Commentary: Foreign policy by spasm

By John Krull 

INDIANAPOLIS – Some years ago, I found myself seated next to then-U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, at a dinner.

It was just a few weeks after the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001. President George W. Bush had declared “war” on terrorism. Our march toward war in Afghanistan and Iraq had begun.

John Krull, publisher,

Americans, understandably, wanted to make those who had murdered our fellow citizens pay for what they’d done. Emotions ran high.

That’s why I asked Lugar, a foreign policy expert and one of the most rational people on the planet, a question that troubled me then – and troubles me now.

I can understand wanting to fight terrorists, I asked, but what constitutes victory? When will we know we’ve won? When will it be over?

Lugar looked at me for a moment, then said, softly:

“That’s the big question.”

Being Lugar, he continued with a detailed, closely reasoned analysis of the world situation.

He talked about how much more complicated the world had become. About how we were confronting an enemy different than the ones we’d fought in the past. About how the responses that had served us in the past might not work now. About how we needed to think long and hard about our decisions in the days ahead because they could have far-reaching consequences.

It was fascinating, as it always is with Lugar, a master class on a troubled world.

But it became clear he didn’t have an answer to my question.

I walked away from that dinner thinking that Richard Lugar, one of the wisest and best-informed statesmen on the planet, didn’t know how or where the fight against terrorism was going to end, either.

That wasn’t reassuring.

Wars, I mused that night, are a lot easier to begin than they are to end.

I’ve been thinking about that conversation with Lugar a lot lately,

In just a few days, we have launched a missile strike against Syria, dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan and made threatening gestures to North Korea, an emerging nuclear power.

In each case, the decision seemed to come without much reflection.

President Donald Trump authorized the missile strike, he said, because images of children suffering from a chemical weapons attack moved him. He acted as if such tactics by the Syrian government were something new – a reason for him to disavow his earlier statements that getting involved in Syria would be a mistake.

The truth, though, is that if Trump weren’t aware that Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a horrible human being, it could only be because the president hasn’t been paying attention.

Trump also seems to have given little thought to (or exercised much supervision over) the bombing of Afghanistan, particularly regarding the ways ISIS will use the event for recruiting purposes.

Similarly, the president shook his fist at North Korea as if he saw Kim Jong-un’s instability – and possession of nuclear weapons – as a personal affront rather than a complex problem.

And threat.

In each instance, the president of the United States seemed to act by impulse – spasm, almost – rather than by thought or plan.

Perhaps that is why Richard Lugar, now more than four years out of the Senate but still one of the most highly respected voices regarding foreign policy in the world, unloaded on Trump in a speech to the Foreign Policy Association.

He called Trump’s approach to the world “simplistic, prosaic and reactive.” He criticized the president for abdicating America’s world leadership, a course, Lugar argued, that will create a void, making conflicts occur more often and endangering people all over the planet.

Lugar’s theme was the same one he delivered years ago during our dinner chat.

The world is a complicated, dangerous place and we need to think carefully about our actions because they will have far-reaching consequences.

Wars, you see, still are a lot easier to begin than they are to end.

John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 Indianapolis and publisher of, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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