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President Obama Should Ignore Buck McKeon's Bad Advice on Foreign Policy

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HOWARD MCKEON
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U.S. Rep. Howard P. "Buck" McKeon (R-California), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, took to the pages of the Washington Post last week to suggest that virtually everything that is wrong with the world is a result of "inaction" on the part of the Obama administration. But the world isn't that simple.

While asserting that "no one is eager for a new war," all McKeon's proposals are military in character -- sending more arms, stationing more troops, or deploying more ships. These are all actions that are more likely to escalate current conflicts than to resolve them. The United States' best hope of exerting leverage to rein in conflicts like those in Syria and Ukraine involves working with other countries to exert diplomatic and economic pressure. Diplomacy is hard, and the results are uncertain, but military approaches are only likely to make matters worse.

If only we sent more arms to the Syrian opposition, left troops in Iraq, provided military equipment to Ukraine, and spent tens of billions of dollars on more combat ships for use in Asia, all would be well with the world, or so McKeon suggests. He refuses to acknowledge that there are local and regional factors driving these conflicts that have nothing to do with the United States, and that our best hope of influencing them is by working with other countries towards political solutions, not by relying on military tools.

McKeon's anti-Obama rant seems to be driven at least as much by politics and ideology as it is by a serious consideration of what role the United States should be playing in the world. The clearest evidence of this is his unwillingness to acknowledge the accomplishments yielded by the Obama administration's policy of restraint, from persuading Syria to give up its chemical weapons to entering into serious negotiations with Iran to curb its nuclear weapons program.

These achievements are in stark contrast to the Bush administration's trillion-dollar war against Iraq, which was justified as a quest to eliminate weapons of mass destruction that, it ended up, did not even exist. The destabilizing effects of that conflict -- which was enthusiastically supported by Rep. McKeon and the current president's other most vocal critics -- have helped create the atmosphere of violent extremism and sectarianism that now exists in Iraq. As Fareed Zakaria put it, "If a single action accelerated the sectarian conflicts in the Middle East, it was the decision of the George W. Bush administration to topple Saddam Hussein's regime, dismantle all structures in which Sunnis had power and then hand over the Iraqi state to Shiite religious parties."

The disastrous consequences of the Iraq war are also evident in the rapid growth of Islamic extremism within the Syrian opposition. Before the U.S. intervention in Iraq, the individuals and organizations that have now united under the banner of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) did not exist.

McKeon is silent on the question of what his prescriptions will cost. After reaching a post-World War II peak just a few years ago, Pentagon spending is now on track to level off at about $500 billion per year for the rest of this decade -- more than $100 billion per year more than the levels reached during past post-war build-downs. If McKeon had his way, this figure could easily jump by as much as $100 billion per year as a result of decisions to keep the Army and Marines near the levels reached during the Iraq and Afghan buildups; increase Navy shipbuilding when the United States already has far and away the most powerful Navy in the world; and ramp up funding for the overpriced, underperforming and unnecessary F-35 combat aircraft (parts of which are built in McKeon's district).

Given that McKeon and his cohorts refuse to consider revenue increases, these additional Pentagon expenditures would have to come either through increasing the deficit or by decimating domestic programs that have already been hit hard. It would be one thing if this spending were needed to defend the country. But more troops, ships, and planes won't solve current military crises, much less address urgent 21st-century threats like climate change, epidemics of disease, mass casualty terrorism, or the spread of nuclear weapons.

Last but not least, Buck McKeon's ideas are out of step with the wishes of the American public. Strong majorities oppose military action in Syria or arming the government of the Ukraine. After seeing the results in Iraq and Afghanistan, most people have rightly decided that waging war and shipping arms are not wise policies unless there are overwhelming U.S. interests at stake and there is no other way to resolve the issue. In a democracy, this sentiment should count for something. Bearing this in mind, President Obama is to be commended for holding off on military action against Syria due to public pressure. Apparently McKeon and his allies would have plowed ahead anyway, regardless of what the public thought.

Contrary to the cries of McKeon and the president's other critics, restraint in Syria and Ukraine and diplomacy in Iran are signs of good judgment, not weakness. A foreign policy of all-military-all-the-time would be immensely costly and extremely counterproductive. We can and should do better.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

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