Eliot Cohen attacks arguments for a much less meddlesome foreign policy:
A darker case is that the United States is simply too incompetent to exercise global leadership—the evidence being the experience of the last 15 years of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also Vietnam a generation earlier.
It seems hard to deny that U.S. “leadership” over the last quarter-century has been mostly unsuccessful in the places where it has been exercised most. In some parts of the world, it has clearly caused more harm than it prevented. The core conceit that U.S. “leadership” is necessary and indispensable to international order doesn’t hold up very well when we consider how many times in this period the U.S. ran roughshod over international law, attacked other countries unnecessarily, overthrew recognized governments with no preparation for the aftermath, and destabilized at least one entire region for decades. The places where U.S. “leadership” has been exercised most vigorously and aggressively tend to be much worse off now than before they were on the receiving end of that “leadership.” If the U.S. has been less fixated on “leading” and “doing something” in so many other countries, both the U.S. and the rest of the world would have suffered far fewer losses.
It’s true that the U.S. has sometimes had success abroad, but when it has succeeded it has usually done so when it was cooperating with local governments to deter external threats. Our greatest failures have come from waging preventive war, toppling existing regimes, and/or taking sides in foreign civil wars that we usually don’t understand and don’t know how to win. The incessant, increasingly militarized interference in the affairs of other states that has characterized so much of U.S. foreign policy over the last two decades has offered the world exactly the sort of “leadership” that other nations don’t and never will want. Because so many advocates of U.S. “leadership” have argued for this incessant interference, they have made it difficult to distinguish between the two in practice. Indeed, they have identified their definition of U.S. “leadership” very closely with their consistent support for illegal and unnecessary wars, and in so doing have done more than its critics ever could to discredit the concept. The hawkish lament that the U.S. hasn’t done more in Syria is in keeping with this. They equate “leading” with taking sides in a multi-sided civil war where there are few or no U.S. interests at stake, but don’t want U.S. “leadership” as a whole to be judged by the horrific track record of previous interventions from the last fifteen years. The good news is that “leadership” doesn’t have to mean what they say it does. Nonetheless, we should judge their idea of “leadership” by its appalling record.