The Overton Series: The Case for Conflict

Alexis Corn

Over the past decade, presidential candidates and administrations have continued to reject the attitude that the U.S. should serve as a decisive actor within foreign conflicts.

While in certain spheres of political rhetoric, the Overton window has expanded in the past decade—opening the field to new ideas and programs—the permissibility of philosophies within the foreign policy realm has noticeably narrowed. One of the more obvious trends is general disillusion with America’s ability to enact positive, democratic change through intervention. Recent presidential administrations and the 2016 presidential campaign displayed an increased lack of political interest to discuss and engage in foreign military ventures. Today, this rhetoric continues to play out in the 2020 presidential campaign.

During his two terms in office, President Barack Obama displayed an aversion to military engagement abroad for democracy promotion, a departure from the Bush Doctrine, which argued that it is in the United States’ best interest to transform non-democratic institutions into democracies. As president, Obama fought against the more interventionalist wing within his cabinet, and viewed his refusal to adhere to his “red-line” against Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons (and instead asked Congress to authorize the use of military force) as a victory against “the Washington playbook” that he alleged prescribed specific policy responses to foreign actions. Instead of pursuing international policies autonomous of other countries/institutions, Obama sought to strengthen regional alliances and forge local partnerships where the United States could take a supporting role.

President Donald Trump’s successful campaign for the presidency in 2016 also contained a more isolationist standpoint. During his foreign policy speech in August 2016 in Youngstown, Ohio, then-candidate Trump criticized and promised to terminate America’s foreign policy strategy of nation building and regime change. Quoting a prior comment that he made regarding Iraq in 2004, Trump argued that America’s invasion was as mistake and criticized the belief that America’s intervention could transition the country into a democracy, stating:

Look at the war in Iraq and the mess that we’re in. I would never have handled it that way. Does anybody really believe that Iraq is going to be a wonderful democracy where people are going to run down to the voting box and gently put in their ballot and the winner is happily going to step up to lead the country? C’mon.

Trump also criticized President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s attempt to advocate for a democracy in Libya and for regime changes in Syria and Egypt during the Arab Spring.

While President Donald Trump has struggled to create a consistent foreign policy vision, he has maintained some of his unwillingness for foreign military engagements. During his State of the Union address in 2019, Trump stated that he fulfilled his pledge to end America’s “endless wars” in Iraq and Syria. In December 2018 Trump argued that the United States can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman and has claimed that he does not want a war with Iran. While Trump’s foreign policy is littered with contradictions, it bears noting that rhetorically Trump has attempted to maintain a less interventionalist stance as president.

Many of the 2020 Democrat presidential candidates are following a less interventionalist rhetorical stance. Those that have articulated a foreign policy strategy have argued for diversifying America’s response to foreign crises. Massachusetts Representative Seth Moulton, former Vice President Joe Biden and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, as well as others have condemned the United States’ use of American military force in lieu of other tactics (foreign aid, diplomacy, etc.). Democrats’ strategy for tackling international threats through a multidisciplinary strategy is not a new talking-point in Congress. In 2017, Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy released “Rethinking the Battlefield” which argued for investing in “smart power,” such as diplomacy, economic development, and humanitarian assistance.

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren formed much of the mainstream Democrat foreign policy debate in an article she wrote for Foreign Affairs in November 2018. In it, she criticized prior presidential administrations’ interventionalist attitudes and asks for a reevaluation of how America’s interests are satisfied with troops in conflict zones, such as Afghanistan and Iraq (notably, an entire section of her article is titled “Ending Endless War”). Warren echoes many of her Democrat colleagues by arguing for a reduction in defense spending, greater investment in the State Department, and the need to bolster alliances.

The trauma from the conflicts in the Middle East continue to reverberate in politics today. This trend of rhetoric stretched from the Obama administration, to the Trump administration, and into the intervening presidential campaign. Today, Democrats are less willing to claim that they would intervene in crises abroad, and instead argue for a more diversified strategic toolkit. In addition, many of the Democrat candidates are arguing for new Authorizations for the Use of American Force from Congress to check presidential powers. While new AUMFs would allow Congress to reassert its power over war-making activities, this also restrains the executive branch’s ability to deploy troops abroad (and, consequently, spreads political criticism of executive actions towards other branches of government).

Foreign policy is typically pushed to the sidelines of presidential political debate, and with increased skepticism regarding America’s ability to enact positive change on the world stage, candidates are less likely to tout a foreign policy with interventionalist rhetoric. At the same time, Democrat candidates appear to be betting that running a campaign on subjects such as healthcare, climate change and infrastructure will earn them greater popularity than discussing foreign policy. The way that Democrat candidates are so closely aligned on foreign policy issues today indicates that they may prefer for foreign policy to stay in the backdrop of the 2020 elections.

The Overton window, contrived by Joseph Overton, describes the boundaries of publicly-permitted ideas on topics. The 2020 elections, both for the presidency as well as for the House of Representatives, are showing marked departures from normal political discourse. From health care, to gender, to privacy and the environment, new ideas and topics are being tested on the electorate.