Should Americans Join a Military with a Reckless Commander‐​In‐​Chief?

What’s a patriotic potential service member to do? Pine for Ronald Reagan.
May 4, 2015 • Commentary
This article appeared on Forbes on May 4, 2015.

Former governor and imminent presidential candidate Michael Huckabee issued a clarion call for young Americans not to join the military if he or virtually any Republican wins the presidency in 2016. Well, that’s not exactly what he said. But it was the obvious implication of his remarks.

Huckabee declared: “I’d wait a couple of years, until we got a new commander‐​in‐​chief, that will once again believe one nation under God and believes that people of faith should be a vital part of the process of not only governing, but defending this country.” It was an oblique, even confusing attack on President Barack Obama. Apparently the former Baptist pastor was upset about Pentagon restrictions on proselytizing within the armed services.

It’s a fair area for debate since the Obama administration sometimes has taken a careless, even hostile, stance toward religious liberty. But there’s no evidence that the president doesn’t want people of faith joining the military (or being involved in “governing,” whatever that means).

However, Huckabee inadvertently raised a far more important issue. Should Americans join the military if the next commander‐​in‐​chief of the armed services is an irresponsible war‐​hawk? Patriotic young men and women want to serve their country, challenge themselves, and more. Many of America’s best and brightest join the armed services. But with the U.S. constantly at war joining is a life or death decision, dependent on the judgment of whoever sits in the Oval Office.

There is much to criticize in President Obama’s foreign policy. He is too aggressive—twice increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, and recently prolonging the U.S. presence; going to war in Libya; making the Islamic State’s sectarian conflict America’s own; putting combat and training personnel in a number of smaller conflicts, including Uganda and Ukraine; backing Saudi Arabia’s aggression in Yemen. The administration’s execution also often suffers; sadly, the word incompetent comes to mind.

Nevertheless, the president apparently is thoughtful and thus reluctant to loose the dogs of war. In contrast, ever‐​angry 2008 presidential candidate John McCain urges war in virtually every circumstance. He ignores the consequences of bombing or invading other nations. One would be a real risk‐​taker to join the military under such a commander‐​in‐​chief.

President George W. Bush demonstrated a different set of faults. By all accounts he knew little about the countries he was invading and peoples he was fighting. He believed the fairy tale promises of more “optimistic” advisers. He wasn’t willing to finish what he started, essentially abandoning the Afghan war, which was tied to 9/11, to initiate the far most disastrous Iraq war, which was unrelated to the attack on America. Bush then refused to accept responsibility while carrying on with a failed policy.

As a consequence, 4500 American service members, plus hundreds of U.S. contractors, died needlessly. New enemies and enemy organizations were created, such as the Islamic State, which are active today. Iran was greatly empowered, the same Iran that most of the current GOP presidential candidates believe should be bombed. It is a miracle—or a testament to so many Americans’ extraordinary patriotism—that anyone enlisted while Bush was president (and Richard Cheney was vice president, a scary heartbeat away from the Oval Office).

The 2016 contenders are almost all worse than President Obama. There are four outliers, Senators Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders, and former Sen. Jim Webb, and three unclear players, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former governors Jeb Bush and O’Malley. Members of the first group take a more nuanced and restrained approach to foreign policy, though not all their positions are consistent. (Cruz is more hawkish than Paul, but both opposed intervening in Libya and bombing Syria, and favored attacking the Islamic State. Sanders opposed the Iraq war but favors fighting the Islamic State.)

The others so far have not committed themselves or have given conflicting signals. For instance, Bush has refused to break with his brother’s policies, which may reflect family ties, but also has not reflexively spouted neocon nostrums. Kasich has a reputation as a “cheap hawk,” and has criticized jumping into civil wars and refused to defend the Iraq war. O’Malley has said little on such matters.

The other contenders appear more interested in promoting ideology than addressing reality in foreign policy. For instance, Hillary Clinton has spent most of her political life as a hawk. As First Lady she reportedly was a leading advocate of military action in the Balkans in the 1990s—a complicated, murderous conflict of primary interest to Europe in which the U.S. ignored massive ethnic cleansing by its allies, Croatia and the ethnic Albanian Kosovars. Bosnia and Kosovo remain problems because the U.S. attempted to impose a “solution” from outside through force.

As senator, Clinton voted to authorize the Iraq war, the most foolish, counterproductive foreign policy decision by the U.S. government in decades. Iran was empowered, sectarianism exploded in Iraq, and radical forces including the Islamic State were born. She obviously learned no lessons, however.

As secretary of state, Clinton was a constant advocate of more war. She appeared to enthusiastically back the force build‐​up in Afghanistan and insisted that war was an option against Iran.

