by Robert E. Hunter
Fifty years ago, when man walked on the moon, there was a host of suggestions for other major national projects. If we can go to the moon, the argument went, why can’t we end poverty on earth, cure cancer, build world peace? Even at the time there was debate about whether the Moon Shot was worth the funds and focus that might otherwise have been devoted to these and other worthy efforts. All this is laid out in the mesmerizing and “must watch” three-part PBS program, “Chasing the Moon.”
The space program that reached its apogee with Apollo 11 was one of a trinity of projects that had required intense focus, great ambition, and concentrated and expensive effort, without prior confidence that they would “work”—the others were the Manhattan Project and the Marshall Plan. All three national commitments are still routinely cited as templates for meeting major needs on earth, as in “we should have a [fill in the blank with any one of the trinities] to get this done.”
Seeing what Americans have done in the past when moved to do their best, why doesn’t the United States do a better job at foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East? It’s 52 years since the Six-Day War, which ended with Israel controlling the lives of millions of Arabs. Since then, it has negotiated peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan and given up Gaza (only to see new threats from that direction), but an Israeli-Palestinian settlement is no more likely now than it was decades ago. We are no closer to anything approximating “stability” elsewhere in the region, with special attention to the Persian Gulf and environs. How can that be, after investment of trillions of U.S. dollars since about 1990?
Not Rocket Science
A popular way of describing means for solving some relatively simple problem is to say that “it’s not rocket science.” Foreign policy, however, is usually anything but simple. The process of dealing with other nations and groups—such as terrorists—is replete with moving parts, as many if not more than going to the moon. The difference doesn’t lie in comparisons of complexity. One major difference is that foreign policy always involves other parties with their own interests and ambitions. Even though the U.S. was engaged in a deeply serious space race with the Soviet Union, U.S. scientists and engineers faced no active interference from abroad (this was before the age of internet-dependence and hacking). By contrast, getting U.S. foreign policy right means not just understanding and dealing with what enemies, competitors, and even allies are doing, but learning what animates them, including geography, national ambitions, domestic politics, cultures, religions, histories, and internalized national myths. The U.S. government is replete with mid-level people who understand these things, but too often presidents, cabinet members, and other political appointees don’t heed their counsel.
Further, each one of the trinity of national efforts cited here had a single focus which included some perceived threat to the United States: beating the Germans to the bomb (Manhattan Project), rebuilding Western Europe in the face of a growing Soviet challenge (Marshall Plan), and repairing damage to the national psyche after Sputnik, plus developing ICBMs to deter Soviet aggression (Apollo Program).
The Post-Cold War “Paradigm Gap”
Since the end of the Cold War, there has been no overarching national requirement in U.S. foreign policy and national security. As I argued in the early 1990s, with the Soviet threat gone, we faced a “paradigm gap,” no unifying principle to guide U.S. foreign and security policy. While economics was increasingly global; classical security issues, where they existed, split along regional lines. Later, there was a major effort to fill that gap with the Global War on Terrorism, but it proved inadequate as a national project.
As a result, after the end of the Cold War and the diminishing need for other (friendly) nations to look to U.S. leadership and commitment for their own protection, the U.S. was faced with a less structured international system, from which it could neither retreat nor any longer be assured of primacy. This demanded more, rather than less, serious thinking about the outside world’s impact on the United States. It has required a basic rethinking of U.S. national interests, calculating the relative importance of different developments in the outside world, balancing foreign and domestic needs, and making decisions about what the U.S. has to do abroad and what it can let pass by.
The Roles of Domestic Politics
Foreign and national security policy is also deeply enmeshed in U.S. domestic politics. More than most other countries, U.S. foreign policy is in constant tension between pursuing national interests on the one hand and “values” on the other. Thus even during the Cold War, dominated by a focus on Soviet power and communism, U.S. foreign aid programs, designed in part to compete with the communists, were larded with added requirements, many imposed by Congress, for recipient nations to meet to benefit from U.S. largess. These requirements notably included “human rights,” labor standards, and limits on funding for abortions.
