Part One: Why It's Needed
It is a little more than two years before the next presidential
election, but foreign policy might figure more prominently in the 2016 cycle
than it has in recent elections. World events are deteriorating -- rapidly --
and national security is more on people's minds. There is widespread popular
discontent with the current administration's foreign policies -- even some prominent
Democrats are raising significant questions about the direction of U.S.
strategy. Republicans have not settled on a consistent foreign-policy vision,
but they are searching for one. The time is ripe to start thinking about what
an alternative foreign policy should be.
Why an alternative? Besides its unpopularity, our current
foreign policy is not working very well. Analysts may argue whether dangerous
events are caused by U.S. policy, or whether they are beyond our control, but
we should expect at the very least that our government's policies improve
America's position in the world. We should also expect them not to make matters
worse. Presidential candidate Barack Obama raised a very high bar for himself
when he first took office. Well-known is his grandiose promise that his
nomination brought "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow, and
our planet began to heal." Less
remembered now is his campaign speech from July 2008, when he pledged
a completely new course in U.S. policy, one that promised "to face down the
threats of the 21st century just as we did the challenges of the 20th."
The question is whether this has been done. Have we "faced
down" those threats? Or have we sidestepped them or even made them worse?
By any reasonable standard the world is a more dangerous
place today than it was in 2008. Terrorists we had thought were vanquished
are now back with a vengeance, not only reversing the hard-fought gains we had
made in Iraq but once again potentially threating the American homeland. Despite
the Obama administration's claims that the threat of terrorism had been
receding, the number of global terrorist attacks and fatalities has soared in
recent years, reaching a record high in 2013, according to the National Consortium
for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of
Maryland. The State Department, using the same University of Maryland study, reports
that the number of terrorist attacks in the world increased by 40 percent in 2013 (from
6,771 in 2012 to 11,952 in 2013). Not only is the threat of
global terrorism on the rise, it is metastasizing into strains that are more
violent, better armed, better funded, and more difficult to counter.
America's geopolitical position in the world has
deteriorated as well. Violence and instability in the Middle East and North
Africa are far worse today than in 2008. Iraq was then on a trajectory of
stability. Today it is falling apart and in the thralls of a barbaric civil
war. The outbreak of the war in Syria cannot be blamed directly on U.S.
policies, but its spread can be attributed to inconstant and passive U.S.
leadership. Libya is a failed state wracked by violence and instability, partly
because of our failure to make any consequential stabilization and reconstruction
effort after the campaign to topple the Qaddafi regime. U.S. relations with onetime close ally Egypt are far worse than in 2008, and U.S. partners in the
region Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia are under threat from the proliferation
of terrorists in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. While America's star in the Middle
East is down, Iran's is up: Tehran arguably has more influence
inside Iraq than the United States does. And despite years of negotiations, Iran
is much closer today than in 2008 to a nuclear weapons capability.
Matters are not much better elsewhere. For the first time
since the end of World War II, Russia is engaged in a hot war to change the
borders of a European state, challenging the political order of the post-Cold
War settlement in Europe. In Asia, China is increasingly aggressive and
is intimidating not only its neighbors but also the United States. Afghanistan is
highly unstable and is in danger of falling back into civil war or even Taliban
rule after all our forces leave there in 2016. In Latin America, failing,
criminalized states have emerged in recent years in Honduras, El Salvador, and
Guatemala, contributing to our illegal immigration problem; moreover, Russia
has stepped up strategic partnerships with Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. In
Africa, virulent and violent terrorist groups have emerged in Mali and Nigeria,
which have been fueled by illicit arms from Libya and which have helped turn the
Sahel-Sahara region of Africa into a new frontier of global terrorism.
In the midst of this, America's standing in the world -- and
arguably its influence -- has diminished. A two-star Chinese general and dean
of China's National Defense University, Zhu Chenghu, suggested to Western
audiences earlier this summer
that he thinks America is in decline. He may not speak officially for the
Chinese leadership, but it is no secret that many in China see America as a
waning power. The same is true of people around Russian President Vladimir
Putin; one hears often of Russia's weaknesses as reason not to be overly
concerned about Putin's aggressive behavior, but it would not be the first time
in history that an inferior power, sensing weakness in its opponent, took on a
more powerful foe in a high-stakes gamble. At the same time many of America's
allies worry that the United States is increasingly unreliable and retreating
from the world. And while global attitudes about America are not as negative as
they were in 2007 to 2008, the 2009 "Obama bounce" in the global stature of the
United States is, according to the Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, slipping
substantially "due to the diminishing popularity of U.S. President Barack Obama
himself in some nations."
It may be hyperbole for Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to
say, "The world is exploding all over," but not by much. President Obama's chairman
of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said last year
in testimony before the Senate Armed
Service Committee that, "I will personally attest to the fact that [the
world is] more dangerous than it has ever been." And no less a supporter
of President Obama's policies than his own Attorney General Eric Holder recently said
that reports of bomb makers in Yemen partnering with the Islamic State (IS) are
"more frightening than anything I think I've seen as attorney general."
There are two questions raised by these assessments. The
first is whether a more dangerous world is actually a threat to the United
States? The second is how much of it is the fault of U.S. policy?
