“American foreign policy is failing at nearly every turn,” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) writes at the opening of his new national security plan, and “House Republicans believe we need to fundamentally rethink” the United States’ approach to defense.
Ryan’s basic diagnosis is correct, but his prescription is less a radical rethink than a tired rehashing of the discredited militarism of the George W. Bush years, lacking even Bush’s early and later moderation. While Ryan rebukes President Obama by name (“eight years of broken promises”) and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump by implication (“We need more than just fencing”), his repackaged neoconservatism utterly lacks the strategy to inspire a new era of American security, freedom, and peace.
This failure stems from a foundational misappraisal of the last seven years of U.S. foreign policy, an era defined by imprudent wars of choice — including multiple new military interventions, most notably in Libya and Syria. Where any realist observer would see in the Obama administration a persistent pattern of overextension throughout the Mideast, overreaction to non-vital threats, and over-engagement with no plan for completion, Ryan imaginatively discovers a habit of “retreat.”
Thus it comes as no surprise that his remedy is escalation: more money, more surveillance, more troops, and more risk at every turn. Through four broad policy categories, Ryan advocates bigger, less accountable government at home and more of the same floundering, exorbitant interventionism abroad.
Though the plan’s specifics are scarce, familiar outlines rapidly emerge. We must “identify and eliminate vulnerabilities in our transportation” system, Ryan says, which probably means removing another type of clothing in the TSA line. We must “boost engagement with communities to help spot and prevent terrorist recruitment” — perhaps that’s more warrantless mass surveillance on innocent Americans? “[T]errorists and criminals are using secure online communications to avoid detection,” Ryan argues, and though he pays lip service to preserving encryption, digital privacy of the sort Ryan wishes to degrade is something of an all-or-nothing deal: Either everyone gets protection, or, in Ryan’s world, nobody does. Welcome back to 2003!
Turning to the war on terror proper, Ryan immediately reverts to W’s old canard: We’ll fight them over there so we don’t have to fight them here. That’s a difficult claim to credit since we’ve been fighting them over there longer than any other war in U.S. history with next to nothing to show for it.
Framing the situation as a “generational conflict,” he is happy to settle in for endless years of war. And though touting the need to “win the war against Islamist terror,” in Ryan’s vision any prospect of victory recedes far past the horizon of his lifetime (and mine). He proposes preemptive action against undeveloped threats followed by long-term nation-building in places like Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and anywhere else this buccaneering foreign policy flings American troops at moment’s notice.
And that truly could be anywhere, as Ryan’s next section defines American interests in terms so vague that even the dullest of hawks could generate endless pretexts for ill-conceived adventurism. This is not strategy but scattershot. Conceptualizing the United States as policeman of the world, Ryan countenances no limit to our global responsibility and, by extension, to how often U.S. troops will be asked to die for the stability of far-flung wastelands — or how much U.S. taxpayers will be soaked to pay for other nations’ defense. Refusing to admit that unnecessary American intervention is the underlying cause of ISIS-filled power vacuums in Iraq and Libya, Ryan is eager to repeat the dangerous, bipartisan hubris of the last 15 years. Worse yet, he is willing to risk open conflict with Russia, China, and Iran. Peace through strength this is not.
Ryan’s final call is for “renewing our national security tools,” which is Washington-speak for spending hand over fist. Denying the reality that the United States has far and away the most powerful and well-funded military in the world, Ryan jettisons strategic evaluation of our defense needs in favor of equating an open spigot of tax dollars with safety. While some of his suggestions are no doubt wise, too many — standing on the fallacious assertion that our military has been fiscally gutted — are Bush-era profligacy at its worst. Ryan touts the need for reform and agility, but he neglects to mention once the Pentagon’s desperate need for an audit and envisions a world in which American soldiers are everywhere doing everything all the time.
Despite Ryan’s best efforts, no quantity of protests can disguise the thoroughly stale nature of this natsec plan. Much like the House speaker’s fêted but mostly toothless budget proposal, his defense write-up is less the “better way” its title suggests than the same old way we’ve been stuck in for a decade and a half. Instead of the fundamental rethink he promises, Ryan delivers a new gloss on the past two administrations’ aimless, interminable interventionism.
This is precisely the sort of feckless neoconservatism of which America has long since wearied — and which has long since proven incapable of keeping us secure, free, or at peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.