‘Defending Forward,”the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies is intent on ensuring that such a debate never happens. They’ve already bellied up to the bar with expectations of obliging citizens paying for another round.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.