The Perils Of Foreign Policy Hubris

Things aren’t going real well on the foreign policy front for the U.S. of A. these days.

Among other areas of concern, mass killings are continuing in Syria. Iran is moving closer to nuclear capability. North Korea is rattling its sabers. And Russia appears poised to annex the Crimea, and has accused the United States — of all things — of conducting foreign policy under the “rule of the gun.” Talk about the pot calling the kettle black!

No American, regardless of their political affiliation, should be happy with this state of affairs in this dangerous world. I’m not sure, either, how much influence American foreign policy has had on any of these developments. I’m not saying that the U.S. is powerless, but I also believe that we cannot fully control everything that happens in the world.

That’s why I’d encourage every American administration, regardless of party, to avoid displaying tremendous hubris about foreign policy. When President Obama took office, he famously promised to practice “smart” foreign policy and had Secretary of State Hillary Clinton publicly present a “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia to the Russian Minister — an odd attempt to marry foreign policy with a campaign-style photo opportunity. Odd, isn’t it, that the new American government would so publicly attempt to distance itself from the preceding administration’s policy? It shows how far we’ve come from the approach that prevailed for most of the 20th century, when Republicans and Democrats alike contended that partisanship ended at our borders and pursued uniform policies, like “containment,” that were followed for decades by administrations of both parties.

No doubt the Obama Administration, from the President on down, legitimately believed that it would be able to produce better relations with Russia — but obviously that didn’t happen. Their supreme confidence in their own ability to control world affairs was sorely misplaced. Now, with Russia moving aggressively to annex territory and intimidate its neighbors, the Obama Administration and its grand promises and “reset” button photo ops look foolish. The embarrassing contrast of the empty “reset” button with the reality of Russian military and geopolitical maneuvering makes the current situation all the more injurious to American credibility in world affairs.

Hubris is never an attractive quality. We’re now seeing that, in foreign affairs, it can have disastrous consequences. Let’s hope that the next presidential administration recognizes that fact.

Is The U.S. In A Foreign Policy Cocoon?

The unfolding events in the Ukraine, where Russian military activities in the Crimea have caused the Ukraine to mobilize its forces, obviously are of tremendous concern in their own right. We don’t like to see the rights of sovereign nations impaired, nor do we like to see pro-democracy movements bullied into submission.

The unfolding developments in the Ukraine, however, also give rise to a deeper, yet equally significant concern arising from the fact that the Russian military actions apparently caught the United States, and the western world, completely by surprise. People in the foreign policy world had confidently predicted that Vladimir Putin, flush from the favorable PR about the Sochi Olympic Games, wouldn’t risk the goodwill of the world by taking any kind of military action in the Ukraine, or lacked the will or resources or interest to do so. Of course, those people were wrong.

Is our failure to predict the Russian actions in the Ukraine due to poor intelligence, or of a cocoon-like atmosphere in our foreign policy establishment that doesn’t recognize that other countries and leaders might not see the world as we do? This article in The American Interest argues that it is the latter — and that the cocoon, unless and until punctured, is going to produce more foreign policy crises and setbacks in the future.

I don’t know if the hypothesis of the article is correct or not — but I do think that, when it comes to contingency planning about responses to fast-moving global events, it’s essential to have different viewpoints represented and presented to President Obama. If our current foreign policy apparatus doesn’t include the contrarians who are willing to offer their competing views and the decision-makers who will consider those views, we need to make some changes, pronto. Presidents can only make good decisions if they are given full information and a range of options.

Amateur Hour

I can’t help but reach the conclusion that the Syrian situation has been badly handled by the White House and the State Department.

From the President’s early comments that purported to draw a “red line” if the Syrian government used chemical weapons, to the announcements that the U.S. would be involved in an imminent strike after claiming to have incontrovertible evidence of Syria’s use of gas against its own people, to Great Britain’s embarrassing refusal to become involved in any action, and finally to President Obama’s abrupt decision to seek Congressional approval for some kind of action against Syria, the Obama Administration seems to be making it up as it goes along. The President now needs to resort to what the New York Times describes as “the most extraordinary lobbying campaign of Mr. Obama’s presidency” to try to convince lawmakers to support the Administration’s plans and avoid a humiliating loss in Congress that would further undermine the President’s credibility abroad.  In the meantime, even the President’s supporters think his performance has been “embarrassing” and the Syrians feel like the President’s decision to reverse course is a victory of sorts.

This blundering means that the problem goes beyond Syria and its use of chemical weapons to raise much broader issues.  President Obama often seems to think that his rhetorical powers are so extraordinary that if he just gives a speech, everything will change — but that’s not how things work in the world.  He should never have drawn the “red line” without knowing that he would be supported, in Congress and in the world at large, in taking action if Syria crossed it.  Obviously, he didn’t do so.  Now, his credibility, and the credibility of the United States as a whole, is at stake.

Thanks to those mistakes, we’ll never have the ability as a country to have a free discussion about whether to intervene in Syria or, as Secretary of State John Kerry puts it, engage in “armchair isolationism,” because the congressional debate will be colored by comments, like those of Senator John McCain, that the failure to back the President’s hasty words with action could be “catastrophic.”  Such comments recognize that the Syrian chemical weapons issue, tragic as it is for the Syrian people, is a small blip on America’s geopolitical screen.  The much bigger and more important issues are what might happen if China or Russia — or Iran or North Korea — feel that the President’s words mean nothing.  Once he loses credibility with our adversaries it will never be fully regained.

