Most commentary about contemporary American politics – including my own – has focused on the sharp divide between the parties. On almost every policy question, Democrats and Republicans are both more united internally and further apart from each other than they have been in for decades.

But what is becoming one of the central debates in American politics, likely to play an important role in the election of 2016, is one where there are significant divisions within each party, especially the Republicans.

That issue is the role that America should play in the world, specifically the extent to which we should become involved militarily in countries where deep internal divisions pit forces thoroughly hostile to the United States against opponents that vary from only slightly less hostile to partially supportive.

At the most prominent level, this has been a debate between President Obama and a group of Republican senators lead by John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, with strong support from Sen. Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and others. For example, on Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya, these senators have been critical of the president for not being sufficiently aggressive in deploying America’s military. The most striking weakness in the position of this group is the stark contradiction between their support for quickly bringing down our deficit and their simultaneously advocating significant increases in the most expensive thing the government does – deploying our men and women into combat situations. I am now reading an excellent book advocating a far less interventionist posture by Barry R. Posen, “Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy,” which quite credibly estimates that one-third of our current overall national debt is due to increased military spending beyond what was anticipated in 2001, with the gravely mistaken decision to invade Iraq accounting for by far the largest share of this.

Substantively, the president’s hawkish critics are wrong on two important counts. First, they greatly exaggerate America’s ability to influence events by force. In Iraq, after a massive American military effort, which lasted as long as World War II and Korea combined, we confront a situation in which the factions we find least objectionable are proving unable to stand on their own. The argument against the president’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of next year is similar: The people we’ve supported will not be able to sustain themselves against internal enemies in our absence.

Fortunately, there is a second point on which the “send in the troops” advocates are wrong. In none of these disputes does America have a vital national self interest in trying to sustain the political forces that are unsustainable. I voted to attack Afghanistan in 2003 to put an end to Osama bin Laden’s murderous activities. I voted against the war in Iraq. In neither case was the justification for an American war effort that those regimes were mistreating their own people. In Afghanistan, remember, President Bush had no interest in overthrowing the Taliban until they refused to let us seize bin Laden.


I agree that it would be a better world if there had not been a Saddam Hussein or a Taliban. It would also be a better world if Robert Mugabe were not running Zimbabwe; if the military government in Thailand had not just overthrown for the second time a democratically elected regime that was guilty of showing too much concern for the poor; and if the rulers of Saudi Arabia supported basic human rights.

It is entirely legitimate for us to stress our disapproval of oppressive regimes, and in some cases to use economic sanctions – as we are doing with some effect in Iran – to try to get them to change policies that are threatening. It is also entirely legitimate for us to engage in the combination of intelligence and targeted force that we have been using to diminish the ability of terrorists to attack us, including killing them when we are able to do so without causing great collateral harm.

But I do not see how anyone can argue that America would be any less secure today if we had not overthrown Saddam Hussein. In fact, even the president’s critics are implicitly acknowledging that not only are we worse off for this, but that a considerable number of Iraqis are as well, and that the region as a whole has suffered. The major beneficiaries of Saddam’s demise continue to be the Iranians, who were his enemies, and who have been supportive of his successors.

I have been discussing the difference between Obama and several Republican senators, but it is increasingly clear that this issue causes intra-party divides as well. That is clearest on the Republican side, where many of the most conservative, including some tea party advocates, are consistent in their skepticism about the ability of the United States government to accomplish great social change internationally or domestically.

While the split is greatest on the Republican side of the aisle, recent comments by Hilary Clinton have raised some concern that this might also be an issue among Democrats. In an interview with The Atlantic, the former secretary of state said Obama’s policy of avoiding foreign entanglements and “dumb” mistakes was not an “organizing principle” for the foreign policy of a “great nation.”

It’s troubling, but I do not think that is likely to be nearly as divisive for us as it is for Republicans. Clinton herself was a target of the angry criticism of the McCain-Graham faction, especially in its demagogy about Benghazi, and her recent comments show a recognition that this is not an issue on which Democrats should be deeply divided.


In any case, it is clear that between now and the next set of presidential primaries, the Democratic electorate will be demonstrating its firm support for the president’s policy of restraint. The president’s insistence on the very limited nature of our current military effort in Iraq reflects his understanding of this.

As we debate this issue between and within both parties leading up to the next presidential election, I will continue to pose one question to those who advocate a policy of constant military intervention to bring about better internal results in a wide variety of countries, even when this does not seriously affect our national security.

What are the limits to the military intervention you propose, both in amount and in duration? As I noted several weeks ago, one of the leading advocates of the global projection of American military strength ,The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, recently called on the president to make the same kind of commitment in Afghanistan that America made in South Korea and Europe. Those commitments are ongoing after 61 and 67 years, respectively. I see no indication on the part of the Cheney-McCain faction that they are unwilling to make commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan of equal duration and expense, and nothing in the internal affairs of either country gives me any assurance that anything less will meet the goals the hawks want to set for us.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

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