H.R. McMaster and Gabriel Scheinmann try their hands at comedy:
Contrary to the narrative of US belligerence and imperialism that has been impressed on countless university students, the United States has, since the end of World War II, largely pursued a policy of restraint despite its considerable military power.
This line tells us just about everything we need to know about the authors’ worldview, and it shows them to be very dangerous hardliners willing to distort the record to suit their purposes. If the history of US military intervention since 1945 looks like “restraint” to them, I would hate to see what they think overly aggressive and meddlesome behavior looks like. I am reminded of some of the earnest defenses of the “Blob” from a couple of years ago when the interventionist authors listed all of the countries that the US could have attacked after 1991 but didn’t. What restraint!
It is a disservice to the current debate over US strategy to publish such a ridiculous argument. McMaster and Scheinmann pretend that up is down and that the militarized foreign policy of the last few decades was something radically different from what we know it to be. We know that McMaster loathes restrainers, and now he wants to try to blame restraint for the failings of the strategy of primacy that he has supported by relabeling the status quo as restraint.
Conveniently, the authors make no mention of the Iraq war, the Bush Doctrine, or the “freedom agenda,” any one of which would prove their claims about U.S. “restraint” during this period to be false. The ongoing “war on terror” that has the US fighting in multiple countries more than twenty years after 9/11 is likewise left out of the story. Afghanistan receives one passing mention by way of complaining about the decision to end US involvement there after a generation. The idea that the US has been “restrained” with respect to Russia and China is also hard to take seriously unless you think that the US should have been going to war with one or both of them before now.
When we look at all of the US interventions of the last seventy-five years, the one thing that almost all of them have in common is that they were wars that the US chose to fight despite having no vital interests at stake. The US has rarely, if ever, fought in self-defense since 1945. Sometimes our government has fought on behalf of other countries, and sometimes it has attacked other countries just because it could, but there are very few cases in which the US did not go out of its way to become party to a conflict. You can call that restraint if you want, but in doing so you show that your analysis should not be trusted.
McMaster and Scheinmann need to pretend that the US practiced “restraint” since the end of the Cold War so that they can blame “restraint” for whatever has gone wrong in the world in the last three decades. It takes real gall to claim that at the height of America’s “unipolar moment” when the US was waging a global “war on terror” that the US was exercising restraint, but that is what they do. The thrust of their disingenuous argument is that the US was so restrained that it somehow allowed Russia and China to run amok, which conveniently ignores US foreign policy hyperactivism, especially after 2001, and how that hyperactivity looked to Moscow and Beijing. McMaster likes to tout the importance of strategic empathy, but as usual he shows he has no clue what it is or how to practice it.
Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.