Keeping America Safe: National Security in the 21st Century, with John Stossel

“In Washington, the conversation is really between the 48 yard lines when it comes to foreign policy,” declared William Ruger, vice president of research at the Charles Koch Institute. “What we want to do is broaden that perspective and talk about some different ideas than [what] you’re used to hearing perhaps in Washington or in the mainstream media.”

Ruger made these comments during a panel discussion hosted called Keeping America Safe: National Security in the 21st Century. The event, which the Charles Koch Institute hosted in Manchester, New Hampshire, was a chance for attendees to hear from a distinguished panel with views outside those 48 yard lines.

Andrew Bacevich, Stephen Kinzer, Chris Preble, and William Ruger, along with moderator John Stossel, took the field on January 13. Together, they discussed the existing foreign policy consensus in Washington, what’s harmful about this status quo, and what strategies they would propose instead. Their lively debate was full of thoughtful challenges to old ways of thinking.

“Every time I go [to Washington], I’m impressed again with how narrow is the spectrum of acceptable opinions on foreign policy,” said Kinzer. Speaking as experts with experiences across a range of fields—academia, the military, the press, think tanks—the panelists readily agreed that this consensus exists and that the lack of debate is harmful.

Bacevich emphasized that “the beginning of wisdom is to reject the notion that Republicans and Democrats differ radically on” their foreign policy positions and strategies. Bacevich asserted that the Washington foreign policy consensus stems “from the assumption that the United States of America is called upon to transform the world in our own image” and the belief that “we can fulfill that providential mission through the exercise of the possession of supreme military power and the use of that military power.”

The use of our military power is a big part of our current foreign policy. Specifically, Ruger explained that the United States has formal defense treaties with 68 nations, requiring us to defend, with the lives of our own soldiers, approximately two billion people around the world. Ruger also had yet another shocking statistic to share: “If you are a person born in 1991 … there’s only been three years in your life when the United States has not been in a major conflict of one sort or another.”

In order to address this problem of perpetual war, Preble advocated evaluating every proposed military intervention with four questions. First, is there a compelling U.S. national security interest at stake? Second, is there broad public support for the mission? Third, is this mission militarily achievable? And fourth, have we tried all the other options?

Bacevich and Kinzer both agreed that these are strong questions, but emphasized an additional important point: Wars have unexpected consequences. Bacevich argued that even when war is justified, those who believe it “is going to provide a neat and tidy cost-free solution have been proven wrong by history again and again and again.” Ruger then re-emphasized what he considers the most important aspect of these criteria: The U.S. military is intended to defend our rights and secure our territorial integrity, so it should remain primarily focused on performing those duties.

The panelists also discussed the rise of ISIS, the United States’ role in the Middle East, the moral hazard of agreeing to defend the rest of the world, Kinzer ’s time as a journalist in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, nuclear modernization, and the need for American foreign policy to change over time. Away from Washington, these panelists were able to break out of the 48 yard lines and actually move the ball down field.

To continue to explore solutions to current foreign policy challenges, the Charles Koch Foundation invites research proposals for projects related to issues such as grand strategy and defense policy, trade policy, diplomacy, intelligence, civil-military relations, and more.

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