Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, on her foreign policy vision for the country.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., speaks at the American University Washington College of Law in Washington, Thursday, Nov. 29, 2018, on her foreign policy vision for the country. AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

Warren’s Big Foreign Policy Speech? Simple and Irresponsible

Sen. Elizabeth Warren just gave a foreign policy speech that national security professionals who want U.S. global leadership should fear.

Are you really going to hitch your wagon to Senator Elizabeth Warren?

No, not you, mainstream liberal America who loves the soft-spoken yet feisty underdog who emerged in the financial crisis and took on big power. It’s understandable why you like her.

No, I’m talking to you, national security professionals, you of The Blob who are mostly liberal at heart, but also who profess to prefer qualified U.S. global leadership over firebrand partisanship — and the kind that requires real and robust military and intelligence capabilities, budgets, and policies. It’s less clear why you would like a President Warren. Because you might be alarmed at what she just said in her much-hyped foreign policy speech this week.

It’s a well-trod path for upstart presidential candidates to give an early foreign-policy speech, outlining a vision in sweeping and inspiring terms that are artfully unthreatening and unspecific. Bernie Sanders is already doing it. He made his statement speech last year; more recently, he let it be known he was getting serious about foreign policy via this wispy October temperature-taker piece in Politico. Bottom line: the 2016 primary runner-up is building a much stronger national-security support network and a set of ideas to sell.

On Thursday, Warren gave a speech billed as her nail-on-the-church-door statement of her presidential ambitions in the 2020 race. It follows her own backroom tutoring last year on national security, as a new member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. She was bold in choosing the venue: American University, where President John F. Kennedy in 1963 delivered a seminal address, just months after the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the purveyor of “missile gap” toughness signaled a new, softer approach to the Soviet Union.

Warren’s association with JFK’s legacy has been well-scrutinized. Look, I didn’t know Jack Kennedy. I didn’t work with him, he wasn’t a friend of mine. But judging from their AU speeches, Senator Warren is no Jack Kennedy.

Related: America’s Place in the World Was on the Ballot. It Lost.
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Warren’s speech was no Ted Sorensen masterpiece, either. It was a weaker version of what Sanders and many of her presumed challengers have been offering for some time: a few broad and unspecific strokes against Trump’s authoritarianism sprinkled with a general disdain for America’s military interventions abroad but with little explanation why, other than that they’ve gone on for too long.

Warren’s big foreign policy speech actually was more like three little speeches: on economics, military purpose, and domestic politics. The liberal lioness opened with a familiar trope that pits the elites of “big corporations” against common workers. Whether or not she intended, Warren often channeled Donald Trump’s most faithful (and successful) themes: that ordinary Americans have borne the brunt of an international financial and security system that has been skewed against them for too long:

“Beginning in the 1980s, Washington's focus shifted from policies that benefit everyone to policies that benefit a handful of elites, both here at home and around the world.

Mistakes piled on mistakes. Reckless, endless wars in the Middle East. Trade deals rammed through with callous disregard for our working people. Extraordinary expansion of risk in the global financial system. Why? Mostly to serve the interests of big corporations while ignoring the interests of American workers.

Add in decades of domestic policies that have helped the rich get richer and left everyone else behind, and it's no wonder Americans have less faith in democratic government today than at any other time in modern U.S. history.

Our country is in a moment of crisis decades in the making, a moment in which America's middle class has been hollowed out, working people have been betrayed, and democracy itself is under threat.   

While it is easy to blame President Trump for our problems, the truth is that our challenges began long before him. And without serious reforms, they are just as likely to outlast him.”

In her section on security issues and the military, Warren launched into more familiar tropes: the U.S. is over-extended, defense spending should get more for the money, policymakers can’t define victory. Just close your eyes and listen:

“We need to refocus our international economic policies so that they benefit all Americans, not just wealthy elites. At the same time, we must refocus our security policies by reining in unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments and adapt our strategies overseas for the new challenges we'll face in this coming century.”

Who can argue with that? If there are unsustainable and ill-advised military commitments, they should be “reined in.” Warren should name them and how she plans to get out and “adapt” to these unspecified new challenges.

When Trump delivered similar unspecific lines about Afghanistan and Iraq, critics argued he shouldn’t be allowed to get away with applause lines, called him to be more specific and offer his own plan for ending those conflicts. He didn’t, and he won, of course. But Warren should be held to the same standard.

