Messy Realities and the Unhelpful Debate on U.S. Foreign Policy

by Paul Pillar

Much current debate in the United States about foreign policy can be boiled down—at the risk of the sort of oversimplification that too often characterizes the debate itself—to the following. On one side are calls for the United States to do more (exactly what it is supposed to do more of often does not seem to matter) in response to untoward happenings in hot spots such as Iraq, Syria, or Ukraine. On the other side, which includes most of the time the Obama administration, is a tempered restraint based on the limitations and complications of trying to do anything more in such places.

This line-up has some similarities to age-old confrontations between hedgehogs, who know (or think they know) one big thing, and foxes, who pay attention to a lot of things without having any one big idea. The nature of the debate has even more to do with the highly asymmetric nature of any argument between incumbent policy-makers, who have the burden of taking real action with real consequences and of dealing with all the messy and costly details, and of outside critics, who have the luxury of bemoaning bad things happening in the world without actually having to take any practical steps to do anything about them, and without having responsibility for the consequences.

This asymmetry has seemed especially marked with the current president, and not only because some of the biggest burdens of his foreign policy have involved cleaning up leftovers from his predecessor’s foreign policy (including the premiere threat du jour, the group usually known as ISIS, whose birth was a direct consequence of the Iraq War). The current clear preference of the American public to avoid new entangling military encounters naturally gives rise to the charge that President Obama is merely bowing to that public opinion rather than exerting leadership.

The principal features of the non-incumbent side of the debate are seen over and over again, even if looking beyond such prominent and stalwart members of that side as Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who never met an entangling military encounter they didn’t like. One sees these features in the pronouncements of, for example, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker, or of the Washington Post editorial page, which has beaten its drum particularly hard for getting more deeply involved in the Syrian civil war. One familiar feature is the implicit assumption that if there is a nasty situation out there, the United States ought to be able to do something to solve it, coupled with the further assumption that the more actively involved the Untied States becomes in the problem, the more good will come out of the situation.

Another feature is a fondness for applying (again without supporting analysis) the most optimistic assumptions about how some hypothetical alternative policy in the past would have come out. E.g., the idea that if only the United States had done more earlier to assist a “moderate” opposition in Syria, we wouldn’t have Assad, or ISIS, or both to deal with today. Or, if only we had come down harder on Putin he wouldn’t be mucking around in eastern Ukraine today. Yet another repeated feature is an equation of leadership with forceful action, especially military action—as illustrated by Corker’s charge that President Obama is “uncomfortable being commander in chief”.

Also recurrent is the invoking of very hedgehog-like calls for a single “coherent strategy” or “organizing principle” or some such thing, with those making the calls secure in the knowledge that rhetorically such formulations always have an advantage over anything that can be belittled as ad hoc or reactive. The oversimplification involved is grossest when applied to U.S. policy toward the entire world, but there is still oversimplification when such a call is applied even to a single country. We hear, for example, that problems of U.S. policy toward Iraq are a simple matter of deciding whether the United State has a mission of stabilizing Iraq. Actually, it’s not really anywhere near that simple. Instability in Iraq has many different facets, some of which should concern the United States and some of which should not, and some of which are amenable to U.S. influence and some of which are not.

Hillary Clinton, whose recent pronouncements must be dismaying to progressive realists fearing they will not have any acceptable choice at the top of the ballot in November 2016, has been talking in the same mode. She tells us that not doing stupid stuff is not an “organizing principle,” and a great nation like the United States needs an organizing principle for its foreign policy. Two things about that comment make it, well, not quite smart. One is that the world is a very disorganized place, and any single organizing principle is too simple to be effective in dealing with all, or even most, of the problems the world throws at us.

The other thing wrong with that comment is that not doing stupid stuff is so important that it deserves to be at the top of any president’s checklist, just as Hippocrates taught that “first do no harm” should be at the top of any physician’s checklist. Think about the Middle East, and ask what development, whether involving an action or inaction by the United States, has had the biggest effects, for good or for ill, on U.S. interests in recent years. The answer has to be—firmly implanted on the “for ill” side of the ledger—the Iraq War. The most important thing any U.S. president should do is not to do stupid stuff like that, or to get into a position with a serious risk of sliding into something like that.

