Has anyone noticed that President Obama, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, collectively the three most popular politicians in America, are all on the same sheet of music when it comes to the use of military force? Obama in an interview with the Atlantic elaborated eloquently on “Don’t do stupid sh__!” as shorthand for the Obama Doctrine.
Let us distill the 21,000-word interview into a few lines. Obama told the interviewer he would not commit military force unless we have a clear idea of the why, the how, the cost, the alternatives and the likelihood of success. He added we should never act alone and castigated several foreign leaders for letting the United States do all the heavy lifting. Obama recognized that other countries have interests, e.g., Russia in the Ukraine, and we should not tread on them lightly. He has made no secret of his distaste for Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s sabotage of peace in the Middle East. Finally, he made the point that the influence of the United States rests on all the assets of American strength, economic, political and moral, and not just the Marines. The pundits, the think tanks, and the Washington Post all hate him.
Donald Trump ripped apart the GOP leadership by arguing that recent military interventions weakened, not strengthened, America. He will make America number one again, he said, through negotiations, not war. Trump criticized Obama’s recent Iran and Cuba negotiations not because he disagreed with the method but because he thinks he negotiates better. He acknowledged that Russian interests in the Ukraine trump (no pun intended) those of the United States and that if the Europeans want to free the Ukraine from Mr. Putin’s clutches they should do so themselves. Trump trashed NATO as “unfair, economically, to us,” and called for an alternative structure. Trump would build the U.S. military even stronger, but use it even more sparingly, than Obama. He declared himself “neutral” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He later tried to repair the damage in his AIPAC speech thus raising the question: “Which is the real Donald Trump?” I vote for the speech in which he did not use Teleprompters!
Similarly, Bernie Sanders, arguing for restraint in using American force, has upset the Democratic Party leadership and the hawkish Senator Clinton. Sanders voted against both wars with Iraq, noting that Mrs. Clinton and the majority of Democratic Senators voted for both wars. He argues that military action should be the last, not first, option. If we must go to war, Sanders states, we should take as many allies as possible into the fight with us. He shares with President Obama belief in the Powell Doctrine – clear objectives including the end game, a supporting home front, overwhelming force to achieve those objectives and the wisdom to get out when we have accomplished those objectives. He wants a new NATO to fight ISIS. He has stated that the solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict demands the establishment of two states providing equal security to both peoples, causing Netanyahu to condemn the only Jew running for President. Sanders lambasted, among others, the Saudi Arabia and other allies for not using their own armed forces to ensure stability in the Middle East rather than hide behind the United States.
All three men have sensed that the international environment has changed dramatically. We had successful wars of conquest in the 19th century. The 20th century saw us fight defensively in World Wars I and II and in Korea with success. Then, things went wrong. In 1964, President Johnson started a war in Vietnam based on a lie. Ten years later, we left Vietnam, defeated. President Reagan sent troops to Lebanon in 1982 for reasons still unclear. We took a bloody nose and we left. President Clinton intervened in Somalia in 1992 because CNN sold us on collective guilt. We got “Blackhawk Down!” In 1991, President Bush ’41 reverted to the defensive war playbook, liberated Kuwait from aggression and extracted us neatly when he accomplished his mission. In the 21st century, Bush ’43 and his merry band of neocons launched two wars – one badly conceived and the other, like Johnson’s Vietnam, based on a lie. The wars still rage without a visible end game and have eroded American influence rather than strengthen it. We got used to sending in the Marines because it made us feel good, but told ourselves we were doing this to make the world safer. Each such adventure turned into the same “feces,” to paraphrase Obama. Our one great success, ending the Cold War, succeeded because we did NOT go to war.
It took the American people, fed nonsense by infotainment and politicians riding warhorses into elections, five decades to learn that the world has changed. Obama, Trump, and Sanders all got it and between them enjoy the love of the vast majority of Americans (if you add up all the factions). The only ones who still have not gotten the memo are the foreign policy intellectuals who don’t know how to change and the leadership of the two American political parties.