Keeping Up with Frank

Opinion: Biden risks same dangerous mistakes as presidents before him

March 09, 2021

Frank Giustra and Andrew Bacevich. Originally published on Feb 27, 2021.

If the escalating tensions between the United States and China aren't causing you concern yet, you've not been paying attention.

Any conflict between the two superpowers would result in unimaginable devastation — if not physical, at least economic. And don't forget: both China and the United States possess nuclear arsenals.

There's a lot going on right now in our Covid-besieged world. But war remains an omnipresent danger. Antagonism between the United States and China is only one source of concern. The broken relationship between the US and Iran is another.

A year ago our two countries came dangerously close to full-scale war. After Tehran-backed forces launched several missiles at a military base in Iraq housing US troops, Washington retaliated by assassinating Iranian Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport. Iran responded by firing missiles at Iraqi air bases housing US forces.

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, and both sides walked back from the brink. But tensions between the US and Iran remain high. Next time, we might not be so lucky.

The bad blood between Tehran and Washington derives from many sources. Yet one proximate cause stems from the Trump administration's unilateral decision to exit the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the so-called Iran nuclear deal, as a part of a crude "maximum pressure" campaign.

That campaign failed abysmally, and in a hopeful sign, the Biden administration has now signalled its interest in rejoining the JCPOA. The journey from aspiration to achievement is likely to be arduous. But the effort is a necessary one.

Sadly, the Trump administration's reliance on coercion in dealing with Tehran falls within a tradition of American statecraft which long predates Trump himself. Since World War II and especially since the end of the Cold War, a succession of administrations, Democratic and Republican alike, have opted for force, overt and covert, direct or through proxies, to shore up US global preeminence.

Trump revived the incendiary slogan "America First." But keeping American first, by whatever means necessary, defines the through line of US policy going back several decades. Taking stock of that approach and measuring its costs have become an urgent priority.

In a famous speech, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, son of a president and destined himself to occupy the White House, warned Americans against the temptation to go "abroad in search of monsters to destroy."

To indulge in this temptation, Adams believed, was to risk involving the United States "beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom."

This aptly describes the situation in which the United States finds itself today, mired in senseless "forever wars," maintaining over 800 foreign bases, seeking to contain the rise of China by military intimidation, and expending roughly a trillion dollars a year for what is loosely termed national security, even as hundreds of thousands of Americans are felled by disease. There is something radically amiss with the reigning ideas of security.

It is time for a change. America needs policies that emphasize diplomacy, promote peaceful coexistence, and regard military intervention as truly the option of last resort. Interestingly, American public opinion has been moving in the direction of non-intervention. Which raises the question, why haven't we seen the public's will make its way to the decision makers in Washington?

President Dwight Eisenhower once warned against the dangers of the "Military Industrial Complex." Simply put, the defense industry is big business. It makes a lot of money and creates some jobs, which, in turn, buys lobbying power.

The defense industry is not the only one exerting influence on Washington. There are also many foreign powers that support the status quo because it benefits their own political interests in their respective regions. Both groups have vast resources to spread around and gain influence. Too often, the results are unnecessary conflicts or tensions with countries — from Cuba to Libya to Iraq to Iran — that don't pose a significant threat to the American people.

Institutions such as the two that we are privileged to lead offer an alternative conception of America's role in the world, emphasizing military restraint and diplomatic engagement. Might the moment to try such an approach now be at hand?

Frank Giustra is co-chair of the International Crisis Group. Andrew Bacevich is president and cofounder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.