Moderation in Foreign Policy: Why It Never Works

Ryan S. Walters | @ryanswalters73

Today our nation faces numerous threats and trials around the globe – the dangers of ISIS in the Middle East, a potentially nuclear-armed Iran, an unstable Russia, an aggressive China, just to name a few. Our foreign policy must rise up to meet these challenges.

History teaches us that we must be aggressive in our approach to foreign affairs, particularly in our ever-dangerous world. But an aggressive foreign policy does not equal internationalism or nation building crusades, like George W. Bush’s ill-fated promotion of democracy around the globe or Woodrow Wilson’s “war to end all wars.”

Although we did have a more isolationist foreign policy in times past, the world has become a very dangerous place, so we need to be more active in certain areas and be able to deal with serious national security threats as they arise.

What we can’t afford is moderation, a plague that has crippled our foreign policy in the past and caused more problems than it solved.

History is full of examples but I will examine three of the biggest.

World War I and the Treaty of Versailles

The United States entered World War I in 1917 to fight in a conflict that President Wilson said was being waged to end all wars and make the world “safe for democracy.” Siding with the Allies over the Central Powers, America tipped the balance and helped defeat Germany, which had launched a massive spring offensive in 1918 that looked as though it might succeed. But when America put more than a million troops in France, and began pouring in more men and supplies at a frightening rate, Germany had no choice but to give up.Wilson_waving

After the smoke cleared, more than 10 million were dead and much of Eastern France was in shambles. The victorious powers then met in Paris, at the famed Palace of Versailles, to hammer out what would be, in some ways at least, a harshly imposed “peace” agreement on Germany.

The Allies, led by the United States, Britain, and France, had two viable options from which to choose: Either dismember Germany into several separate countries and essentially destroy it, as the French understandably wanted to do, or let them off the hook and back into the family of nations in good standing, a position more in line with Wilson’s thinking.

At the end of the storied conference, the world ended up with the worst possible peace proposal, a moderate plan that fell somewhere in the middle:  The Allies imposed upon Germany a strict settlement that laid the blame for the war at Germany’s feet and required them to pay reparations, totaling billions of dollars that would not be completely paid until the end of the 1980s.

Such a harsh tone made ordinary Germans mad enough to want retribution, yet left the nation strong enough to be able to exact that revenge in due time. Versailles made the rise of Hitler inevitable and a war that was supposed to make the world safe for democracy led to horrors that were much worse.

The middle course cost us dearly in the end.


Why the United States felt compelled to fight a major war over a small sliver of jungle in Southeast Asia is a question often asked by students of history and such a query raises a valid point. Because of a wrong-headed understanding of the Communist world, America believed it had to take a stand against what it perceived as a global threat headquartered in Moscow. If the US could not contain Communism in Asia by stopping it in Vietnam, or so it was widely believed at the State Department and the Pentagon, then it might spread across the entire region and the dominoes would certainly fall.

As was the case with Versailles, the US had two viable options in the war in Vietnam: Obliterate North Vietnam with a massive military assault, much like the proposed but rejected Duck Hook plan, or build up South Vietnam with an enormous assistance program so that it could stand on its own two feet, perhaps with the backing of US airpower.1101550404_400

Which one did we choose? Neither. Either one of those options would, most likely, have worked but we chose a hybrid policy, which was the worse possible policy, that is short of a full-scale and humiliating pullout, and that was to do half of both.

The US made many substantial mistakes in Vietnam, to be sure. Removing President Diem in September 1963 proved to be the wrong move that needlessly destabilized the country, and the US aid package, though substantial, was never to the level it needed to be in order to ensure South Vietnam’s ultimate survival, particularly when Democrats in Congress cut off all support to Southeast Asia in the mid-70s.

And although the US did hammer North Vietnam hard on occasion, and almost annihilated the Viet Cong completely during the Tet Offensive in 1968, we allowed them to use neighboring countries as sanctuaries, never invaded their territory with ground forces, nor did we cause any major damage with our bombing campaigns, with the exception of Linebacker II in December 1972, though it was too little, too late.

Again, moderation failed us.


Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, global policy centered on a cardinal principle: maintaining a balance of power. The leading nations of the world, particularly in Europe, did not want to upset the delicate balance or disturb the status quo. In our conquest of Iraq in 2003, we seemed to have thrown that vital principle out the window.

Saddam Hussein, a brutal thug though he was, had been a US ally against our original nemesis Iran, particularly after the fall of the Shah and the hostage crisis in the late 1970s. We supplied Hussein with weapons and other means of support, and he served as an effective counterweight to Iran, fighting an 8-year war against them during the 1980s. He was, in essence, our bulldog on a leash that could forever keep Iran in check.

