The only way for anti-interventionists to succeed is to set specific policy goals.
The MOAB that the United States dropped on Afghanistan earlier this month created a massive crater in what was supposed to be the antiwar movement in this country. Before the election, pacifistic leftists like Glenn Greenwald and isolationistic right-wingers like Justin Raimondo convinced themselves that Trump’s contradictory statements on foreign policy meant that he would buck Washington’s bipartisan interventionist policy consensus.
It’s clear that those hopes were, to put it gently, silly. In his first three months, Trump has launched missiles at Syria, dropped a bomb on Afghanistan, and engaged in saber-rattling with a nuclear-armed North Korea. Trump knows little about foreign policy and cares less, but he likes dramatic action and the illusion of manly decisiveness. He’s also easily swayed by whatever happens to air on television while he’s watching. The president seems happy to drop bombs wherever the military establishment suggests as long as he thinks it will make him look good on cable news.
But anti-interventionist faith in Trump wasn’t just a single instance of bad judgment. It’s a sign of a serious strategic failure. Opposition to war since 9/11, and even earlier, has focused on specific wars and specific personalities. Anti-militarist sentiment—and particular opposition to the hawkishness of both George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton—coalesced behind Obama and helped him win the 2008 primary, and then the election.
Ultimately, Obama expanded drone programs and facilitated regime change in Libya to the dismay of these supporters. Antiwar partisans attacked Clinton as a hawk in the primary against the vaguely noninterventionist Bernie Sanders and continued to warn about her warmongering in the general as she gained support from neo-cons like David Frum and Max Boot. And what was the result of the defeat of this war partisan? The U.S. has escalated in Syria and Afghanistan—and is sending terrifying warning signals to North Korea.
The problem isn’t that Obama and Clinton and Trump and whoever else are all perfidious backstabbers who have betrayed the anti-intervention movement. The problem is that interventionism isn’t personal. It’s structural. Both Republicans and Democrats see intervention as serious, important, and valuable U.S. policy (and even as kind of fun, if the celebrating surrounding the MOAB is any indication). There’s also a massive military establishment in place to advocate for war. There’s no counterbalancing establishment to advocate for peace.
This isn’t a reason for anti-interventionists to despair. But it is a reason to try to come up with new tactics. Successful movements for change don’t just pick a hero and hope haplessly that he or she will deliver peace instead of the MOAB. Advocates need to actually put forward concrete policies, both so that they can measure progress and so that they can measure fealty. Goals like a $15 minimum wage or free college aren’t enough to usher in a socialist paradise. But they set a benchmark to work toward and allow partisans to evaluate candidate commitment.
So what might be structural changes anti-interventionists could work toward? What concrete policies might make the U.S. less likely to drop bombs overseas or invade foreign countries?
For Rajan Menon, author of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention, the main barrier to peace is the fact that “society has no skin in the game of war in this country.” There is no draft, which means that “the chance that the average American of fighting age will be drafted, especially those belonging to the middle and upper middle class, is nonexistent.” Military expenditures are generally just allowed to balloon the deficit, so people don’t feel war viscerally as a pocketbook issue either.
It’s hard to imagine an antiwar movement enthusiastically lobbying for a draft. People who want to reduce intervention are passionate about reducing militarism and lowering the number of troops overseas. Anti-interventionists arguing for a draft is a bit like anti-prison activists arguing that more people need to become prison guards to see the awful conditions for themselves. You can make an argument for it on paper, but it’s unlikely to appeal emotionally to the passionate activists you’re counting on to push for change.
Menon does suggest a possible substitute for the draft, though: a war tax. Demanding that Congress pay for military expenditures directly through a special tax—perhaps a value-added tax—would certainly focus voter attention. And a war tax would also force Congress to actually vote on military action, which they are constitutionally supposed to do—though they’ve been eager to shirk the responsibility in recent years.
Another expert, Barry Posen, author of Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy, suggested that one concrete policy goal that might throw “sand in the gears” of intervention is to eliminate the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. The OCO is a separate slush fund of around $60 billion outside the regular Pentagon budget for war operations. The Department of Defense doesn’t have to specify beforehand what the money will be used for, and the fact that it’s nominally labeled as directly necessary to troops in wartime makes it vanishingly unlikely that Congress will investigate it closely.
The slush fund essentially allows the Pentagon to fund wars without having to admit to or lay out tradeoffs. If troops need more and better equipment, taxpayers should know exactly what that equipment is and how much it will cost, so we can determine whether the war is worth the cost, rather than simply ladling money indefinitely and opaquely into ongoing commitments. Getting rid of the OCO wouldn’t stop us from going to war, but it might force the administration and Congress to be more honest about costs. It might push us a step toward restraint.
Posen also suggests resurrecting the term “vital interests.” Broadly, Posen said, the U.S. should not go to war unless it faces some real security threat or danger. “Is it vital that the United States should overthrow the Assad regime?” he asks. “Well, there’s nothing that makes it vital until someone is prepared to say it’s vitally important to our national moral sentiment.”
It’s always possible to come up with some reason an interest is vital if you’re determined. But at the moment, politicians barely seem to feel the need to figure out a rationale. Why did we drop a bomb on Afghanistan? How does that protect America? If there was any discussion, it was drowned out in the roar of excitement over what a cool name “the mother of all bombs” is.
None of these suggestions is perfect. A war tax seems like it would be all but impossible to pass and maybe as difficult to campaign on as a draft. Shutting down the OCO might not have much practical effect. Talking about “vital interests” probably won’t energize folks for whom anti-intervention is an issue of moral passion, and it won’t lay down those needed markers for politicians. And you could, of course, think of other goals. Cutting defense spending by, say, 15 or 20 percent to fund schools, perhaps?
Finding a policy goal that energizes people and is workable probably hasn’t happened yet because it’s not particularly easy. If the left ever does coalesce around a specific policy and manage to sell it to the public, it could take years to enact even a portion of it. But that’s why it’s important to move the focus from looking for the right candidate to looking for the right policy recommendations as soon as possible. Anti-interventionists need to think about setting benchmarks; think about changing specific structures; think about how and what basis to successfully sell these goals to the public. Otherwise, you’re left putting your faith in random politicians, and then being surprised, yet again, when they eventually betray you.