When pragmatism trumps imperialism

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In this Sunday, Oct. 18, 2009 file photo, U.S. Army soldiers stand with Afghan policemen before a joint patrol of Qalanderkhail, outside of Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, File)

For too long we have engaged in a militarily exhibitionist strategy towards foreign policy. It is about time that we withdraw American troops from war-zones that we arguably should have never been a party to in the first place.

The discordant unison of our punditry class can be disorienting. These self-anointed “thought leaders” on both sides of the political spectrum, seem to echo the same somber and alarmist message when it comes to matters of foreign policy. It is a message of fear wrapped in fatalism, and one that serves as the contrived impetus for some of our countries most fraught decisions.

By now we should realize that the orthodoxy of presidential tradition is nothing more than a deceitful construct. It has been used far too often as a tool to legitimize some of our government’s most heinous acts, as has been made apparent by our nation’s past endeavors in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya, etc., in which preceding presidents have invoked national security as a dubious pretext for conflicts that, perhaps, could have been avoided with more careful deliberation and diplomacy. Trump is at the very least transparent. What you see is generally what you get.

Military force is not the only way to have an impact on the world stage. Just take a look at the trillions of dollars that China has invested in infrastructure projects throughout Asia, Africa, and South America as part of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Instead, we might look to forge deeper economic relationships by making prospective investments in within strategic countries, investments that do not require the use of military personnel. This alternative paradigm would substitute the jagged scars of war, with a different vision of American exceptionalism: one in which we are partners rather than occupiers.

For all that is said about China’s international development strategy, it does have a troubling tendency to invoke vestiges of a not so distant colonial past. That is not to say we must copy such a model. Acknowledging that the United States does not have the ability to subsidize projects to the extent that a unilateral government like China’s can afford to do, we can still place greater emphasis on vehicles like the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (USDFC), a successor to several overseas investment programs that President Trump signed into law as part of the BUILD Act in October 2018. Such progress is consistent with a new approach that acknowledges America’s pressing need to adapt to a changing world. At every juncture, we must ensure that we are sowing the seeds for future prosperity, which will provide less incentive to militant groups that seek to exploit socio-economic disparity.

As we have seen throughout this protracted conflict, our presence has, for all its minor victories, served as at best a minor rebalancing of regional players, and at worst a recruiting tool for those who wish to do us harm. Our host populations do not embrace the idea of having foreign occupiers roam their lands with implied impunity. In so much as ISIS was a chilling visage of what naked evil looks like, it was also a self-induced problem. ISIS would have likely never entered our everyday lexicon had we not made the fateful decision to engage in ill-advised misadventures in Iraq and throughout the Middle East. The Bush legacy carries a lot of burden in that decision. However, legacy need not mean permanent acquiescence to a ‘new status-quo’.

Both Obama and Trump have stood head on to the Bush inheritance. While Obama expressed more restraint than his predecessor, he vacillated in his approach to foreign policy, reluctant to challenge the guidance of proclaimed experts, such as generals and other hawkish voices within his administration. Divergently, Trump has finally acted on an impulse that is instinctively correct. His judgment, though it has perhaps erred in other areas, is stridently prudent in this instance. Generals see the world through the lens of war. They are inured to the idea of a world at conflict. Trump, while content in wading in the rhetoric of conflict, is perhaps less inclined to accept the realities of conflict. This is a good thing, especially when the conflict is ill-defined and protracted. Trump’s desire to “win” calls the military brass’s bluff. He knows when he can’t win, and, rightly, he decides to fold and take his chips elsewhere.

Military withdrawal does not mean abandonment; it means greater focus on situations where we have a clear role. Engaging in a proxy war in Syria is a futile endeavor. Instead, the U.S. should be more independent and challenge the conventional wisdom that is clearly not working. We can be allies with Saudi Arabia, and Israel and simultaneously work toward a more amicable relationship with Iran. The progress, though slow, that President Trump is making in North Korea can be replicated in our relationship with Iran. The willingness to hold bilateral meetings with Kim Jong Un is a welcome diplomatic shift. It is somewhat odd, given this context, that the administration has been less inclined to engage with Iran in such a way. We must not abide by the ironclad absolutism that has driven our past relations with Iran. Compromise does not mean naiveté, but it does represent a willingness to make a good-faith effort to at least show up at the bargaining table. President Obama should be given credit for his posture on Iran, realizing that by invoking a less adversarial posture, there at least exists possibility of future peace. Though it may seem optically questionable in the short term, making some concessions is far preferable to the costly alternative. We are only hurting our leverage when we capitulate on prior agreements, erasing incremental progress to score a short-term Pyrrhic victory.

It is not constructive to treat foreign engagement as a zero-sum game, where the costs are infinite and are not so obliquely compared to a 9/11 type terror by such staid institutions as the New York Times. Propagating such Hobbesian-inspired analysis as non-editorial journalism is both sensationalist and wrong. If the challenge to orthodoxy is what has folks so incensed, then perhaps it is due time for a change. If that change means that more service members are able to spend time with their family and avoid some of the burdens of war (PTSD, relational strife, physical injury, or death), then perhaps we need to argue what exactly it is we are fighting so stridently for, whether from behind our keyboards and screens, or on the front lines of foreign engagement — lines ever shifting in the desert sand.

Justin C. Bryant has worked with state-level political campaigns in the Flathead Valley and is a former Congressional staffer in Iowa

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