The Failure of Huff and Puff Foreign Policy

For all their talk of peace through strength, American hawks favor windbag diplomacy. In their view there is no international problem that cannot be solved with theatrical hyperventilating leavened by threats and insults. The more serious the challenge, the more they bloviate. Failure only inflates their inner windbag.

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo were experts in this tactic. They imagined U.S. foreign policy as an alternative ending for the tale of the Big Bad Wolf. All they had to do was huff and puff harder and longer, and the bad guy’s house would always fall down.

The Trump administration most famously took this approach with Iran. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action significantly lengthened Tehran’s "breakout time" for developing a nuclear weapon and created internal pressure on the regime to open up economically to the West. Even hardliners like Defense Secretary Jim Mattis backed continuation of the agreement despite having misgivings when it was first negotiated.

However, Trump abandoned the pact, insisting that reimposing economic sanctions would force the Islamic Republic to make a gaggle of additional concessions. Pompeo gave an imperious speech at the Heritage Foundation, setting Iran’s surrender terms – Tehran’s abandonment of its sovereignty, independent foreign policy, and defensive deterrent in 12 easy steps. All that was missing was the stipulation that Iranian leaders would be expected to genuflect, heads touching the floor, to the president before signing the capitulation before the entire world.

But then … Iranian President Hassan Rouhani contemptuously refused to even meet with Trump. Iran ramped up nuclear activities, dramatically reducing the regime’s nuclear breakout time. Tehran continued to support allied governments and militias in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, and Iraq. Iran also began interfering with Gulf oil traffic, bombarding Saudi oil facilities, and supplying Venezuela – also under US sanction – with fuel. Iranian-backed militias launched missile attacks on American bases and the American embassy in Iraq. Heckuva job, Donny!

While still insisting that his "maximum pressure" policy was a grand success, Trump begged the Iranians to call and offered them a better deal if they acted before the election. Pompeo spewed threats, and then whined that he might have to close the US embassy in Iraq since it could not be protected. The world saw cowardly bravado, not national strength.

Still, Trump was not the worst offender. He understood that the endless wars launched by his predecessors did not make the US more secure. For instance, President George W. Bush postured on behalf of Georgia, treating it as an ally and promising it membership in NATO. When Tbilisi’s President Mikheil Saakashvili presumed US support and attacked Russian forces in the secessionist territory of South Ossetia Bush stared into the military abyss and recoiled. His big words turned out to be empty.

Trump’s 2016 GOP adversaries were equally high on the huff and puff scale. Almost all of them promised to waste more lives and resources on peripheral conflicts which drained America’s strength, trashed its reputation, and undermined its security.

Perhaps the campaign’s most dramatic windbag moment occurred during the Republican presidential debate in Las Vegas when even nominally sober personalities, such as Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Hewlett-Packard executive Carly Fiorina, joined in the embarrassing chest-thumping. However, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was the worst.

He declared: "See, maybe – maybe because I’m from New Jersey, I just have this kind of plain language hangup. But I would make very clear – I would not talk to Vladimir Putin. In fact, I would talk to Vladimir Putin a lot. But I’d say to him, ‘Listen, Mr. President, there’s a no-fly zone in Syria; you fly in, it applies to you.’ And yes, we would shoot down the plans of Russian pilots if in fact they were stupid enough to think that this president was the same feckless weakling that the president we have in the Oval Office is right now."

Big words, but Moscow would have responded with action. One can visualize Christie being reduced to blubbering indecision after Russia retaliated by downing an American plane, striking U.S.-backed rebel camps, and/or grabbing territory in Georgia or Ukraine. Imagine Putin saying to Christie: "Your move, Chrissie!"

However, it turns out that conservatives are not the only ones who rely on rhetorical illusions of strength. Last week Leon Panetta, a liberal Democratic paladin who served in the Obama administration as both secretary of defense and CIA director, appeared on a webinar sponsored by the National Security Institute, which treats war and rumors of war as the American way.

