It’s an election year in wartime, and right now we seem to be having a real debate about American foreign policy. All three of the remaining contenders have been talking about Iraq for months, all have been touting their credentials to be commander in chief, and all have given major speeches mapping out their views.
But don’t be misled. Instead of a real debate, we’re having a make-believe one. The make-believe is the suggestion that there are clear, profound differences among the candidates. In reality, they represent a range that, on a color palette, would range not from red to blue but from cream to taupe.
It’s true they have staked out distinctive positions on the Iraq war. John McCain was for it at the beginning and always will be. Barack Obama was against it from the start and hasn’t budged. Hillary Clinton voted to authorize it but now wants to get out. They have also bickered over issues such as whether to negotiate with dictators and whether to go into Pakistan after Osama bin Laden.
Those disagreements are not trivial. It’s safe to say a Democratic president would handle Iraq differently than a Republican one. But it’s worth remembering what helped to get us into Iraq: a bipartisan consensus on foreign policy that favors U.S. military intervention abroad whenever we may be able to accomplish something that looks appealing. That was our national approach under the past three presidents, and it’s a safe bet it will be our approach under the next one.
During the early 1990s, McCain was wary of the use of American military power. But he supported sending American peacekeeping forces to Bosnia in 1995. When a civil war erupted in Kosovo in 1999, he became a fervent voice for using American bombers and even ground troops against Yugoslavia — this when House Republicans were voting against giving President Clinton authority to go to war.
Soon after, McCain was urging a "rogue state rollback" policy. "We must be prepared," he said, to apply "military force when the continued existence of such rogue states threatens America’s interests and values." Hmm. Whatever happened to that idea?
McCain’s positions bear an eerie resemblance to those of Hillary Clinton, who vigorously favored her husband’s decision to act in the Balkans. "I urged him to bomb," she said later. "You cannot let this go on at the end of a century that has seen the major holocaust of our time."
Her impulse to improve the world at the point of a gun was also on display in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. Besides supporting the war resolution, Clinton often sounded like a crusading neoconservative, envisioning that Iraq would be a "model for other Middle Eastern countries" that would "shake the foundations of autocracy."
If Barack Obama is averse to fighting wars to spread democracy or to advance other noble purposes, he hasn’t let on. He claims the United States has a "moral obligation" to act against "genocide" in Darfur, and he supports sending NATO forces to stop the bloodshed. One of his chief foreign policy advisers — until she resigned over calling Clinton a "monster" — was Samantha Power, a self-described "humanitarian hawk," who excoriated Bill Clinton for ruling out U.S. military action in Rwanda in 1994.
In a recent speech, Obama rejected the idea of cutting back our expansive role in the world. "We can choose the path of disengagment," he scoffed, "and cede our leadership."
Attitudes like that got us involved in the Balkans, where we had no national interest at stake; in Somalia, where we found ourselves fighting a war we didn’t anticipate; and in Haiti, where our good intentions accomplished very little. Iraq, where conservatives turned idealistic liberal ideas to their own ends, was the ruinous culmination of that approach.
If there has been a flaw in U.S. foreign policy in recent years, it has not been an excess of disengagement, but the opposite: an irrepressible urge to use force for purposes that do not enhance our security but expose us to needless risk. The result has been that we find ourselves with more enemies, weakened influence, higher costs, greater strains on our military and less safety.
After the Iraq debacle, you would think our leaders would be willing to undertake a fundamental examination of the long-established and broad-based folly that made it possible. Not a chance.