In 1990, Hussein, still our ally, made inquiries with US authorities about border disputes with his neighbors, particularly Kuwait. The US informed him that Washington was not concerned with any internal issues in Iraq. Hussein took that to mean he could do what he wanted with Kuwait. Perhaps he misunderstood, or either Washington did, but at any rate the Iraqi army invaded its neighbor that August in a typical thug-like manner, claiming it was a long lost province that needed to be returned to the fold. Because of the threat he posed to the world’s oil reserves, and that’s what it was all about, Saddam became our enemy.

Yet Bush Senior decided not to remove Saddam from power, understanding what that could do to the balance of power in the region. When George W. Bush made the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and topple Hussein, the balance would inevitably shift heavily in Iran’s favor. Iran is now, thanks to Bush Junior, the strongest power in the Middle East, with nuclear weapons on the horizon if Israel does not strike them soon.

What should Bush Junior have done? The rightness of the decision to invade Iraq is not relevant here; the decisions after it are. Once he made the decision to remove Saddam, he should have been advised what the strategic consequences would be, or let’s at least hope he was made aware of it. He had to know that a strong, viable, and democratic Iraq would be years, or even decades, in the making, though his rhetoric suggests that he believed otherwise.

In order to maintain the balance of power in the region, the only logical conclusion would be to attack Iran and, at the very least, set back its nuclear weapons program 10-15 years and reduce its military capability to threaten the region.

Dick Cheney understood this principle and tried his best to get Bush to strike Iran, but after Katrina it’s clear that W was a snake-bitten cowboy without the stomach to go any further in his crusade. If he was not willing to take care of Iran, and maintain a balance of power in the Middle East, then he had no business attacking Iraq and removing Saddam. It would have been better to keep Saddam contained than to remove the one man in the region who did strike fear in Tehran.

So, it’s clear from history that moderation equals weakness and weakness equals a failed foreign policy, which we are seeing right before our very eyes with the Obama administration.

This cannot be our future in foreign policy. We cannot, for any reason, pursue a path of moderation in dealing with the ISIS threat or Iran in the Middle East. Nor can we follow such a path in dealing with Russia or China.

Once we rid ourselves of Obama, we must use a more aggressive, though non-interventionist, plan, a policy that includes negotiations, diplomacy, economic pressure, and a strong military option if that becomes necessary. Although peace must always be our policy, and we should pursue it with ever-increasing vigor, that does not mean peace comes at any price, for that is the road to destruction.



  1. Hey Ryan: Very impressive! You are learning the secret of Realpolitik–foreign policy decisions should only be made in keeping with what is in a nation’s long-term best interest. You can bet that China has mastered this policy to ruthless efficiency. If all of our leaders would approach foreign policy in this way, the world just might be a more stable place. It may not be pretty. It certainly doesn’t assuage the feelings of the Christianists, liberals, and “one-worlders”. However, by making objective decisions based upon how things are, as opposed to how we want them to be, leaders are less likely to make decisions based upon emotions or popular demand. War is merely a strategy or extension of a country’s ability to carry out foreign policy–the military is the tool. The one thing that Cheney and Colin Powell agreed upon was that when America resorts to war the strategy should be the utter annihilation of the opponent–not just defeat them militarily, but to conquer them so overwhelmingly that their culture and any foreseeable will to resist are crushed. Post WW II Japan and Germany are textbook examples of how this is done. But that takes a type of ruthless courage that our modern society and culture today may not be prepared to tolerate at this time.

  2. William Smith says:

    I don’t think you mean moderation but trying to cut the middle. With regard to the aftermath of of WW I the problem was lack of moderation. A moderate policy toward Germany might have allowed the Germans to avoid the social and political upheavals that followed the War and might have foreclosed the possibiliity of a Hitler gaining power. Versailles was not too moderate but not modererate enough. But then even “cutting the middle” is sometimes the best you can do and also the best thing to do. The only war we have won since WW II is the first Gulf War and that ended by cutting the middle, stopping short of Baghdad at the advice of the Senior Commander and leaving Saddam in power while degrading his military. We did not win in Korea, Viet Nam, Afghanistan, or Iraq becuase there was not an attainable middle between all out long term war and occupation and cutting and running. Fighting wars that cannot be won at an acceptable cost and that the American people (who soon weary of wars) will support is demoralizing to the military and destructive of our international prestige. Now with regard to Iran, did you want to secure Iraq and press on into Iran? What would have been the costs of doing so? And would you have been willing to commit to the occupation of Iran? How is that non-interventionist? And what kind of aggressive foreign policy do you envision that does not require the use of military force and the possibility of having to intervene? This all needs more fleshing out.

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