A Debate Deferred

The U.S. foreign policy debate fails to address underlying issues facing the United States, and this in and of itself may constitute a threat to national security.

"This is not a very pleasant topic", said Dimitri K. Simes in his opening remarks at a talk entitled "The U.S. Foreign Policy Debate." Simes, president of The Nixon Center, hosted the event on Monday, June 25, 2007 at the Washington-based think tank's headquarters.

Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, and Anatol Lieven, fellow at the New American Foundation and contributing editor to The National Interest, followed Simes' commentary. Marvin Kalb, senior fellow of Harvard University's Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy moderated the discussion.

According to Simes, there isn't any real debate taking place among presidential candidates, Congress, the media or think tanks regarding the direction of U.S. foreign policy. This topic is one about which Simes has written at length in recent articles, such as "Priorities, Not Delusions" in The National Interest and "Striking a New Realism" in the International Herald Tribune.

The lack of debate does not stem from a lack of issues, suggested Simes. It is quite the opposite. The increased unpredictability of a new international order post-September 11 characterized by the threat of non-state actors such as Al-Qaeda, renewed WMD proliferation by rogue states and a widespread backlash against American power among allied and rising powers should be impetus enough for a serious debate about which policies can counter (or equally important, which have contributed to) these developments.

For the most part, the panelists agreed that the public discourse is bereft of meaningful new ideas from those who are supposed to shape U.S. foreign policy, especially presidential hopefuls. And according to Kalb, the deficiency is a legacy of the American political system, as candidates avoid specifics for fear of being nailed to a position too early in the primaries.

Simes also stressed concern over the mainstream media's tendency to simply regurgitate candidates' stump speeches. In most cases, the media narrowly narrates the foreign policy discourse through a "prism of domestic politics", thereby eschewing the larger national interests at stake. But sound foreign policy lies outside of petty partisan politics.

Simes also sees a worrisome trend within think tanks and among public intellectuals. Analysts and commentators appear more concerned with gaining seats in the halls of power, placing political connections over thoughtful deliberations about U.S. national security. So, thinkers prefer to remain "uncontroversial" offering no alternative to "bumper sticker clichés" that don't speak to the shifting balances in the world.

Furthermore, Simes fears that the of direction of U.S. foreign policy has not yet been defined in terms of what a sustainable role for American leadership means in the 21st century-aside from combating terrorism.

In contrast, what Simes sees as "too much of a trend to be comfortable", Norquist, a right-wing strategist, sees as a friendly game of baseball, in which presidential candidates and members of Congress use foreign policy as a bat with which to club the incumbent president and one another. More specifically, each party uses foreign policy as a means to address grievances over domestic policies that directly affect their constituencies. According to Norquist, people just don't vote on foreign policy positions the way they do on taxes or other domestic policies. So, voters take sides on foreign policy issues based on party affiliation rather than the other way around. And this has actually made the Iraq War even more partisan than Vietnam ever was.

Norquist suggested that thinks tanks are very aware of this battle for hearts and minds at home and have simply picked teams while neglecting to shed light on the real consequences of U.S. foreign policy choices. Nor is there any lobby or major constituency scrutinizing the direction of U.S. policy abroad to produce a coherent grand strategy on either side of the aisle.

So what's the difference between the Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the U.S. foreign policy debate? Well according to Anatol Lieven, there isn't much difference at all, just different versions of the same story. Democrats largely shaped the dialectic of modern American foreign policy during the twentieth century, but post-September 11 Republicans have changed America's approach to security. Democrats seem stuck in the past, suggested Lieven.

And to some extent the Iraq War has made politicians more cautious, but not necessarily wiser. Thus, what is said over the next 18 months will offer very little to the public debate, as candidates will beat around the bush (no pun intended) and all eyes will be focused on potential cabinet appointments. Lieven added that Iraq will continue to dominate this narrative while a military strike on Iran still looms with little open debate on the immediate repercussions or views on how the next administration will respond.

The repercussions of mishaps and misadventures in the realm of foreign policy are different from those of the Vietnam-era. During the Cold War when nuclear annihilation was ever-present, doomsday scenarios loomed large, but we still face grave consequences to any misadventure. Marvin Kalb put it bluntly, "this is not a seminar at Harvard, this is real politics." Simes followed, "nothing is new in History, but this is a unique period in time . . . we are present at the creation, but without any serious debate." Serious discussion is necessary especially when security threats in the form of nuclear terrorism have become more of a reality, yet even more elusive.

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