This interests-values tension extends to general American abhorrence of realpolitik in foreign policy—its adherents are required to prove that some overriding national interest justifies displacing “values.” This trait of national character helps explain the intense reaction to Saudi Arabia’s slaughter last year of Jamal Khashoggi, who was a contributing columnist for the Washington Post. Something similar is happening over Yemen. Whatever the merits of U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, the human costs of the Yemen War and the U.S. military’s involvement have become too great to bear in U.S. public opinion. Thus the House of Representatives, along with the Republican-controlled Senate, is trying to cut off U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but is far short of a veto-proof majority.
Popular discomfort with realpolitik also means that it is difficult for the United States to practice balance of power politics, except when synonymous with judgments about good versus evil. U.S. views fall easily into assessments of “friends” versus “enemies” and at times “frenemies.” This denies flexibility to the United States and opens to criticism presidents who change policies—e.g., beginning to deal with an “enemy” country, such as North Korea—even if the national security arguments for doing so are valid.
Decisions about U.S. foreign policy are also influenced by domestic political lobbies, each of which convinces itself that supporting some foreign country or cause is also in the U.S. national interest. From 1949 until 1971, most obvious was the China Lobby. During the Cold War, many Americans with Eastern European roots (“captive nations”) opposed reducing U.S. confrontation with the Soviet Union (détente). And Irish-American supporters of the Provisional IRA were only dissuaded from their unwitting cash support for terrorism when four leading Irish-American Catholic politicians, the “Four Horsemen,” successfully pushed back against them.
U.S. Middle East policies are also deeply influenced by domestic lobbies. The Israel lobby has been most prominent, but it is not alone. Saudi Arabia and other Arab oil producing states invest heavily in Washington lobbyists. They don’t always get their way: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran, concluded by President Barack Obama, was a major example of the opposite. However, President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA was consistent with pressures from his political “base.”
Whenever a new U.S. president takes office, cabinet members and other senior officials also change. This turnover is particularly consequential for the conduct of U.S. foreign policy. In some recent administrations, tests of partisan loyalty have even extended to mid-level foreign policy positions, becoming a more important criterion than knowledge, judgment, or experience. In most other countries, career officials stay on, with only a thin veneer of political appointees on top.
Too often, therefore, except when people of genuine quality in foreign policy and national security are recruited, senior officials in U.S. administrations are inadequately prepared to make serious judgments about national interests and courses to follow. Ofttimes, as well, politically appointed officials are reluctant to listen to career people with greater understanding.
Of course, overcoming bureaucratic rigidities is one requirement of effective political leadership. But putting ideology ahead of analysis imposes heavy costs. Some of the worst U.S. foreign policy and national security errors—e.g., the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq—have come about because top leaders have seen the world with eyes clouded by prior and often erroneous notions. The Middle East is only one region where this generalization applies but is currently where ignorance, ideology, and incompetence most risk disaster.
Thinking About the Thinkable
U.S. foreign policy has not always faced these problems. During World War II and the Cold War, legions of talented people were recruited to meet critical security threats. There was little tolerance for the second-rate. The same was true with the moon project: people involved could either “cut it” or they couldn’t; they either “got it right” or they didn’t. The best tended to rise to positions of authority while the inadequate were dismissed. But the parallel is not exact. Rocket science is, after all, a “science,” with objective tests for success and failure. In foreign affairs, by contrast, ofttimes “success” can only be measured in terms of years, and “failure” can be blamed on many factors. This is different from “testable” professions like rocket science, medicine, engineering, and law, where results speak for themselves.
Further, during the Cold War confrontation with the Soviets, margins for error were narrow. By contrast, after the West prevailed, too many U.S. experts and political leaders judged that there was less need for high standards in analyzing U.S. interests in the outside world, assessing alternatives, and propounding courses of action. Not surprisingly, this provided latitude for advancing personal views (ideologies) and lowered standards for key foreign policy officeholders.
The United States does continue producing excellent regional specialists and tacticians. But there is little emphasis on recruiting top-rate people able to relate different regions and functions to one another; to integrate instruments of power and influence (military, diplomatic, economic, cultural); and to develop criteria for making tradeoffs. These people exist, but they are invariably products of long periods of study, commitment to objective analysis rather than conformism, interaction with other dispassionate thinkers, and prior government experience.
