(Photo Credit: David Vergun)
McMaster’s failed case against ‘retrenchment’: a European perspective

The increasing traction that the ideas of restraint and realism in foreign policy are gaining across the political spectrum in the United States has triggered defensive reaction from the Washington foreign policy establishment.  In variety of op-eds and articles, members of this establishment, also known as “the blob”, come across as increasingly jealous of their self-perceived monopoly on expertise and knowledge when it comes to national security.

A fresh example of such a reaction is President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser H.R. McMaster’s recent article in Foreign Affairs. In that article McMaster, labels the restrainers as “retrenchers,” and deploys the ultimate “argument” that ought to undermine their credibility in the unsentimental world of foreign policy: in advocating for a less interventionist U.S. strategy they are being emotional, not rational or intellectually consistent. As McMaster and fellow members of the blob tirelessly warn us, even a modest reduction in U.S. global entanglements will lead to all kinds of nefarious consequences: allies abandoned, hostile and revisionist states emboldened, and America’s own security threatened as a result.

Yet what McMaster and other members of the “blob” ignore is that it is the U.S. that is increasingly seen as a destabilizing force by allies and multilateral institutions that form the bedrock of the post-WWII international order they claim to be defending. While McMaster exhorts others to develop “strategic empathy,” he fails to practice any himself.

As an example, on July 6, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard deemed the U.S. strike on the Iranian general Qassem Soleimani an “unlawful killing,” as the U.S. failed to provide sufficient evidence of the imminent attack against its targets it had claimed Soleimani was preparing.

This admission has several serious ramifications for the ways others, particularly European allies, see today’s U.S. First, the fact that this statement is made by a responsible U.N. official confers it the legitimacy of a multilateral body that, with all its shortcomings and failures, is still a pillar of the international rules-based governance. As a soft, rather than hard, power, the EU naturally thrives in a norms-shaped environment rather than one of great power competition. It is thus politically and culturally averse to actions taken in blatant disregard to the international law, such as the assassination of the general Soleimani, no matter his reputation among European policymakers. 

Second, Callamard’s conclusion implies that the President Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, simply speaking, lied about the imminent attacks against the U.S. interests that Soleimani was accused of plotting. All they were able to offer ever since was a bunch of confusing and shifting explanations and not a shred of evidence that would justify such an attack as legal and legitimate. The U.S. thus comes across not as a stabilizing force keeping “hostile powers” like Iran at bay that McMaster claims it to be, but as a nation gone rogue, trampling on rules of international behavior it itself helped to set, and lying to its own citizens, allies and the world at large.

Worse, the assassination of Soleimani was not an isolated incident, but part of a pattern of mindless escalation in the Middle East — an area of vital security interest for the EU — by the current U.S. administration.  McMaster’s extraordinary claim that Iran’s hostility is not conditioned by any U.S. action flies in the face of the prevailing analysis in Europe.

Whatever EU’s own concerns on Iran, be it its enrichment activities, regional policies, ballistic missiles, or human rights record, there is a near-universal view that Trump’s decision to violate the working nuclear agreement and institute a “maximum pressure” campaign instead paved the way for a looming showdown with Iran and engendered a dynamic of escalation and counter-escalation, with potentially devastating consequences for regional and European security.  The latest briefing prepared by the European Parliament encapsulates this consensus well.

McMaster, who prides himself as a true realist in contrast to restrainer dreamers, should understand the inherent value of capable alliances in multiplying America’s power.  Yet nowhere in his article is there any suggestion that the U.S. needs pay heed to the allies’ views and concerns. Had he followed his own prescription and developed some strategic empathy, he would have easily realized that the only natural reaction to such disregard is for the allies to strive to shield themselves from erratic U.S. behavior by developing some capacity for autonomous strategic action.

No matter the outcome of the U.S. presidential elections in November 2020, such thinking is becoming well entrenched in Europe. A reckless, incompetent and untrustworthy American leadership accelerated this process. It has thus already caused more harm to American interests than anything the restrainers have to offer. McMaster and other blob members would perform a truly patriotic public service if they exercised a bit of self-criticism in scrutinizing their own record rather than merely dismissing alternative perspectives.

This article reflects the personal views of the author and not necessarily the opinions of the S&D Group and the European Parliament.

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