Egged on by interviewer Jamil Jaffer, Panetta indulged in ruminations worthy of Pompeo or Christie about how Washington can keep Americans safe by telling foreign nations who is boss. Simply announce US expectations. The more huffing and puffing the better.

"The worst thing we have done in dealing with China and for that matter in dealing with Russia is that we have emboldened them by virtue of showing weakness," Panetta claimed: "When the US failed to respond to what Putin did in the Crimea and the Ukraine and when it was clear we were not going to confront them they obviously took advantage of that to go into Syria, establish a base in Syria, they’ve gone into the Middle East, and they’ve conducted these attacks we’ve seen against the United States, bold attacks that have been conducted against the United States."

Of course, Panetta’s statement that Washington failed to respond in Ukraine and the Mideast was false. The US (and Europe) provided military aid – weapons and training – and economic support to Kiev. NATO, mostly America, as always, since the Europeans have a generous welfare state they prefer to support, turned more military attention to Russia. Indeed, Washington hiked financial contributions and troop deployments in Eastern Europe in both the Obama and Trump administrations.

In Syria American also spent billions, much of it to support, directly and indirectly, jihadists, including with the local al-Qaeda affiliate, who hated America. Because of US weapons the city of Idlib and surrounding areas remain subject to al-Qaeda’s tender mercies today. American forces which intervened to backstop the campaign against the Islamic State have stayed on illegally to engage in a variety of ill-defined activities, including stealing Syrian oil.

Presumably Panetta meant the US should have responded effectively by doing something else. But what? Declare total economic war on Russia? Or go the military route? For instance, invade Crimea and the Donbass? Blockade Russia? Threaten nuclear strikes if Moscow does not withdraw? What?

Of course, most Europeans would oppose such a reckless strategy. They recognize that the costs of war would be far greater than any benefits. That they would lose from turning Russia into a permanent and embittered enemy. And that Moscow has little to gain and much to lose from attacking the continent. America is much further away, making it easier for US politicians to posture grandly while huffing and puffing.

The more important flaw in Panetta’s convenient assumptions is that Russia would not meekly retreat. Ukraine matters far more to the former than to America – look at a map. Just like Cuba was more important to the US, leading to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Moreover, as the weaker party Moscow would feel increased pressure to demonstrate that it cannot be pushed around by Washington. Adding to the danger is the fact that Moscow has nuclear equality but conventional inferiority. In a confrontation, Moscow would be forced to reach for nukes earlier than would America.

Why should the US intervene? While the conflict in Ukraine is tragic, Washington’s lamentations about the slaughter of innocents should not be taken seriously. After all, America is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians through the invasion of Iraq. But Washington has never offered apology, recompense, or even notice.

Nor does Ukraine matter to US security. Washington never worried that the territory was part of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union. Vladimir Putin did just enough militarily to keep Georgia and Ukraine out of NATO, no more. Of course, Russia should respect international rules, behave as the US wishes, and leave Ukraine alone. However, Moscow’s refusal to do so is no casus belli for Washington. American politicians should consider how they would react if Vladimir Putin proposed that Canada and Mexico join a revived Warsaw Pact – after backing a color revolution in Ottawa and street putsch in Mexico City. Hysteria would overwhelm Washington: Panetta and Jaffer undoubtedly would join in the mass wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Even more bizarre is the willingness of Panetta, et al., to risk war over Syria, which has never attacked America and long ago was militarily gelded by Israel. Panetta whined about Russia’s presence in the Middle East, but for decades Damascus has been allied with Moscow. Today war-ravaged Syria may prove to be more burden than benefit for Moscow. Anyway, the US enjoys overwhelming regional dominance, being allied, formally or informally, with Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Iraq, and all the Gulf States. In fact, this overwhelming presence, supposedly a strategic advantage, in a region of diminishing importance is a massive misallocation of resources.

Panetta also huffed and puffed about Beijing: "to a large extent China, seeing the weakness of the United States – I mean, we’ve pulled out of the TPP … and China read weakness into the United States. And so it has emboldened them and they have become much more aggressive in using their diplomacy and using their economy and using their ability to try to influence others. And what I think needs to be done with Russia and with China is that you’ve got to make very clear to them the lines that they cannot cross."