I happen to think we shouldn’t intervene in Syria, and I don’t care whether a blowhard like John Kerry calls me an “armchair isolationist” or not.  As a country, America needs to address this issue and decide what our role in the world will be and make some hard choices about our vital interests in view of our finite economic resources.  Now we may be cornered and forced into taking ill-advised, poorly defined action in a country where our national interests really aren’t implicated because the President didn’t think before he talked.  Indeed, Kerry’s remarks yesterday suggest that the Obama Administration wants to leave open the option of sending our ground troops into Syria — which seems like an extraordinarily bad idea in just about every way.

These are an amateur’s unfortunate mistakes, but mistakes that could have real, painful consequences for our country nevertheless.

The Domino Theory And The Marshall Plan

One other point to consider, as the Obama Administration apparently entertains the possibility of military action against Syria:  how much of our analysis of this situation, and our options, is colored by our adherence to concepts and a worldview that are outdated?

In the ’50s and ’60s, our intervention in Vietnam and elsewhere was justified by “the domino theory,” which held that countries would topple like dominos into the Communist column if we didn’t intervene through military force or some kind of CIA scheme.  Our approach to foreign governments relied heavily on the money-oriented, Marshall Plan model that was so successful in western Europe after World War II.

Fifty years later, the Soviet Union is gone, the geopolitical map has changed, and our focus is on countries far away from western Europe and southeast Asia — yet the old themes play out, again and again.  The colossal sums we have spent in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Colin Powell’s “if you break it, you bought it” argument, have their roots in the Marshall Plan notion that if we spend enough money we can rebuild countries into grateful and dependable allies.  Advocates of our military intervention in places across the globe argue that we need to do so to prevent other countries from following the same course — like dominos.

We have wasted billions in Iraq and Aghanistan, with money going to corrupt politicians, village chiefs, and “warlords,” without much to show for it in terms of our geopolitical security.  And the domino theory doesn’t seem to apply to the Middle East, the focus of our most recent interventionist exercises, where neolithic tribal animosities and sectarian disputes that we can barely begin to comprehend have far more force than the events in the country next door.

The Assad regime in Syria is brutal and murderous.  Why do we think that a military strike to allegedly cripple its chemical weapons capabilities will change that?  And, if the Assad government falls as a result, why do we think its ultimate replacement will be more peace-loving or accepting of western notions of diversity and democracy?  If we don’t have assurances on those points — and we don’t — why should America become involved at all?

Some might call this mindset isolationism.  I think of it as an effort to focus on our country’s vital interests and to husband our blood and treasure until those vital interests truly are at stake.  I just don’t see what is happening in Syria, tragic as it is, as involving our vital interests.

Wasn’t That Debate Supposed To Be About Foreign Policy?

Hey, I thought that debate was supposed to be on foreign policy!

Okay, there was some discussion on foreign policy topics, but President Obama took every opportunity to turn to domestic issues, and Mitt Romney was perfectly comfortable going to domestic issues, too.  President Obama’s phrase of the night was “we need to do some nation-building at home” — something he mentioned multiple times.  He also spoke, frequently, of women’s rights and education.

The tone of the debate, overall, was more civil, with more willingness to indicate agreement than we have seen.  That may well have been Romney’s strategy.  Still, there were some awkward shots taken, and in my view, they were mostly taken by the President.  The President had an obviously scripted comment —  “The 1980s called and is asking for its foreign policy back,” followed by a reference to a “social policy of the 1950s” and “economic policy of the 1920s,” that I thought was forced and unfortunate.  The President’s later comment that foreign affairs isn’t a game of Battleship, and involves aircraft carriers and submarines, also seemed patronizing and harsh, and struck a clanging note in my view.  The President’s interruption of Romney when Romney was explaining his position on the auto industry also seemed unnecessarily aggressive.  C’mon, Mr. President — let him answer, then give your response.

I thought both candidates did a good job, but I would give the edge to Romney.  The President has had the job and has dealt with foreign affairs for years; Romney looked like he belongs on the same stage as the President and could speak knowledgeably about every topic thrown his way — whether it was China, or Iran, or trade policy.  Romney’s closing statement was, I thought, very effective as well.  Romney looked like he could be President, and that clearly was one of his more important goals.

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.

Is It Really All About A Movie?

The party line from the Obama Administration is that the chaos in the Middle East is all about a cheap, crappy YouTube video.  On Friday White House spokesperson Jay Carney said, “this is not a case of protests directed at the United States writ large or at U.S. policy, this is in response to a video that is offensive to Muslims.”

Is the rioting and embassy-storming really just the product of Muslim rage at an incendiary video?  Mounting evidence suggests that the Administration story line is just wishful thinking.  The carefully coordinated, well-armed attack on the poorly defended U.S. consulate in Benghazi doesn’t seem like the spontaneous response of Libyans to a video, but rather a pre-planned terrorist act.  A writer for the Jerusalem Post argues — persuasively, in my view — that much larger forces than offensive videos are at play and that American foreign policy seems to be based on imaginative fictions rather than reality.

The Obama Administration needs to take a careful look at what really happened in Benghazi and Cairo and what is really motivating the people who brought heavy weapons to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and seemed to good intelligence about where the American Ambassador was staying and where he would be moved.  Now is not a time for phony spin or false bravado.  Foreign policy isn’t a game; the lives of American diplomats, their families, and their staff demand a clear-eyed, careful appraisal of reality.  Perhaps it’s time to stop hunting for video makers and start looking for an effective way to deal with a so-called “Arab spring” that appears to have morphed into anti-American totalitarianism.