On Foreign Policy, will Trump heed the Restraining Constituency or John Bolton?

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In his State of the Union address in February, President Trump sounded like a non-interventionist when he said, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Since then, he has begun to draw down America’s military presence in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

Due to the growing unpopularity of drawn-out wars in the Middle East, and Trump’s focus on reelection in 2020, he probably does not want to start another endless war with Iran. However, much of his rhetoric has been hawkish — perhaps influenced by his national security advisor, arch-hawk neocon John Bolton.

The latest news is that he is growing disenchanted with Bolton, who helped design the Iraq War and has even called for a pre-emptive strike on Iran.

It was reported that Trump teased Bolton last year — shortly after his appointment — asking, “You’re not going to bring me into a war, are you?” But we can detect a seriousness beneath Trump’s remarks, signaling an insecurity about his ability to resist outside pressures to exercise America’s immense military might.

Bolton is Trump’s fourth national security advisor, and some worry that his reluctance to fire yet another cabinet member could lead him into the same kind of trap that led George W. Bush into Iraq in 2003. Sketchy intelligence, an idle standing army, and a convenient enemy in an oil-rich region… this story sounds familiar.

The difference this time around is that the public adamantly does not want war. As Cato’s Trevor Thrall documented back in 2016, a growing number of Americans — and especially young people — are part of a “restraining constituency” that does not want the U.S. to serve as the world’s policeman.

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The tensions between the U.S. and Iran have a complex history, but the latest escalation stems from intelligence linking the Iranian regime to an attack earlier this month on two Saudi Arabian oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz.

Trump’s tough talk has included calling the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a “terrorist group,” to which they responded in kind by labelling our own military in the Middle East as terrorists as well.

It’s easy to imagine this tit-for-tat spiraling out of control, unless calmer minds in the military and cabinet can influence the President to step back from the brink. Many retired admirals, generals, ambassadors, and senior government executives comprising the American College of National Security Leaders have attempted to do just that — writing an open letter to the Presidentwarning against escalation in the Persian Gulf.

Tweet to the President showing your support for ending America’s endless wars.

As George Washington noted over two hundred years ago, the protected geography of the U.S. ought to insulate us from foreign intervention. He thought we should go to war only when absolutely necessary for national defense, and even then, engage only in short, strategic actions.

So why have we so found ourselves in so many endless wars?

Chris Preble was a commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy, and is now vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute. He recently released a video that explains the incentives behind America’s infamous military industrial complex — the hybrid beast of a bloated weapons industry and military establishment that perpetuates itself at the expense of the taxpayer and global peace.

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

Chris’s new book Peace, War, and Liberty: Understanding U.S. Foreign Policyshows how the emergence of this complex cuts against the non-interventionist intentions of the Founders, and why the United States gains strength from the limits on war-making imposed by the Constitution.

Let’s hope that Trump will make good on his promise in the State of the Union. It’s a modest expectation when compared to George Washington’s skepticism of standing armies altogether.

Chris joined me to explain why war with Iran is still a risk despite the unpopularity. It’s everything you need to know about 21st century foreign policy, but were too afraid to ask. Don’t miss it.

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Fun Facts, Foreign Policy edition:

  • America’s 2020 military budget — $750 billion — is approximately the size of the entire economy of Switzerland, a country that incidentally has defended itself without a standing army.

  • President Dwight D. Eisenhower warned that the rise of a permanent armaments industry after WWII was changing the nature of the government through the rise of a #militaryindustrialcomplex.

  • James Madison warned “A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty.”

  • Bin Laden’s terrorist strategy was astonishingly successful, but not in the way people think. He wish to “[bleed] America to the point of bankruptcy, ” and in his own words correctly predicted that “[all] we have to do is to send two mujahedeen to the furthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make generals race there to cause America to suffer human, economic, and political losses without their achieving anything of note other than some benefits for their private corporations.”

  • Trump has called a 700+ billion military budget “Crazy!” yet he authorized more spending than the Pentagon asked for.