What would those be? "We’re not going to allow China to invade Taiwan, and to undermine their independence." He would draw other lines: "you cannot militarize these islands in the South China Sea, you cannot violate international laws with regards to freedom of the seas, we’re not going to allow you to do that." Just order Beijing what to do, and all will be well, said Panetta: "I think frankly if China understands that we’re serious about that, China’s not going to do that. They may be a lot of things, they’re not dumb. They’ve got to get that signal that the United States is a player in the Pacific, that we are a power in the Pacific."

Again, this is windbag diplomacy. Talk is cheap. What about the walk? Precisely what would the US do if the PRC undermined Taiwan’s independence (whatever that means when most nations, including America, and international organizations do not recognize Taipei’s independence) or militarizes islands which it controls? Is America prepared to overrun and destroy such facilities? Would Panetta blockade China? Declare war? Would he fight China a hundred miles off its coast over Taiwan (imagine Beijing attempting to protect Cuba from an American invasion)?

Should the US battle alone with a nuclear power over something which matters not at all for America’s survival? What if Washington’s allies looked the other way, unwilling to turn their permanent neighbor into their enemy? South Korea won’t even criticize China’s treatment of Hong Kong. The Philippines doesn’t have the naval strength to contend for control of Scarborough Shoal, let alone Taiwan. Tokyo talks bigger and bolder these days, but still limits its military outlays to a measly one percent of GDP; the "Peace Constitution" provides a convenient excuse for any Japanese government to hide behind whenever it desires to evade unpleasant responsibilities.

Missing from the Panetta-Jaffer patter was recognition that other nations also have interests, some of which they consider to be vital. These nations are not inclined to let America – which essentially applies the Monroe Doctrine worldwide, treating the entire globe as its sphere of interest – boss them around. Reverse the situation. How would Americans feel if the Chinese navy steamed along the East Coast and patrolled the Caribbean as if its own; insisted on deciding Cuba’s status; and interfered in the final outcome of the Civil War, an obvious internal matter? Imagine the frenzied conversation Panetta and Jaffer would have under those circumstances, capped by a demand for immediate and decisive action!

Of course, the US does have interests worth fighting for, but far fewer than Washington’s bipartisan war party imagines. Seeking primacy and patrolling the globe will never be worth the cost. War is not a humanitarian instrument. Most often conflicts turn out much worse than expected. An activist foreign policy requires a large and expensive national security establishment – the military budget is the price of a nation’s foreign policy – that competes with other needs and challenges for scarce resources. Blowback is inevitable and often intense, including terrorism. Which in turn creates pressure for new and expanded military misadventures, and so the cycle continues.

In recent years American foreign policy has lacked not tough words and line-drawing, as Panetta and Jaffer suggest, but good sense – prudence, judgment, and restraint, all of which are important foreign policy virtues. Indeed, the failure to act responsibly and intelligently created many of the problems about which Panetta and Jaffer complained. For instance, the latter contended: "It seems to be the case that the Chinese, the Russians, the Iranians, and the North Koreans even, they smell weakness. They perceive whether rightly or wrongly that the American people are weary of war, that in a lot of ways Iraq was a modern version of Vietnam for us, that Afghanistan, the long war in Afghanistan has been similar to us, and they don’t see leadership in the United States."

Jaffer blamed the American people for being tired of conflicts which they should be tired of. For instance, the Iraq invasion was launched with the proverbial bodyguard of lies, a concerted campaign to manipulate and falsify "evidence" of nonexistent WMDs. Those who expressed doubts were maligned, marginalized, insulted, and denounced. The consequences of this dishonest campaign were catastrophic for America, Iraq, and the region.

Yet virtually none of the officials responsible for hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and trillions in wasted dollars ever acknowledged fault or paid a professional price for their grotesque policy malpractice. Indeed, last November Jaffer interviewed Paul Wolfowitz, one the Iraq invasion’s architects, as if the latter were a respected policy elder with an admirable record. Instead, Wolfowitz should have been expelled from polite society, clothed in sackcloth, and exiled to live a penitent life in silence at a monastery in the Arabian desert. From there he could contemplate the mass misery which he helped cause and which persists today.

