Something very bad is happening with the U.S. foreign policy debate. Aside from all of the specific problems and bad appointments, the whole discussion is being conducted on the wrong assumptions and context. There is nothing easier than arguing about obsolete issues simply because we’ve become so used to the reality of those that have been around for decades.
The needed first step: comprehending that we are dealing with entirely new categories.
In the old days, at least supposedly, the battle was between those who wanted a high level of U.S. intervention and activism — including a relative willingness to use military force — and those who wanted to do less and were horrified either by the use of force or by recent experiences where that strategy had failed. For the last decade, this argument is most symbolized by President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In theory, conservatives were and are gung-ho for American unilateralism and intervention; liberals were and are more circumspect.
First, that wasn’t entirely true. It was John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who took the United States into Vietnam. Kennedy also ordered the covert invasion of Cuba. Moreover, liberals often favored a different kind of intervention into the affairs of foreign states, pressing for more democracy (Jimmy Carter in the shah’s Iran) and opposing coups (notably in Latin America), for instance.
On the other side, it was the Nixon Doctrine which first made official policy the idea that the United States should not try to be the world’s policeman, but should instead back friendly regional powers so war-fighting and intervention by America could be reduced.
Second: most of these kinds of debates were in the context of the Cold War.
Liberals and conservatives both wanted to counter Soviet expansionism or influence, but proposed different ways of doing so at times. To show how varied were these tactics: to more effectively fight that Cold War, Richard Nixon normalized relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Liberals often supported a “third way” approach. They’d say: we don’t want Communist regimes and we don’t want right-wing dictatorships, either. The best thing is to have moderates, liberals, pragmatic reformers in power. But if that option didn’t exist, liberals generally opted for a realpolitik status quo that combatted the Communists and pro-Soviet regimes even at the price of supporting old-fashioned dictatorships.
Those liberals, however, would not have regarded revolutionary Islamists as being in the desirable category.
In effect, however, the Obama argument is this: in the past, the United States has been a bully. It has supported bad governments for the people living in those countries. Now, everything is going to be different. We are going to … support bad governments that not only hurt the people in those countries, but also hurt U.S. interests! And we are going to give such radical, dictatorial-oriented forces preference over helping moderates, liberals, and pragmatic reformers!
Today, in a post-Cold War world, the ill-conceived “neo-conservative” strategy has now become a left-wing doctrine of spreading democracy, ironically — more often than not — by backing anti-democratic forces. The process has become more important than the result.
Nor is intervention as such avoided. Bush’s basic concept has been adopted by the Obama administration and its supporters. Obama’s intervention in Libya was more popular than Bush’s in Iraq simply because American soldiers weren’t killed, far less money was spent, and forces were not tied down in fighting for years. Yet in substance, the two interventions were based on the same concept.
The debate now is not whether the United States should go around the world spending billions of dollars and fighting wars, at least outside of a debate over whether the United States should attack Iran if that country gets nuclear weapons. The fact that there is no chance of this happening (it’s true, there isn’t) underlines my point. Everybody serious recognizes the limits on American resources, the priority on domestic issues, and past failures with such over-extension.
Nor is the debate between isolationism and international engagement.
Nor is the issue to pretend that America has little influence in the world. Obviously, there is a limit. But the United States could have definitely had a major effect, for example, on the direction of Egypt’s political change in January-February 2011, and the same holds for the post-Assad regime in Syria today.
And it isn’t even about whether to increase or diminish American power or to act unilaterally or multilaterally.
The issue is what the United States does with the influence and leverage that it does possess.