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When Josh Hawley Overplays His Hand

(Carlos Barria-Pool/Getty Images)

“But that is no reason to allow Senator Hawley to misrepresent history in the service of a political narrative that will cause even greater damage to an international system that is already under immense strain.”

In a recent speech on the Senate floor, Missouri Senator Josh Hawley echoed President Donald Trump’s aggrieved insistence that the international system that the United States built after World War II (and expanded after the Cold War) has actually been hobbling American growth and prosperity for decades. Senator Hawley focused on the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that the organization has been “enabling and empowering the rise of an imperial China,” while punishing the United States with unfair rulings on trade disputes and oppressive restrictions on American industry. This led Senator Hawley to conclude that the United States should withdraw from the WTO altogether. 

An American withdrawal from the WTO would be an economic disaster. It would open the door to higher tariffs (imposed on and by the United States); remove the United States from an organization that encompasses 164 countries and 98 percent of global trade; give the United States less say in the implementation of policies on issues like dispute settlement and trade monitoring; and inflict a massive economic blow on American consumers and companies alike. However, while there has been plenty of criticism of Senator Hawley’s speech on economic grounds, it is important to take a look at its broader context, particularly the Senator’s attitude toward the use of American force over the past 30 years. 

Senator Hawley condemns what he describes as a naive “dream to remake the world” after the Cold War: “Western leaders…wanted a single liberal market to support a single, liberal international order that would bring peace in our time.” He continues: “That peace never arrived. Instead, these new Wilsonians embroiled the United States in conflict after conflict, war after war, for decades.”

It is strange for Senator Hawley to argue that peace “never arrived” in the post-Cold War era—a three-decade continuation of what historians and political scientists often describe as the “Long Peace” after World War II. Senator Hawley observes that the “new Wilsonians” have dragged the country down the path of perpetual warfare, but this is a selective indictment of the United States-led post-Cold War international system as a whole. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were not inevitable consequences of the liberal international order that Senator Hawley decries. 

The American response to al-Qaeda before September 11th had been both disastrous and impotent…

Senator Hawley frequently decries the “longest war in American history, in Afghanistan” and the “trillions of American dollars expended on failed nation-building.” The war in Afghanistan is constantly cited along with the Iraq War as an example of unrestrained American hubris (what Senator Hawley describes as the effort to “remake the world from Washington”), but the United States was responding to a foreign government harboring an organization that had just massacred nearly 3,000 civilians on American soil. 

It is easy to declare that the war in Afghanistan was a mistake two decades after September 11th, but al-Qaeda had repeatedly targeted the United States in the preceding years with operations such as the embassy bombings in Africa in 1998 and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. The American response to al-Qaeda before September 11th had been both disastrous and impotent: After the embassy bombings, the Clinton administration launched cruise missiles at al-Qaeda training facilities in Afghanistan and destroyed the al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory in Sudan. After the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, the Clinton and Bush administrations did next to nothing. 

Americans were strongly in favor of the war in Afghanistan. In a November 2019 speech at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., Senator Hawley argued that the “American public is rightly skeptical of open-ended commitments and rightly tired of endless wars.” But a majority of Americans continue to believe that the war in Afghanistan was “not a mistake,” while almost 90 percent supported going to war after the September 11th attacks. Senator Hawley argues that what he describes as the “foreign policy consensus” in Washington has been “rejected by the people of this country,” but if that is the case, how does he explain Americans’ support for one of the most enduring and visible policies produced by this consensus?

The United States also had significant international support for the invasion of Afghanistan: NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history after September 11th, and countries that would later be intensely critical of the Iraq War (such as France and Germany) contributed to the war effort. If the war in Afghanistan was the product of reckless “new Wilsonianism,” there were a whole lot of Wilsonians in the world in 2001. 

Iraq is a different story. Not only did the Bush administration’s claims about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s connections to al-Qaeda turn out to be unfounded, but Iraq also siphoned attention and resources away from the war in Afghanistan. The invasion of Iraq was the apotheosis of Washington’s effort to remake the world—as President George W. Bush explained in a November 2003 speech: “The United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East.” However, it is difficult to imagine that the United States would have invaded Iraq in the absence of the September 11th attacks. 

Several Bush administration officials had been pushing for the forcible removal of Saddam Hussein for years, while former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill claimed that the administration was intent on finding a way to remove Saddam Hussein from power. But regime change in Iraq had been official U.S. policy since the passage of the Iraq Liberation Act in 1998, and there was no serious push to develop a war plan until after September 11th. The Bush administration was also initially circumspect about “nation building.” During an October 2000 presidential debate with Vice President Al Gore, then-candidate Bush pointed out that the “vice president and I have a disagreement about the use of troops. He believes in nation-building. I would be very careful about using our troops as nation builders.”

A few months before President Bush took office, he announced that his future administration would withdraw the United States from peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. As Condoleezza Rice put it at the time: “Carrying out civil administration and police functions is simply going to degrade the American capability to do the things America has to do. We don’t need to have the 82nd Airborne escorting kids to kindergarten.” Then-candidate Bush observed that “I don’t think we can be all things to all people in the world. I think we’ve got to be very careful when we commit our troops.” He also claimed that one of his preconditions for the use of force was “whether or not there was an exit strategy” and argued that “we’re overextended in too many places.” 

