The Opening of the American Foreign-Policy Mind

February 18, 2014 Topic: Grand Strategy Region: United States

The Opening of the American Foreign-Policy Mind

The discussion is now broader than at any time since 9/11. Where will it lead?

The post-9/11 era in American foreign affairs is dying, and an opportunity thus is emerging for the United States to generate some fresh thinking about war and peace, when to go to war, when to opt for diplomacy, what the country’s geopolitical imperatives are and how best to serve its national interests. Two recent political developments signified this deflection point, and more are on the way.

One was the emergence in the Senate of a bipartisan resolution demanding a congressional debate and vote on the next phase in the country’s Afghanistan policy. The Obama administration wants to keep ten thousand U.S. troops in that country for the next decade or more. The resolution, sponsored by Democrats Jeff Merkley and Joe Manchin and Republicans Mike Lee and Rand Paul, argues that such a commitment is a bridge too far when it comes to presidential prerogative. In their view, Congress must be in on the decision.

The same senators sought to attach a similar amendment to last year’s defense-authorization bill, but it died through parliamentary actions by majority leader Harry Reid. It did gain a dozen cosponsors, however, and the House demonstrated its support with a 305­-121 vote in favor of language much like the Senate language, though it ultimately was stripped from the final defense authorization.

The other development was the drubbing sustained by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee when it sought to destroy President Obama’s participation in possibly seminal negotiations between Iran and six major powers over Iran’s nuclear weapons policy. The potent Israel lobby tried to push through Congressional legislation that would impose heightened economic sanctions against Iran even as the administration argued this would upend the highly delicate talks and seriously increase the chance that America would have to resort to military means to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

In the past, AIPAC generally got what it wanted from Congress, and that appeared to be the case this time around, as well. Fully fifty senators signed on before President Obama sent word that he would veto the measure, given the country’s growing aversion to more Middle Eastern wars; AIPAC quickly backed down. It seems reasonable that the lobby’s executives considered a timely retreat far preferable to a full blown defeat at the hands of the president of the United States on an issue framed as one of war and peace.

The Daily Beast ran a piece entitled “How AIPAC Botched Its Biggest Fight in Years,’’ and analysts quickly piled on. Ron Kampeas, Washington bureau chief for the Jewish Telegraph Agency, reported that AIPAC had been so disoriented by the fiasco that it still hadn’t established its legislative agenda just three weeks before its big annual conference in Washington. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin, a fervent neocon commentator, wrote that AIPAC “is going through its rockiest period in decades,’’ although characteristically she blamed Obama more than AIPAC leaders for these difficulties.

The real lesson, though, is that, in today’s America, matters of war and peace have undergone a political transformation. The country wants peace and, based on events of the last decade, has erected a higher barrier of justification for its acceptance of more military action around the world based on wispy expressions of America’s need to protect itself from international bad guys.

The Senate resolution on Afghanistan is a further reflection. A recent CNN poll indicated opposition to further American involvement in Afghan hostilities is at 82 percent­­, making it, as The Nation puts it, “arguably the least popular war in US history.’’ And Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia told the magazine, “If the people of the...states of this great country speak to their representatives, I think all the representatives are going to find out this is one thing that unites us all.’’ He added the people just can’t figure out why, after twelve years in Afghanistan, the U.S. military has to remain another decade, particularly given that there is no clear stated goal for the military’s continued role there, and that the Afghan terror threat has long since been dealt with.

These developments would have seemed impossible just a few years ago, as America still stirring visions of American beneficence assuaging the hurts and wants of humanity around the world. Fewer and fewer Americans believe that stuff now, and the lessons of America’s post ­Cold War foreign policy are increasingly clear: Iraq, a failure; Afghanistan, a quagmire with little apparent purpose; the Middle East generally, a region of turmoil struggling to define itself and largely impervious to Western meddling, cajolery or power; America, drastically in need of internal soothing and remediation.

In this new political climate, the country actually could begin the process of crafting a new set of ideas and concepts that could form the basis for a new foreign policy. It would begin with a rigorous analysis of the country’s true interests around the world and then turn to questions of how to address those concerns and how to withdraw from regions and squabbles that don’t affect vital U.S. interests. Serious foreign-policy questions could get attention, such as:

Why should we unnecessarily alienate Russia, and send it into alliance with a rising China, when it could serve as a significant counterweight to China?

Why should we care who runs the government of Ukraine?

Why would we want to be involved in the hornet’s nest that is the Middle East these days?

What would be the most deft, sophisticated and effective way for us to respond to China’s growing assertiveness in East Asia?

What kinds of creative new alliances, entered into honestly and maintained in good faith, could bolster America’s aim of remaining the world’s preeminent power?

What should be America’s commitment to Europe as the cradle of Western civilization, and how should any such commitment be pursued?

Such questions weren’t been pursued with much imagination or force as the country struggled with two wars and subordinated so much foreign-policy thinking to the so ­called War on Terror. But things are changing. The American people are withdrawing their delegation of authority on foreign policy. And an opportunity remains a big question.

Robert W. Merry is political editor of The National Interest and the author of books on American history and foreign policy. His most recent book is Where They Stand: The American Presidents in the Eyes of Voters and Historians.

Image: Flickr/Andres Nieto Porras. CC BY-SA 2.0.