Afghanistan was perhaps better intended, but ultimately made no more sense. Once the US ousted the Taliban and dislodged al-Qaeda – objectives accomplished almost immediately – Afghanistan lost its relevance to terrorism. The 9/11 plot was organized almost everywhere but there. The chief planner, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, refused to locate there. Osama bin Laden was gunned down next door in Pakistan, apparently under the watchful eye of that nation’s military.

The world is filled with ungoverned and poorly governed spaces in which terrorists can operate. Yet three successive administrations fixated on Afghanistan, determined to prevent a repeat event even after circumstance had dramatically changed. The US spent more than 19 years trying to bring strong central governance and Western-style democracy to a country ruled in the village and the valley. The main political objective ended up being to kick the can down the road, leaving the next administration responsible for the ongoing disaster.

Ironically, these misadventures communicated perverse strength, not weakness, to other nations – what other government was so stupidly stubborn and wasteful of human life that it would sacrifice so much for so long for so little gain? Moscow stayed in Afghanistan "only" nine years, less than half of the time America has so far devoted to trying to build a liberal Afghan nation. The US demonstrated similarly inane seriousness in successively ravaging Iraq, Libya, and Yemen, irrespective of the lack of benefits to Americans and extraordinary death and destruction visited upon other peoples.

Thus, America’s antagonists saw something very different than weakness, as Jaffer claimed. Stupidity and arrogance. Poor judgment. Refusal to admit mistakes. An almost demented willingness to sacrifice America’s future in a desperate attempt to redeem the nation’s tragic past. A better way not to show weakness would be to stop doing "stupid shit," as Obama suggested.

But not in Jaffer’s view: "In part because we haven’t always drawn clear lines, and when we have drawn clear lines, we haven’t always enforced them, we haven’t lived up to what we saw we are going to do. And so you can’t really fault them for saying, well, you said you might do this, you seemed really concerned about Ukraine, and yet you did nothing, you seemed really concerned about chemical weapons in Syria, yet you did nothing, you talked a big game on North Korea, President Trump, and you got no deal out of them."

His conclusion is classic: "It seems to me that one of the challenges we face in the world is that we haven’t really built our reputation on being a fierce ally or a very bold enemy. We’ve seemed a little milquetoast and concerned about coming home." If only Washington had done something, really SOMETHING – apparently what doesn’t matter – America would have brought its adversaries to heel. Jaffer colorfully compared retaliation to dealing with a playground bully, when "you punch him in the face so everyone can see it." He and Panetta seemed to imagine acts of immaculate intervention, with no adverse consequences for America.

China’s Xi Jinping and his colleagues in Zhongnanhai likely have a far more objective and practical take on U.S. policy: Endless wars by Washington are good for Beijing. The Chinese would love to see the US pour trillions more dollars and thousands more lives into new conflicts. Invade Iran? Please! Maybe occupy Syria too? Lebanon also needs fixing. Don’t forget the need to redeem Afghanistan. Then there is the problem of Russia in Ukraine, Syria, and elsewhere: go for it!

Before George W. Bush’s presidency, Chinese policymakers could only dream that a series of American presidents would be so foolish as to waste lives, money, and credibility year in and year out in the Mideast. Bush, Obama, and Trump might as well have been sleeper agents on Beijing’s payroll.

After Donald Trump’s exit, many people imagined that "the adults" were back in charge of US foreign policy. However, Panetta’s views demonstrate that Democrats, too, practice windbag diplomacy. Those filling the Biden administration are likely to be no different.

However, this strategy offers no answer to America’s problems. It takes more than huffing and puffing to protect the interests of America and Americans. Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo never figured that out. Nor did Leon Panetta who, along with many of those presently advising President Biden, helped entangle Washington in both Libya and Syria. Much depends on whether the president, prone to logorrhea and fading rapidly, recognizes the failure of windbag diplomacy conducted by those who came before him.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.