America’s Hollow Foreign-Policy Debate

"Our insular arm wrestling has made us helpless bystanders, watching a string of foreign-policy defeats, the likes of which we have not experienced since the 1970s."

The use of military force is among the most wrenching decisions a democracy ever faces. Placing America’s sons and daughters in harm’s way in the name of our national goals requires discussions of the utmost seriousness and solemnity. And that’s why it’s a shame—and a terrible danger—that our national debates on intervention and the use of force have become exercises in mendacity and partisanship, characterized at their core by a desolate moral hollowness.

The disingenuousness of all sides when it comes to the exercise of American power is disheartening, even shocking. People who once cheered the immense risks of marching on Baghdad now pretend to cold-eyed pragmatism and caution. People who once denounced American warmongering now gleefully revel in the killing of terrorists. People who once decried the expansion of presidential power (including then-Senator Barack Obama) now defend almost unlimited war-making prerogatives, while others who once would brook no boundaries on the discretion of the executive have now found a new fascination with the War Powers Resolution and the role of Congress. The words “national interest,” once a source of legitimate and intelligent debate, no longer have content and are now used to denote things of which the speaker does, or does not, happen to approve.

Like so much else in our fractious, national political life, arguments over intervention are too often meant only to seek the debater’s advantage and to protect or hurt political leaders or partisan agendas. The imperative to win leads people who surely know better to say things they must realize are arguable, sometimes even risible, in military and strategic terms. “It’s too hard to strike Syria.” “We’ve made Putin pay a price for Crimea.” “China’s arguments with Japan are not our concern.” “We can stabilize Iraq.” Rarely is any of this meant to solve actual problems. Real solutions, after all, are the imperfect products of compromise: they entail taking risks, accepting costs and in general, conducting ourselves like mature and responsible citizens of a great nation instead of as partisans in a political shovel fight.

How did it all come to this? How can we be so paralyzed intellectually and militarily? Naturally, partisans have made up their minds and their answers are as predictable as they are unimaginative.

For many conservatives and Republicans, almost everything wrong in the world emanates from Barack Obama’s White House. It is true, even a truism, that every American president owns the events that happen on his watch, and President Obama cannot escape the consequences of an incoherent foreign policy, nor his responsibility for a great many of the global messes over which he now presides. But Barack Obama did not create the world of 2014 ex nihilo, and every decision he makes cannot be measured against some better but utterly imaginary world that never existed.

More than a few liberals and Democrats, for their part, manage to dodge hard questions on the use of force by resorting to what Georgetown professor Robert Lieber has called the reductio ad Iraqum, which treats all American foreign policy as merely a consequent function of the Iraq war. In this camp, no comment or thought on foreign policy is complete without the words “George Bush.” Of course, the situation in Iraq is undeniably Bush’s legacy (as is the Arab Spring, for better or worse). And of course, Bush made the fateful decision to destroy the Middle Eastern status quo. No successor was going to have an easy time dealing with that inheritance. But Bush’s name is now an incantation, a catchall excuse for every refusal to think about problems anywhere else. There are many more problems in the world than Iraq, and “George Bush” is not the default answer to all of them.

So who’s really to blame? It may not matter to political loyalists, but the fact of the matter is that our current travails are not solely the product of any one administration. Part of the answer lies in the end of the Cold War, the last unifying foreign-policy concept in American life, now gone for over twenty years. But all of America’s post–Cold War presidents have brought us to this impasse, including Obama, Bush and yes, Bill Clinton.

Clinton, in the name of political survival, eviscerated several constituencies in the liberal wing of his own party, including those who thought the end of the Cold War meant a “peace dividend.” If the liberals of the 1990s hoped that the end of the Cold War (and the consequent end of a dozen unbroken years of GOP control of the White House) would be reflected not only in lower defense budgets, but also in greater restraint on the use of American muscle, then they had to be disappointed. But Democrats could ill afford a challenge from the far left on Clinton’s policies, and so such opposition never coalesced.