Minding America's Business—Forcefully

The American people’s simplistic, self-contradictory demands are the reason for President Obama’s vacillations on foreign policy. Thus did Gerald Seib explain conventional wisdom.

A poll taken last week by NBC News and Seib’s publication, the Wall Street Journal, found that “respondents by a whopping 47 percent to 19 percent margin said the U.S. should be less active rather than more active in world affairs. At the same time, though, a majority said they want a president who shows a willingness to confront America’s enemies.”

But there is nothing contradictory about the American people’s desire for leaving foreigners to settle their own quarrels and its demand for forcefulness against our enemies. Rather, this is a mandate to mind America’s own business—to mind it forcefully. It is not a counsel of retreat. It is a counsel to use power decisively in our own, well-chosen cause rather than fritter it away. By that counsel, statesmen from George Washington to Theodore Roosevelt—the men on Mount Rushmore—secured America’s peace by earning the world’s respect.

By contrast, our bipartisan ruling class’s foreign policy has squandered that respect and deprived us of peace by: confusing our business with that of other peoples; failing to identify our interests and the enemies who threaten them; and vacillating between the doctrinal neoconservative mandate to “order” the world and the libertarian illusion that we can ignore it. It would be surprising for any foreign policy so burdened not to produce such inconsistencies as bombing Libya while facilitating Iran’s hold on Syria, “pivoting” toward the Pacific to give assurances to Japan, Korea, and the Philippines while reducing the U.S. Navy, and making a fuss over Russia’s seizure of power in Ukraine while sanctioning a mere dozen Russians and “supporting” the Ukrainians with military Meals Ready to Eat.

Si vis pacem, para bellum. If you want peace, prepare for war. For two millennia, this old Roman saying has been a reminder that peoples can expect to enjoy only such peace, such goods, such claims, as they are ready willing and able to defend by winning a war. This requires statesmen worthy of their offices to choose very carefully what claims they make on their government’s behalf: declining to defend those claims earns contempt and aggression, while defending them may require war. And the very worst thing any statesman can do is to enter a war without a pretty clear plan for restoring an acceptable peace. If you don’t have a reasonable plan for winning your peace, your level of effort is irrelevant.

Ever since Woodrow Wilson, our bipartisan ruling class has set aside the jealous squaring of ends and means, indeed the objective of either staying out of foreign quarrels, or of winning them outright and fast if they be of vital importance to America. It has substituted all manner of commitments, involvements and deployments, proceeding without success-oriented plans and without the capacity or even the intention of forcefully producing peace for America.

Americans’ expressed desire for a foreign policy “less active in the world” and tougher against our enemies is a reproach to that bipartisan ruling class. For generations now, policymakers have told the American people that our peace depends not on defeating enemies but on fixing all manner of socio-economic maladies around the globe, that they know how to fix these maladies, and that Americans should give them confidence, money, blood, and time to do this. With the commitment of American lives and treasure to ill-defined attempts at “world order” having yielded defeat, dissipation, and more war, the American people now demand a straightforward focus on identifying and defeating those who stand in the way of our living peacefully.

There is nothing simplistic about that objective. It is the common sense of the ages.