Appearing before the senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1966, George Kennan, the legendary Cold War diplomat often called “the father of containment,” criticized the escalation of the war in Vietnam. The United States, he said, should not “jump around like an elephant frightened by a mouse.”
Kennan’s metaphor of the frightened elephant is a strangely apt one for the situation in which we find ourselves nearly half a century later. In the GOP primary, the candidates are calling for a foreign policy defined by fearmongering and senseless aggression. Their agenda includes plans to reverse President Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran; abandon renewed diplomatic ties with Cuba; escalate tensions with Russia; and deploy US troops to Syria. Much like Kennan’s agitated elephant, the Republican candidates see challenges posed by Iran, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, Bashar al-Assad’s Syria, the Islamic State and other extremist groups that are far out of proportion to any real harm they could ever inflict on US interests. They are so out of touch with reality that even admitting the folly of the Iraq War is seen by them as a sign of weakness. The far greater danger is the combination of paranoia and hubris that characterizes the foreign policies of the Republican candidates, who would lead us into still more self-inflicted disasters. They would have us rush to embrace unnecessarily militaristic responses to otherwise manageable challenges, bringing yet more chaos to the Middle East and Eastern Europe while costing the nation even more in lives and treasure.
In the latest issue of The National Interest, Richard Burt and Dimitri Simes provide a corrective to this foreign-policy recklessness. “The debate over international affairs is now badly debased,” they declare in the lead editorial, titled “Foreign Policy by Bumper Sticker.” “The quality of America’s foreign-policy discussion has demonstrably deteriorated over the last thirty years.” Remarking on the GOP primary in particular, the authors note that “the very warrior intellectuals who were directly responsible for today’s state of affairs” in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East “dominate the foreign-policy advisory groups of nearly all the Republican candidates.”
Founded in 1985 by the late Irving Kristol, one of the original leaders in neoconservative thinking, The National Interest served as a forum for vigorous debate among conservative intellectuals and policymakers until the George W. Bush administration, when editorials critical of the Iraq War led to the departure of several of the magazine’s most prominent neoconservative voices. Today, the journal is one of the last bastions of “realist” foreign-policy thinking, or the belief that vital US interests should trump ideology, that humility rather than hubris should define our approach to international affairs.