Advocates of a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy are understandably eager to identify and work with potential political and ideological allies. That desire causes them to reach out to promising prospects among both liberals and conservatives under the more general banner of foreign policy “restrainers.” In some cases, the outreach has achieved significant results. Analysts such as Micah Meadowcroft at the American Conservative, Harry Kazianis at the National Interest, and Daniel Larison at Eunomia, repeatedly provide solid critiques of Washington’s global meddling. Quincy Institute analysts Trita Parsi, Andrew Bacevich, Kelley Vlahos, and George Beebe also belong in that category, as does a more traditional libertarian such as the Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.
The effort to create a “big tent” coalition of political figures committed to foreign policy restraint has been far less successful. Too many politicians who sometimes express such sentiments on a few issues turn out to be conventional hawks—or even worse—rabid hawks on other issues. Genuine noninterventionists received another rude awakening just this month when Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO), who had opposed the U.S. reckless proxy war in Ukraine and even was the sole senator to vote against the latest phase of NATO expansion, emerged as one of Israel’s most intense advocates in that country’s latest war against Palestinians. It was another episode in which noninterventionists were so eager to acquire new ideological allies that they overlooked previous, ominous signs about their touted champion. Indeed, some noninterventionists and so-called cautious realists gave great credence to Donald Trump’s sporadic, promising rhetoric and largely overlooked his actual international policies.
Other disappointments abound. Rep. Ro Khanna, (D-CA) seemed a prominent candidate to play a constructive role in transforming the dominant, pro-war foreign policy perspective in the Democratic Party. He was a staunch advocate of ending the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, opposed Washington’s sickening support of Saudi Arabia’s aggression in Yemen, and was a vocal critic of presidential usurpation of the congressional war power. However, the congressman also echoed the conventional wisdom that Ukraine had done nothing to provoke Russia. Worse, he has consistently voted to continue the Biden administration’s policy of lavishing military aid on Ukraine as part of NATO’s proxy war against Russia. On the Ukraine issue, Ro Khanna caved, as did virtually every other member of the supposedly antiwar contingent in the House Progressive Caucus. The Caucus even made a cynical, cowardly retreat when the White House opposed a set of extremely modest changes in its Ukraine policy, which the Caucus had suggested.
Such pusillanimous behavior has typified the response of most supposedly antiwar Democrats to Israel’s new military offensive. Khanna has even refused to sign a petition advocating a cease fire. With the exception of the small contingent of pro-Palestinian members of the radical House “squad,” congressional Democrats have marched in lockstep with the Biden administration’s support of Israel’s actions.
The behavior of so-called restrainers in the GOP has been equally bad, and there early warning signs of their unreliability. Just as Ro Khanna symbolized the hopes of noninterventionists with respect to the Democratic Party, Hawley was an early, prominent beneficiary of admiration on the part of people thirsting for new, more sensible foreign policy thinking by Republicans. On the Ukraine issue, Hawley indeed adopted a refreshing stance, seeking to end U.S. funding of Kyiv’s war effort.
Yet a key reason for his taking that position was troubling. Hawley was adamant that “America’s greatest foreign adversary doesn’t loom over Europe. It looms in Asia. I am talking of course about the People’s Republic of China. And when it comes to Chinese imperialism, the American people should know the truth: the United States is not ready to resist it. Expanding American security commitments in Europe now would only make that problem worse—and America, less safe.” Hawley soon urged Secretary of State Tony Blinken to prioritize arming Taiwan instead of giving military aid to Ukraine. He also is an enthusiastic supporter of an implicit U.S. commitment to defend the island.
The Missouri senator also has been a vitriolic hawk with respect to Middle East policy. Hawley has even opposed humanitarian aid for Gaza as long as Hamas remains in power, regardless of the suffering among innocent civilians. The senator advocates giving even more U.S. tax money to Israel to help prosecute its war against Palestinians. Indeed, his primary effort has been devoted to vilifying and harassing groups that promote the Palestinian cause or even advocate a cease fire.
The behavior of Ro Khanna and Josh Hawley should convey an important lesson to principled proponents of a noninterventionist foreign policy. Many supposed advocates of restraint are good on only one or two issues, while being unreliable on most others. Indeed, some of them seem to favor hawkish positions on foreign policy generally, with just a few, isolated nods to restraint. Such individuals may be useful, tactical allies on very select issues, but they are not in any manner consistent advocates of a new, less belligerent U.S. role in the world. True advocates of restraint need to become more realistic about the potential for coalition building.
Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute. He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute. Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).