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New think tank with funding from Koch and Soros aims to shift US foreign policy away from ‘penchant for war’

Soldiers conduct night-fire missions in support of combat operations in Afghanistan on Dec. 20, 2018.

MARKUS BOWLING/U.S. ARMY

By WYATT OLSON | STARS AND STRIPES Published: July 10, 2019

Two of the most vilified figures from the political left and right are contributing about $1 million to a common cause: attempting to shift American foreign policy away from the use of military force and toward more vigorous diplomacy.

George Soros’ Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute are each contributing about a half-million dollars to launch the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft in November in Washington, D.C.

It will kick off with 10 to 12 fulltime staffers and another dozen adjunct scholars and analysts. The institute will produce scholarly analysis that initially focuses on the Middle East and East Asia. Its perspective will be promoted to a wider audience through publishing opinion essays, holding conferences and reaching out to the public, members of Congress and their staffs.

The institute is named for John Quincy Adams, America’s sixth president who declared that the young nation “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

During a recent phone interview with Stars and Stripes, Andrew Bacevich, a historian and retired U.S. Army colonel who is one of the Quincy Institute’s co-founders, talked about the niche it will fill in the crowded constellation of American foreign-policy think tanks.

What was the genesis for creating the Quincy Institute?

We believe that there is a foreign-policy consensus to which mainstream Republicans and mainstream Democrats adhere, and that consensus pays too much attention to the use of military force and not enough attention to diplomatic engagement.

We surveyed the trajectory of U.S. foreign policy, particularly since the end of the Cold War — so since 1989, 1990 — and the preeminent feature is war. And sadly, for the most part, despite all the exertions and sacrifices of U.S. troops, the payoff from those wars has been negligible.

The aim of the Quincy Institute is to introduce into the foreign policy debate themes that emphasize realism, restraint and prudence, so that perhaps over time we could move our foreign policy away from this penchant for war to something more productive.

How did this ‘penchant for war’ evolve? Democrats historically have been regarded as less hawkish than Republicans. Did the trauma of the Sept. 11 attacks lead to a generally more hawkish Democratic party?

I think the change dates from the fall of the Berlin Wall. If you recall, the first post-Cold War president was Bill Clinton, a Democrat. And if you’ll recall the Clinton era, he was remarkably willing to use force — in Haiti, in Bosnia, in Kosovo, in Somalia, bombing attacks on Sudan, on Iraq, on Afghanistan.

If you fast-forward to the next Democratic president, Barack Obama, he certainly suggested that he wanted to wean us away from this tendency to use force, but the truth is he didn’t. He pulled us out of Iraq only to send us back into Iraq. He never delivered on ending the war in Afghanistan.

And if you look at his record of using drones to assassinate people, air strikes in Libya — there, too, we have a very hawkish Democratic president. I’m not trying to suggest they are more hawkish than the Republicans. What I am suggesting is that both parties bought into this militaristic, interventionist tendency that was very prominent after the Cold War.

From the Quincy Institute’s perspective, we want to focus critical attention not on one party or the other. We are not Republican or Democratic. We are not progressive. We’re not conservative.

How do you think the American public perceives the effectiveness of military force as a means of foreign policy?

I think the public is ill-informed and confused. Again, I would hope that our institute could correct that.

What’s the significance of two of your primary founding contributors coming from opposite ends of the political spectrum?

That is a symbol, an expression, of our intention to be trans-partisan.

We’ve gotten financial support from a variety of entities — none of them foreign, none of them corporate — but different foundations. It’s true that the two biggest grants we’ve gotten are from the Charles Koch Institute — emphatically conservative — and from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which is emphatically progressive.

I think I am correct in saying those two entities have never jointly funded any kind of a project.

What would U.S. foreign policy look like as advocated by the Quincy Institute?

Fewer wars. More creative efforts to bring about solutions to conflict without resort to war. What’s an example of that? Well, take the involvement in the United States in the competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where we have sided with Saudi Arabia, a country which is not democratic, which does not respect human rights.

We have emphatically sided with Saudi Arabia, selling them hundreds of billions of dollars in arms.

We think that’s a mistake. We think we should side neither with Saudi Arabia nor Iran. We don’t have much at stake in that fight, but we do have an interest in trying to prevent that competition from leading to a larger conflict. So that’s where creative diplomacy ought to play a role.

What would you say to critics who call your approach isolationist?

I’ve tried to use the word engagement about four times. [Laughs.] We’re not against trade. We’re not against treaties.

When is America justified in the use of military force?

Any attack on the United States of America. Any attack on U.S. forces. The hard part is when there is a threat to U.S. vital interests. I say it’s the hard part because that’s where you end up having an interesting discussion: What are the vital interests of the USA? They are not constant. They change as circumstances change. I don’t think we should assume that what were the vital interests of the United States 30 years ago are the same today.

I think the Persian Gulf is actually a very good example of that. I personally — I’m not sure if my Quincy Institute colleagues would agree — don’t think that the Persian Gulf rates as a vital interest of the USA. We don’t need it.

The American way of life is not dependent upon Persian Gulf oil. Maybe China’s way of life depends on Persian Gulf oil, but not our way of life. There ought to be a robust discussion of the hierarchy of our interests. That ends up determining what you’re willing to fight for and what you’re not willing to fight for.

We think that our policies have been imprudent and because of that we’ve wasted money and we’ve wasted lives in conflicts that frankly haven’t been worth it.

Here we are, 18 years at war in Afghanistan, with no particular expectation that it’s going to end any time soon. That’s a travesty.

olson.wyatt@stripes.com
Twitter: @WyattWOlson

Andrew Bacevich speaks during a panel discussion that was part of the 2012 Current Strategy Forum at the U.S. Naval War College.
ERIC DIETRICH/U.S. NAVY

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