Mr. Obama’s interview with Tom Friedman last week was a clear statement of the other side of the foreign policy debate. Friedman writes that “the president has a take on the world, born of many lessons over the last six years, and he has feisty answers for all his foreign policy critics.” The president’s observations reflected at least as comprehensive view of the world as those throwing out the buzz phrases ofcomprehensive strategy and organizing principle, coupled with an awareness of the unavoidable complexities whether one is dealing with the whole world or with a single troubling country. His answers were not just feisty but insightful, such as explaining why the idea that putting more arms in the hands of “former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth” was never going to be a solution to the problems of Syria, and why in Iraq the incentives for political deal-makers in Baghdad will have at least as much to do with that country’s future stability as munitions in Nineveh. The least persuasive aspect of his comments concerned his unwillingness to recognize intervention in Libya as a mistake.

One should hope that Mr. Obama, as a second term president, will not let his policies over the next two years be diverted by ill-aimed screeching of hawks. Even if he doesn’t, however, the shape and tenor of current debate risks creating a narrative, the effects of which might not be felt until the next administration, that most of the world’s maladies exist because the United States didn’t do something more, whatever that something might be.

Photo: President Barack Obama meets with National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice and National Security Council staff in the Situation Room of the White House, April 3, 2014. Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

This article was first published by the National Interest and was reprinted here with permission. Copyright the National Interest.

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  1. Well Prof., could the answer to your “Q” be an education mindset of “Bizzaro World”? Isn’t it the power drunk who attract others to the cause? Yes, answer a “Q” with a “Q” or two. The “cold war” warriors, left over from the “boogieman” era. One might also consider the age factor in this design, as in sycophantic hogwash. Overload, coupled with delusional denial as time marches on, in which case, we’re doomed., like the gambler who is on a losing streak, but knows that just one more bet will win the jackpot.

  2. Unfortunately the central tenant Mr. Pillar posits here is that the American people are tired of foreign intervention. He neglects to mention the clear and unmistakable trend line downward for Obama in support from the American people for his handling of foreign affairs. He is correct that people who agitate for more action are divided about what would be the most appropriate or successful strategy to act upon in the various hot spots around the world. But what is unmistakable is the near universal belief among American voters that America is badly adrift and clearly has no plan for these same hot spots. Of course, some argue — and I think Mr. Pillar falls into this camp — that doing nothing is in effect a sound foreign policy. It’s not too dissimilar to the platform run on by Woodrow Wilson when he vowed to keep America out of World War I, a promise that eventually failed.

    Obama finds himself in a similar conundrum, but unlike Wilson, I genuinely believe he thinks the best course is to simply do little or nothing. And while his approval ratings on foreign policy have crashed through the Mendoza Line and now are lower than George W. Bush’s numbers, the truth of the matter seems to be that Obama doesn’t care about his ratings. This unfortunately presents a thorny problem for the U.S. and its allies who feel the absence of American leadership acutely.

    Mr. Pillar and other doves tend to equate U.S. foreign policy activism in simple black and white terms of military intervention and paint neocon opponents in a similar light, but the real truth is the America’s absence in all arenas of foreign policy leadership, not just military, is stark and disturbing. Failure to advance a free trade agreement with Asia, failure to engage as a mediator in growing South China Sea disputes or new disputes with Russia and Japan in oil tracts, failure to address the border crisis in the U.S. and failure to execute his much ballyhooed Asian pivot have all lent the Obama administration an air of “no one’s home.”

    Even more alarming are recent news stories disclosing how experienced, career foreign policy analysts and issue-knowledgeable staff at State, Defense and other departments are being frozen out in favor of academics and political staff at the White House and NSA which means much of the decision making going on in Obama’s inner foreign policy circles is occurring without the benefit of people who know the situation on the ground the best.

    Granted the President is a consummate domestic policy creature and prefers to focus his energies there, but the longer the absence is felt on foreign policy, the more likely that aggrieved nations will simply resort to combat to settle disputes.

    Not since the height of the Cold War in the 1970s has the world seen more regional wars, conflicts and threats in so many places all occurring at once. And while Mr. Pillar would be reluctant for the U.S. to assume a global policeman role, the lack of any involvement around the world is quickly becoming even more deadly to innocent Christians, children, women, gays, other Muslims, Hindus and just about anyone else you can think of.

    And for the benefit of Norman, et al, I did not mention Iran at all in this comment!

  3. Goodness change, you certainly have done that-change-to which I note. Bravo/brava/etc.

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