The only military commitment she specified is Afghanistan. But she said nothing about how to leave. What timeline? What conditions? Leave bases entirely, or just partially? Retreat to regional bases, or bring the troops all the way home?

Related: What Elizabeth Warren’s Speech Says About The Left’s Foreign-Policy Debate

On Thursday, Warren published an essay in Foreign Affairs, a slightly longer version of her speech that adds one detail — she also wants to withdraw troops from Iraq — and similarly fails to articulate how she would use military force differently.

She argues the U.S. relies too heavily on its military and not enough on soft power, which is a complaint uttered by every foreign-policy denizen in Washington for at least two decades, but offers no plan for how she would change it. She complains the defense budget is too large, but offers no smaller topline, let alone areas to cut.

And she largely ignores the gains of the past three years against violent Islamic extremism by U.S.-led security forces elsewhere: Syria, Somalia, Libya, Yemen, Mali, or Niger: “The region remains a tangled mess...Neither military nor civilian policymakers seem capable of defining success, but surely this is not it.”

She singled out the Afghanistan war, but even there she used the ‘turned the corner’ laugh-line that has become a favorite for Twitter snark:

“Take Afghanistan. We've ‘turned the corner’ in Afghanistan so many times that we're now going in circles. Poppy production is up. The Taliban are on the rise. Afghan forces are taking unsustainable losses. The government is losing territory and credibility. On my trip to Afghanistan last year, I met American servicemembers who were young children on 9/11. This isn't working.

Yes, we can-—and we must—continue to be vigilant about the threat of terrorism, whether from Afghanistan or anywhere else. But rather than fighting in an Afghan civil war, let's help them reach a realistic peace settlement that halts the violence and protects our security. Let's make sure that the three brave Americans killed in Afghanistan this week are the last Americans to lose their lives in this war. It's time to bring our troops home from Afghanistan - starting now.”

Warren says nothing of how she’s going to “help them” reach a “realistic” peace deal, or get the Taliban and 20 other terrorist organizations in that country to negotiate an end to the fighting, all while taking away badly-needed security capabilities from Afghan, NATO, and U.S. forces.

Warren has a great goal for Afghanistan. It’s exactly the same one the Obama and Trump administrations have been trying to achieve for years, with fewer security forces to enforce it.

Warren offers an even more alarmingly simplistic applause line when she criticizes how big the DOD budget is.

“If more money for the Pentagon could solve our security challenges, we would have solved them by now.”

Look, it’s not hard to argue the Defense Department could live with fewer dollars (especially if its mission actually was reined in, as Warren wants.) But what does she mean here? If money is the issue, she should be happy with the Pentagon. U.S. troops and their intelligence counterparts beat back ISIS in Iraq and Syria on the cheap. President Obama and Trump employed the cost-efficient “by, with, through” plan where locals bear the brunt of fighting and dying so that Americans are spared from spilling blood and treasure of any unpalatable amount. The true cost of that minimalist plan? Roughly half a million Syrian civilian deaths, a prolonged destabilization, and a security and influence gap filled eagerly by Russia and Iran. But cheaper and safer for American service members.  

Finally, Warren sets her sights on the defense industry in her speech, and she sounds like a downright conspiracy theorist:

“We can start by ending the stranglehold of defense contractors on our military policy. It's clear that the Pentagon is captured by the so-called ‘Big Five’ defense contractors—and taxpayers are picking up the bill.”

This is such a simplistic and frustrating line on how defense contracting works that it’s alarming to think it comes from a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who is supposed to understand and oversee defense spending and wants to be commander in chief. Find one corporate executive who has a “stranglehold” on Defense Secretary Jim Mattis or Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford. The Big Five she mentions are Lockheed Martin, Boeing, General Dynamics, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman. (All of them are advertisers with Defense One.) Offer real criticism of them and the entire “Iron Triangle,” all you want. Go after big-dollar contractors and waste, there’s plenty. Take on DOD’s legendary weapons-buying missteps, it’s deserved. But Warren’s throw-away insult represents a fundamental and purposeful mischaracterization of the true relationship and intent of the private contractor community to the public Defense Department. She should do better.

The senator deserves the huge domestic following she’s earned for her primary fight. But the party’s national security professionals, practitioners, and academics should demand more from her and themselves before signing up to what she’s selling so far.