I recently delivered a major foreign address at the University of Chicago, in which I highlighted the need for a departure from our foreign policy adventurism—and the need to demonstrate American strength through economic trade and through diplomacy.
Although President Obama ran for office in 2008 on a promise to get America out of Middle Eastern wars, under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his administration continued a series of policies of regime changes, particularly in Syria and Libya.
First, let’s be absolutely clear. The president’s first and most solemn responsibility is to keep us and our freedoms safe, especially from foreign attack. If the government does nothing else, it must do that.
Keeping us safe means having a military capability that is unquestionably second to none. Ronald Reagan was onto something when he spoke of “peace through strength,” and even in our most severe budgetary constraints, we have the resources to maintain the greatest defense on the planet.
But that doesn’t mean we cannot reduce military spending. In fact, we must.
Where the debate comes into play is what we expect our military to do. The best word to describe my approach to military interventions abroad is that I am a skeptic. As president, I would not need to be talked out of dropping bombs and sending young men and women into harm’s way. I would be the president who would have to be convinced it is absolutely necessary to protect the American people or clear U.S. interests. I will be the skeptic in the room.
And there is good reason for skepticism. Just look at the past fifteen years. I supported going into Afghanistan after 9/11 to deal with Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts. We were attacked, and we attacked back. But seven months after we sent our troops to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda had scattered to the winds and the Taliban had been removed from power. Al Qaeda was gone, but we stayed . . . and stayed . . . and stayed. We’re still there.
We’ve been on every side of the conflicts in Afghanistan that have defied resolution for generations. You all are too young to remember, but there was a time when we were fighting on the same side as Osama Bin Laden against the Soviets, who learned the hard way the futility of engaging in Afghanistan’s tribal wars and politics.
Although the oft-claimed idea that we actually armed and supported bin Laden has never been documented, we were, however, arming and supporting those on the same side as him in the resistance.
We accomplished our mission in Afghanistan, and we should have stopped there. Today, too many lives and too many dollars later, the Taliban is returning to Afghanistan. And if we were to mount another surge, remove them, and stay there another fifteen years, the same thing would happen as soon as we left—unless and until Afghanistan takes its own destiny into its own hands.
Likewise, it is difficult, if not impossible, to identify an instance where our military interventions and regime changes in the past fifteen years have improved the lives of anyone. Iraq. Yes, Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. No question about it. But are the Iraqi people better off today because we decided to take him out? Are we safer here in America? No.
In fact, let’s not forget that, as bad as he was, Saddam was the roadblock standing in the way of Iran’s rise as a real threat to the rest of the region. Removing him freed Iran to pursue its ambitions and turn its attentions elsewhere. An unintended consequence, for sure. But a real one we must admit, and which should have been anticipated.
And let us also not forget that, prior to our invasion of Iraq, Turkey was a strong and reliable NATO ally in the region. But that relationship went south in a big way when we invaded Iraq, an action Turkey opposed for its own reasons. Today, as we deal with ISIS and Syria, we wish we had the old Turkey and our strong alliance with them back.
As for Iraq itself, well, it is obviously a tragic mess. Saddam was horrible, but is what we replaced him with any better?
Libya. Same song, different verse. We used our military to help overthrow Qaddafi. Again, a bad guy and, by most standards, a war criminal. But what took his place? Did we have a plan? Did we consider the potential consequences, with which we are living today?
I could go on, but the lesson is clear. Is it our fault that chaos has consumed nations such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, or that violent extremists have found homes in the wake of our interventions? No. It isn’t our fault alone. We had good intentions, but we intervened with no clear vision of the outcomes, and frankly, with no clear vision as to the overall U.S. interest, which should be the guiding principle.