President Bush clearly wanted to differentiate himself from the Clinton administration by offering a more prudent and restrained foreign policy: “If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road.” While it’s true that President Bush surrounded himself with a national security team that was more hawkish than he was, the evidence that he would have pushed for a full-scale invasion of Iraq without the impetus of September 11th is thin. And though the Bush administration was planning to increase pressure on al-Qaeda and the Taliban through covert action and diplomatic efforts, the 9/11 Commission Report observed that “Officials in both the Clinton and Bush administrations regarded a full U.S. invasion of Afghanistan as practically inconceivable before 9/11.”

There’s a tendency to regard the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq as some sort of natural outcome of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy. In the blinding optimism of the United States’ unipolar moment, the argument goes, it tried to mold the world in its image. There’s some truth in that claim; President Bush’s “forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East” was certainly a radical attempt to alter the political character of a particularly volatile and illiberal part of the world. But it also discounts the enormous influence of the unprecedented national trauma of September 11th, as well as the evidence that post-Cold War presidents were not quite as “Wilsonian” as Senator Hawley wants us to believe, especially with regard to the deployment of American force. 

President George H.W. Bush did not try to remake the world by moving into Baghdad after the United States-led coalition evicted Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait. Even when Kurdish and Shia rebels rose up against the regime (after Bush urged them to do so), American forces stood by as Iraq’s helicopter gunships cut them down. And despite criticizing President George H.W. Bush for inaction in the Balkans as a candidate, President Clinton spent years refusing to take an active role in the conflict, which led French President Jacques Chirac to observe that the position of leader of the free world was “vacant.” Senator Hawley argues that the “new Wilsonians embroiled the United States in conflict after conflict, war after war, for decades,” but the exertion of American military power in the first decade after the Cold War was not exactly of the shock-and-awe variety. 

According to Senator Hawley, “The international order as we have known it for thirty years is breaking.” The maintenance of this order has been a priority for every post-Cold War president—except for the one Senator Hawley most identifies with. President Trump has done severe damage to the system of alliances, agreements, and institutions that has underpinned American foreign policy for the past three decades. He has raised doubts about the United States’ commitment to the fundamental principles of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), prompting French President Emmanuel Macron to lament the “brain death” of the alliance and leading German Chancellor Angela Merkel to question whether the United States remains a reliable partner. He pulled the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the most powerful tools for countering China’s economic rise (something a China hawk like Senator Hawley should deplore). President Trump’s attack on the World Health Organization is just the latest step backward in the United States’ retreat from the international system it helped to build. 

What’s worse, [Senator Hawley] is doing an injustice to history; the United States did not immediately launch a military crusade to radically transform the world after the Cold War.

President Trump believes the “U.S. is always the ‘sucker,’ on NATO, on Trade, on everything,” including what he describes as the United States’ “ridiculous endless wars, where our great Military functions as a policing operation to the benefit of people who don’t even like the USA.” When President Trump pulled American forces out of northeastern Syria last October—a disastrous decision that led to a Turkish invasion, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people, the alienation of the United States’ European allies, and the strengthening of the Russian and Iranian position in Syria—he claimed that the “two most unhappy countries at this move are Russia & China, because they love seeing us bogged down, watching over a quagmire, & spending big dollars to do so…the endless and ridiculous wars are ENDING!”

Compare these comments to an argument Senator Hawley made in his speech on the Senate floor: “During the past two decades, as we fought war after war in the Middle East, the Chinese government systematically built its military on the backs of our middle class.” The America First crowd is trying to discredit what Senator Hawley describes as the “single, liberal international order” by pointing to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. This is why he identifies the development of a “single liberal market” and the “dream to remake the world” with the deployment of American force as part of the same “Wilsonian” project. But in the absence of this project, could the United States have somehow prevented China’s rise? Of course not: Xi Jinping was going to launch his Belt and Road Initiative whether the United States had troops in Afghanistan or not. 

Senator Hawley presents a neat little narrative about the post-Cold War world: The United States’ victory over the Soviet Union quickly soured into hubris, which left us with decades of chaos and bloodshed. “When the Berlin Wall fell 30 years ago,” he wrote in November, “more than a few experts predicted the end of history: Communism was dead and democracy triumphant. Now U.S. power would remake the world, which would come to look a lot like America.” In doing so, he is trying to make reckless policies like his demand for the United States to withdraw from the WTO sound like a prudent counterpoint to decades of overreach. 

What’s worse, he is doing an injustice to history; the United States did not immediately launch a military crusade to radically transform the world after the Cold War. Rather, American policymakers spent a decade trying to figure out what the United States’ role should be. And the first Gulf War and the conflicts in the Balkans simply are not comparable to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, either in scope or purpose. Senator Hawley insists that the liberal international order was bound to produce war and instability, but he conveniently leaves September 11th—the defining event of the century for the United States’ foreign policy—out of his analysis. 

This is not to say the United States’ response to the September 11th attacks does not deserve criticism; on the contrary, ongoing assessments and reassessments of how the United States uses force around the world are vital. But that is no reason to allow Senator Senator Hawley to misrepresent history in the service of a political narrative that will cause even greater damage to an international system that is already under immense strain.

Matt Johnson is a freelance writer and has contributed to a number of publications, including HaaretzNew York Daily NewsStanford Social Innovation Review, The Bulwark, and Quillette.

One thought on “When Josh Hawley Overplays His Hand

  1. “but the United States was responding to a foreign government harboring an organization that had just massacred nearly 3,000 civilians on American soil.”

    And the United States should have gone to Afghanistan, annihilated al-Qaeda, annihilated any military obstacle placed in it’s way en route to the accomplishment of that objective whether by the government of Afghanistan or any other agency, if any, and gone home.

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