But today, this judgment and the policies it generates are increasingly tragic—in the most Greek-theater sense of the term—continually pursuing exceptionalist leadership of this kind produces exactly the opposite of the goals the policies purport to advance: a stable world order, enforced by the U.S. military, with security for the United States and its people.
The reasons this judgment is certain to produce tragedy and less security are twofold: behaving as the global enforcer has failed, with blowback (more terrorists) as the result. And the judgment runs against the tide of history today—a rebalancing world where neither the United States, nor any other single nation, can call every shot.
The use of U.S. military force in pursuit of that objective has won few fights, failed in the execution of post-conflict reconstruction and governance, and stimulated the growth of even more terrorists and terrorist organizations. Putting the military at the tip of the U.S. foreign policy spear, when it should be in the rear as a support function, has weakened the credibility of U.S. leadership. It is not Obama’s “hesitation” to use force that has distanced other nations from the United States. It is the interventionist instinct, the effort to “set the rules,” that causes pause in other nations.
This “consensus” judgment of foreign-policy makers, which Clinton’s views reflect and support, not only fails to perceive the changed world we live in correctly, but executing its strategy risks producing precisely the opposite result from what is intended. A no-fly zone in Syria seriously risks putting U.S. military forces at the heart of the conflict, creating the third U.S. invasion in the region since 2001. There is no gain to such a step; there is only high risk of more American lives being lost in an unwinnable war as well as exacerbating regional hostility toward the United States. Similarly, a direct confrontation with Russia in central Europe and Ukraine increases by orders of magnitude the paranoia already infecting the Russian leadership that the United States intends to put itself right at the periphery of Russia and perhaps beyond. Not for nothing have Russian military exercises for three years running emphasized attacks by NATO—even on Russian territory itself.
Thucydides wrote that “of all the manifestations of power, restraint is the one men admire most.” Restraint is not the key to the national security visions of either of our presidential candidates. One of them is unrestrained and seems ready to lead the nation into war as reactive spasm; if the other guy won’t back down, we’ll just destroy them, with all the downside risks that entails. The other candidate seems all too ready to plan our way into global conflict, with carefully articulated deployments of military force under the misguided notion that the United States is and can be the “indispensable” global leader. Either way, the rest of us are in trouble.
Gordon Adams is a distinguished fellow at the Stimson Center, professor emeritus at American University, and was senior White House budget official for national security in the Clinton administration. Lawrence Wilkerson is visiting professor of government and public policy at the College of William and Mary and former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Image: Hillary Clinton at AIPAC 2016. Flickr/Creative Commons/Laurie Shaull