By Stephen Kinzer
Massachusetts Senator John Kerry greeting Senator John McCain, at Kerry’s confirmation hearing for secretary of State, taking the place of Hillary Clinton (left). Photograph: Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Slowly but perceptibly, the stirrings of a new debate are being heard in Washington and beyond. It is about a principle that has not been open to serious debate for generations: whether an interventionist, military-oriented foreign policy is the best way to guarantee America’s power and security, or whether more modesty and humility would be wiser.
Republicans and Democrats – albeit in small numbers – are starting to question the existing paradigm. Senator Rand Paul, a Republican who is said to be contemplating a presidential run in 2016, won national attention this month for his filibuster on questions related to the use of drone aircraft. He has asserted that “a more restrained foreign policy is the true conservative foreign policy” and that “to involve our troops in further conflicts that hold no vital US interests is wrong.”
A handful of Democrats have been saying much the same for years, but they have always been dismissed as knaves or fools dwelling on the political fringe. Seeing even a few Republicans joining them is refreshing and long-overdue. They are evidently driven by budget pressures as much as by concern over a bloated defense budget and the “blowback” that often follows American intervention. Whatever their motivation, they have good reason to wonder whether the United States really needs more than 700 military bases around the world, or 50,000 soldiers in Germany, or numbingly expensive weapons systems like the F-35 fighter jet.
Every American president since the second world war has embraced the muscular, interventionist security paradigm that holds Washington in its grip. Its results can be seen in the wreckage of wars and covert operations from Central America to Central Asia, from Indochina to the Middle East.
Americans who reject this paradigm are rebelling against the “liberal internationalism” promoted by John F Kennedy and George HW Bush, and also against the “neo-conservatism” of Dick Cheney and George W Bush.
What, then, do we call ourselves?
Senator John McCain, a pillar of the long-reigning militarist establishment, gave us a delightful name when he railed last week against “wacko birds on right and left”. We should embrace it. Our next step would be to produce a Wacko Bird manifesto defining what we are for and against.
Wacko Birds are not true isolationists. We do not want the United States to withdraw from the world, but to intervene carefully and thoughtfully, with military force as a last resort.
We care passionately about what happens in the world and want to contribute seriously to processes that truly benefit people far away. If women are being oppressed in Egypt or children are being forced to join armies in the Congo, for example, it is not only acceptable but wonderful for Americans to be concerned, outraged, and active. Wacko Birds, however, realize that the power of the American state, vast as it is, cannot smash cultural patterns that have existed far longer than the United States.
Nor are Wacko Birds anti-interventionist absolutists. We recognize that it is neither desirable nor possible for the United States to ignore the rest of the world and retreat behind its own borders. For better or worse, the United States is and will remain a global power. That implies and, indeed, requires global engagement. In choosing how and where we intervene, however, we want to be prudent and conservative, not lustful and promiscuous.
We would also like to find more creative ways to intervene abroad than the three the United States now uses: aid, bullying, and bombing. Those cannot be the only options available to a great and much-admired nation.
Wacko Birds recognize the need for diplomatic compromise. We do not insist on bringing other countries to their knees or forcing them to accept dictates from Washington. Often, these dictates bring grief not only to the countries on the receiving end, but to the United States itself. We do not demand that the United States always have its way. Instead, we are open to arrangements that include concessions to other countries as a way to reduce global tension – which is always in the American interest.
Another key to the Wacko Bird manifesto would be a narrow definition of vital interests. Having interests that are truly vital implies a willingness to wage war to defend them. Therefore, it behooves every country to keep its list of vital interests as short as possible.
It is truly vital for the United States to assure that it is not attacked with weapons of mass destruction; to prevent wars in other countries from spreading onto American soil; and to maintain access to global sea lanes on which our economy depends. Beyond that, there is little or nothing in the world that should draw the United States to war.
Wacko Birds take a long view of history. We fully agree that the United States should act in its own interest, but want our leaders to take more care in defining what truly is in our interest. Too often, the United States takes radical steps that solve short-term problems, but in the end, create far larger ones. We wish for a foreign policy that carefully weighs the long-term effect of our acts.
Wacko Birds are humble, above all. We do not believe the United States has discovered a magic formula that can produce happiness and prosperity everywhere, or that it can implant its ideals, values, and policies of the moment in vastly different social and cultural environments.
Rather than see the world as a problem to be solved, Wacko Birds approach it as a situation to be understood. From the history of the last century, we take the lesson that when the United States seeks to shape the fate of other nations, it usually ends up harming them. Often, it weakens our own security, as well.
A few Americans have begun to muse about what a truly different United States foreign policy would look like. Senator McCain has given us a name. Our job now is to fill out the meaning of our creed, to present a coherent alternative. America needs Wacko Birds. So does the world.