“I wish that all nations may recover and retain their independence; that those which are overgrown may not advance beyond safe measures of power, that a salutary balance may be ever maintained among nations, and that our peace, commerce, and friendship, may be sought and cultivated by all. It is our business to manufacture for ourselves whatever we can, to keep our markets open for what we can spare or want; and the less we have to do with the amities or enmities of Europe, the better. Not in our day, but at no distant one, we may shake a rod over the heads of all, which may make the stoutest of them tremble. But I hope our wisdom will grow with our power, and teach us, that the less we use our power, the greater it will be,” – Thomas Jefferson, June 12, 1815, in a letter to Thomas Leiper.
Neoconservatives and many other hawks and hard-liners along with them view these things as former Secretary Albright did when she reportedly asked Powell, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” The idea that the U.S. ought to conserve its strength, husband its resources, and exercise restraint gets in the way of activism and meddling overseas, and so they’ll have none of that.
What they also miss and will never concede is that our activist meddling in Iraq dramatically weakened the US, by exposing the very limited utility of its military power alone. Restraint can mean the maximizing of power; intervention can merely prove its ineffectiveness. Deterrence is thereby weakened. In my view this president has done a dogged, careful job of restoring US credibility through much more limited and focused military action, combined with a more robust diplomatic arm. And yet he is blamed for the loss of power that his predecessor ensured. That paradox may well be seen as a microcosm of Obama’s entire, pragmatic and severely under-rated presidency.