Libya was Clinton’s war. That conflict was supposed to be another cakewalk. Alas, it resulted in thousands of deaths, multiple war atrocities, an incipient civil war, another home for Islamic State killers, and the regional spread of arms, including anti‐​aircraft missiles. The good news is that no Americans died fighting. But Americans stationed in Libya died afterwards, on her watch, and now are at risk battling the Islamic State. Out of office, she supported the president’s initial plan for bombing Syria over its apparent use of chemical weapons as well as re‐​involvement in Iraq to fight the Islamic State.

When has she ever supported peace? Observed neocon intellectual Robert Kagan: “I feel comfortable with her on foreign policy.” He told the New York Times that her policy is “something that might have been called neocon, but clearly her supporters are not going to call it that.” Anyone serving under her should recognize the risks of being sent into another foolish, counterproductive war.

However, most of the Republicans are no better—indeed, some are a good deal worse. Lindsey Graham appears likely to run in order to promote a policy of constant conflict. In recent years he joined with John McCain to advocate on behalf of every war fought and many thankfully not waged. If Graham was president, members of the armed services could expect to spend years overseas invading, occupying, and remaking foreign countries. Kind of a permanent Afghan‐​Iraqi policy, only everywhere.

John Bolton is another potential contender whose main interest is foreign policy. And whose main strategy is intervention, preferably war. The only mistake with Iraq, he argued, was not taking out Saddam Hussein sooner. Rather than attempting to find a negotiated solution in Iran, he wrote: “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” In that article he did not consider the potential consequences of another war, one with a larger, more populous, and wealthier Muslim state. After all, Washington’s many other wars have gone so well.

The media has anointed Sen. Marci Rubio as having “expertise” in foreign policy, despite his endorsement of every war since his election in 2010. He backed bombing Libya, bombing Syria, bombing the Islamic State, and possibly bombing Iran. Apparently unaware that Tehran was, if anything, even more hostile than Washington to the Islamic State, Rubio recently combined bellicosity with ignorance. Alas, George W. Bush demonstrated that that is a really bad combination for a president. (Rubio also has taken on the contradictory task of promoting new thinking while backing the half century old economic embargo on Cuba.)

A gaggle of governors, current and former, generally have been attempting to outflank each other with hawkish pronouncements. Past and future expected contenders Huckabee and Rick Perry established their pro‐​perpetual war credentials in 2012. Scott Walker, Chris Christie, and Bobby Jindal avoided much of the foreign policy debate while serving but all have posed as Winston Churchill. None has demonstrated knowing very much about the subject and, in general, they have backed the Iraq war, inveighed against the nuclear agreement with Iran (the alternative to which likely is a nuclear Iran or war with Iran), insisted in increased military outlays, spouted the usual pabulum about the importance of “leadership” and “toughness,” and denounced President Obama as weak.

New entrants Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina haven’t said as much about the issue, but both have postured as tough global sheriffs. Carson is almost comically hawkish, insisting that if the U.S. bombed every “bully faction or bully nation” world peace would magically ensue. However, he doesn’t want us to go “insinuating ourselves into every conflict around the globe.” Apparently just most of them.

One suspects that when the issue of foreign policy comes up at the Republican presidential debates, most of these candidates will break into the Maori haka in an attempt to demonstrate that they are tougher and meaner and readier for war than their competitors. It is hard to know what they would do in any particular crisis, but taken at their word they likely would send U.S. military personnel into combat for reasons minor or even frivolous.

Other Republicans who today are back benchers might come to the fore with an uber‐​hawkish president. Sen. Tom Cotton, for instance, recently made a thinly veiled appeal for military action against Iran despite the prospect of a negotiated settlement. But he argued it wasn’t anything to worry about, that a few days of bombing would suffice. Even more bizarrely, he contended that “You have to be focused everywhere.” The failure to set priorities really works well in wars.

All of the Republicans, including Rand Paul, also advocate essentially a blank check for the Pentagon, adopting the traditional Democratic position that spending more money on something is the same as achieving something. Paul, at least, wants to cut other outlays as an offset. Most of the candidates simply favor more money for more wars, wherever they might be fought.

What’s a patriotic potential service member to do? Pine for Ronald Reagan.

It’s not just the grand rhetoric of freedom and genuine appreciation for military service. It’s also his very restrained, responsible use of the armed services. Caricatured as a wild cowboy, he only used the military three times. Once to oust a bloody communist regime in nearby Grenada which, he contended, threatened American students in medical school there. Another instance was to retaliate against Libya for a terrorist attack. The last was to support Lebanon’s government in the middle of that nation’s tragic civil war.

The first two finished quickly. The third proved to be a horrible mistake, from which Reagan learned. He didn’t send in another 100,000 troops, impose a multi‐​year occupation, and engage in nation‐​building. Instead, he pulled the troops out. And he never repeated that mistake.

Michael Huckabee is right. Americans should consider the commander‐​in‐​chief before joining the military. Unfortunately for Huckabee, if they do they will disqualify him and most of the other presidential contenders. Voters should insist on good military as well as moral character.

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