The only fully integrated U.S. foreign policy strategy since the Cold War’s end was propounded by President George H. W. Bush: to promote a “Europe whole and free” and at peace.” Those few words set the framework for successful U.S. leadership in reconstructing post-Cold War Europe. By contrast, many of today’s problems there derive in major part from U.S. departure from this integrated and coherent approach.
No comparable integrated U.S. policy framework has been developed for the Middle East, despite the size and intensity of American engagement, especially military. The region and its challenges are indeed complex—including political, economic, religious, social, and cultural problems. Europe suddenly freed from Soviet power and communism was also complex, yet the U.S. succeeded. There is a standard litany of U.S. interests in the Middle East, but on inspection it becomes clear that some are incompatible with one another—e.g., the fight against terrorism versus open-ended support for Saudi Arabia, which is the inspiration and primary source of funding for most Islamist terrorism. Overall, there is little coherence or consistency to U.S. policy across the region.
Building Toward the Future
In recent years, there has been major growth of new U.S foreign policy think tanks. Almost all, however, have been created to fill niches in the political or ideological spectrums or to advance pre-set agendas. Only the rare research organization starts with attempts to understand the nature of the world, proceeds to a “zero-based” analysis of U.S. national interests, and only then undertakes the crafting of policy alternatives. Instead, many think tanks begin with a predilection for different approaches and practices in U.S. foreign and security policy—e.g., military engagement/use of force versus more reliance on diplomacy or economic instruments (e.g., sanctions). This cart-before-the horse methodology is virtually guaranteed to fail.
There are two other related problems. First, almost all the U.S. mainstream media, plus many foreign policy publications, are reluctant to promote debate on central elements of U.S. foreign policy, as opposed to presenting arguments that either reflect biases or fit within a limited policy or domestic political perspective. Second, most funders of think tanks tend to be “risk averse.” During the Cold War, there was naturally intense pressure for debate not to exceed certain boundaries and, after the basic structures and practices were set (notably deterrence and arms control), to limit investigations to the how of making policies effective. Thus, research monies from both government and non-governmental sources mainly flowed to think tanks and universities that respected these limits. This practice has largely continued, despite the current need for wide-ranging consideration of foreign policy alternatives rather than conformism. The result too often is a leveling down rather than a rising up. It also helps explain the tendency to characterize competitions with other countries as “new cold wars.”
What Is to Be Done?
Much needs to be done to remedy these problems, not least regarding how people are recruited into the U.S. government, trained, promoted, and used effectively. Presidents must understand that they can’t succeed if they rely for top advisers either on zealots, self-promoters, or those who bring to office their personal agendas. Presidents also need senior foreign policy officials able to “think strategically” and to “think at the presidential level.” These rare qualities are to be found in the United States but are not now where they need to be in the U.S. government. This lack has also long been a weakness of the State Department and largely accounts for its having ceded leadership in foreign policy to the National Security Council staff which, unfortunately, has also for some time lacked needed capabilities.
American think tanks, other research institutions, and universities also have responsibilities. They include graduate schools that train future diplomats and practitioners of foreign policy. In addition to the nuts and bolts of diplomacy, they need to place much greater emphasis on rigorous strategic thinking and integration of all aspects of analysis and knowledge.
This requirement also needs to be met by publications in the areas of foreign policy and national security. A few are excellent, both as forums for vigorous examination of ideas and for commitment to independence, but they rarely command a large audience. By contrast, many of the more prominent publications and other media outlets are risk averse or limit access to predictable establishment (or anti-establishment) viewpoints—both tending to be unimaginative, exclusionary, and hence inadequate as forums for serious debate about core issues.
Unless there is a revolution in the approach to analyzing all the aspects of America’s engagement in the outside world (as well as requirements of domestic reform), and unless sources of funding step up to their responsibilities, there will continue to be risk of dumbing down rather than the “smarting up” on which depends America’s successful adaptation to tomorrow’s world.