Let's take the first question. Given our global status you
would think that, by any definition, a more dangerous world is a big problem
for the United States. But not everyone agrees. Some argue that we are actually
better off today because we are "ending" America's wars. Others contend that
threats may be on the rise but there is little we can do about them. America is
more or less in a state of relative decline, they say, as other powers rise to
take her place. We had best get used to our new diminished role in an increasingly
"complex" multipolar world of diffused power, which no one -- not even Barack
Obama -- can control.
These views are profoundly mistaken in our view. Our wars
are not "ending." After a period of peace and stability, the war in Iraq is back,
and Afghanistan is on the precipice of more fighting once we leave. As the
renewed airstrikes against IS show, the assumption that we could simply walk
away and let the Iraqis do the fighting by themselves proved to be an illusion.
Every one of the worsening trends in world affairs directly
threatens American security, interests, and values. There is no escaping them. A
violently disordered region in Iraq controlled by terrorists who have vowed to
take their fight to New York is a direct threat to the American people. A
Russian leader who uses subterfuge, infiltration, and military intervention to
upend the European order is a direct threat to our strategic interests. And a
civil war spinning out of control in Syria threatens the stability of the
entire Middle East, which has for decades been a region of vital strategic
importance to the United States.
Nor is it true that America's days as a world leader are
over. The United States is still the indispensable country for maintaining
international order and shaping world events in a positive direction. No other
country has its capacity, capability, reputation, and will -- not the Europeans,
not the United Nations, and certainly not America's rivals, Russia and China. As
percentage of GDP we spend far less on defense today than we did in the 1960s
or even the 1980s, which suggests that all the talk of limited resources is
about political priorities and will, not economic necessity.
As for the second question of whether all the bad things
happening in the world are President Obama's fault, the answer is of course
"no." He is not responsible for age-old hatreds or artificial colonial
boundaries in the Middle East. Nor is he to blame for the fanaticism that burns
in the hearts of terrorists. And it's true he didn't start the wars in Iraq and
Afghanistan. Besides, he has had some tangible security successes, like getting
Osama bin Laden and degrading the old leadership of al Qaeda, and helping convince
Syria to destroy some of its chemical weapons.
But if he is to get credit for these achievements, he must
also be held accountable for his failures. Either because of neglect, ideology,
or inconstancy, the president has made matters much worse in Iraq, Syria,
Libya, Egypt, and Central America (and may be about to do the same in
Afghanistan). He abandoned Iraq too quickly; attacked Libya without adequate
follow-up; flip-flopped too many times on Egypt and Syria; and turned a blind
eye as the "northern triangle" of Central America was overrun by drug cartels. On
his watch the threat of terrorism against the United States is arguably at its
most severe since Sept. 10, 2001. And despite the high-profile summits on
Africa, many regional experts regardless of party affiliation are disappointed
that U.S. Africa policy has been less energetic than in previous
The same thing is true with respect to the Russia "reset"
policy. The whole policy was sold on the naïve premise that reaching out to
Russia would bring greater cooperation from Moscow. The exact opposite has
happened. Russia has grown much more aggressive and has forced the
administration to abandon completely the reset policy. While this may be
rationalized as a "smart" policy merely adjusting to a changing "reality," it
should be remembered at the time that the president's critics predicted it
would come to this, and yet he ignored them.
One could argue that other achievements balance the scale in
the administration's favor. They could point to the successes we mentioned
earlier, or list scores of supported international programs dedicated to global
health, women's rights, climate change, arms control, and other causes. Or they
could even claim that things would have been worse had the president done what
his critics wanted -- like support the moderate rebels or launch airstrikes
against Syria. But at the end of the day, the success of a foreign-policy
strategy must be measured not by well-intentioned programs or by hypothetical
claims of wars avoided, but by whether the state of the world has improved and
America's security position is better.
By these measures the current approach has failed. The world
is a more dangerous place. The threats to American security are higher. And
specific crises vital to our interests are worse as a result of specific U.S.
decisions and policies. All the millions of dollars spent on international
programs -- and indeed all the time effort put into nuclear arms treaties and
negotiations -- have done precious little to stop the rising tide of threats to
America and the world. If the administration wants to take credit for stopping
all the hypothetical "bad stuff" (usually characterized as "wars" averted) that
they claim their opponents wanted, it is only fair they accept full
responsibility for the consequences not only of their actions but also their inaction.
We can and must do better, but to do so we have to answer
some hard questions.
What are the underlying causes of current policy failures?
It's not enough to ascribe blame and question motives. Nor is it useful to
personalize criticism against President Obama himself. He will not be on the
ballot in 2016, even if his legacy will. But we do have to understand why
certain policies are not working so as not to repeat them.
Nor is it enough merely to criticize. We need lay out a
different set of principles. From them we can deduce specifically what can be
done differently to restore America's reputation, credibility, and leadership
role in the world.
In the next installment in this series we will attempt to
answer these questions. The purpose, once again, is to spark a debate looking
forward to the presidential election in 2016. This should not be a partisan
exercise. The presidential contenders who wish to challenge the current
approach -- whether they are Democrat or Republican -- need to focus on what's
wrong and try to fix it. They will have some hard thinking to do.
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