Lee H. Hamilton
The National Interest (Opinion)
November 6, 2007 - 12:50pm

AMERICAN FOREIGN policy confronts a basic paradox. The United States stands alone as the world’s most powerful nation, with the strongest military, the largest economy, the highest level of technological capacity and the most extensive cultural influence around the world. Even after the setbacks of recent years, no other single power or grouping of states comes close to matching the United States. And yet America’s ability to accomplish things abroad has rarely—in recent memory—seemed so limited. Why?

Objectively, we are not the omnipotent power we appeared to be in 2003, nor are we the impotent power we sometimes appear to be today. But by President Bush’s own rubric, American foreign policy is failing. He declared in his second inaugural address: “It is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” When the standard for foreign policy is so high, failure is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Robust rhetoric renders the essential prioritizing of foreign-policy objectives impossible. If you look at any national security strategy or presidential campaign platform, the stated aims exceed our implementation capabilities. There are authoritarian regimes throughout the world. Does bringing democracy to Egypt take precedence over bringing it to Turkmenistan or Zimbabwe? Do democratization efforts in the Middle East take precedence over stabilizing Iraq, which, as the Iraq Study Group noted, will require assistance from Iran and Syria, not to mention authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia?

Lofty oratory has a long and proud history in American politics, and it is a feature of our Union that will never disappear. But just as it can inspire, grandiose rhetoric can handcuff our policymakers, binding them to rhapsodic words that limit their freedom of action in confronting international challenges.

BOTH OUR overreach and the course correction that seems to be taking place today—with an increasing deference to diplomacy and international cooperation—have ample historical precedents. A foreign policy that avoids extreme ups and downs better suited to a roller coaster would serve us well. The unachievable goals we set for American foreign policy distort policy implementation. Our competence suffers as we seek to carry out hugely ambitious missions, and our leaders ask the American people to shoulder unbearable burdens.

We often hear about the balance between our interests and our ideals, as though they are mutually exclusive. But freedom and liberty are not just universal abstractions that flow freely in presidential addresses and opinion pieces. They have concrete meaning, real costs and there are limits to the lengths we will go in their name. This paints a stark contrast to today’s policy discussions. What we do not often hear is a frank discussion of what we can achieve and what we cannot achieve in the world; what we are prepared to sacrifice in terms of lives and resources; what we can accomplish on our own and what we must seek to achieve through international cooperation; which objectives we can realize quickly and which ones will take steady time and effort. American foreign policy would be better off if it reflected a core aspect of the American character that is often overlooked: pragmatism.

AFTER THE attacks of September 11, 2001, President Bush set astonishing goals for U.S. foreign policy—at a time when countries around the world, even hostile regimes like Iran, were offering support. We would defeat terrorism and states that sponsor terrorism, not hesitating to take pre-emptive action to do so. No longer would we rely on distasteful regimes in the Middle East to advance our interests; instead, we would create a network of democratic states that would enthusiastically embrace the American agenda for the region. We would ensure that no competitor to American hegemony was permitted to emerge, solidifying our global role and the existing international hierarchy.

To implement those goals, U.S. action was robust. We launched a global war against terrorism. We largely spurned an international system of our own making, rejecting several international norms and treaties—the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the Geneva Conventions, to name two. We invaded Afghanistan. We refused to engage our adversaries. Most notably, we invaded and occupied Iraq. It is hard now to take ourselves back to 2003. In the days running up to and following the toppling of Saddam Hussein, the mainstream debate in this country dealt openly with the transformation of the world with American power. Some spoke openly—and favorably—of American empire.

Today, we confront a very different international landscape, and the heady days of 2003 permanently belong to the past. Everywhere we turn, we confront the limitations of our power. In Iraq, the definition of success has been lowered to the containment of sectarian violence. In Afghanistan, we struggle against a resurgent Taliban and rampant opium trade. In Pakistan, Al-Qaeda has reconstituted its sanctuary and its top leaders elude capture. In Iran, a defiant president chastises us, foments instability in Iraq and continues to pursue a nuclear program. China and particularly Russia openly defy us—President Putin has accused us of provoking a nuclear-arms race, acting “illegitimately” and has criticized our “hyper use of force.” In Latin America, Hugo Chávez has consolidated his power and stands at the vanguard of a new generation of leftist leaders. Across the Islamic world, extremism only seems to be increasing, and the cause of democracy appears to have stalled.

THIS ALL appears catastrophic in the context of our unachievable goals. In articulating foreign policy, presidents aim for simple and dramatic frames that can rally the nation. A few rungs down the ladder, our policy elites’ approach to the world is by nature interventionist—the aim of the specialist is to find solutions to every problem, not to set priorities about the key interests of the American public. Without executive prioritization and management, the political aims of presidents often find common ground with the policy aims of our foreign-policy elites on ambitiously interventionist goals. And these problems are not unique to our time.

Take President Kennedy’s vow to “pay any price, bear any burden” in defense of liberty or President Bush’s aforementioned goal of “ending tyranny” in the world—the former sets the bar too high, the latter is simply impossible. But these goals have practical consequences. Vietnam becomes tougher to abandon when it is a test of our national will, not simply a distant nation with an internal conflict. The post–Saddam Hussein problems in Iraq can be attributed in part to the zeal to spread transformational democracy, not maintaining stability coupled with gradual reforms. The requisite identification of the costs we were willing to endure was markedly absent. In short, once set, such goals lead to dilemmas for everyone from the cabinet official in Washington to the diplomat to the soldier on the ground.

Our resources are not unlimited. We cannot effectively fight a war in Iraq, stabilize Afghanistan, deal with Iran and North Korea, and combat radical Islamist terrorism and nuclear proliferation around the world. When we try to do everything at once, we do things less well. And we certainly become even more reactive, wrestling with implementing these huge goals and not anticipating what might be over the horizon: the next 9/11 or the next nuclear domino to fall. In turn, we often have trouble sustaining our policies.

It is important for presidents to rally and inspire the nation and for specialists to consider ambitious solutions to the challenges that we face. Yet those efforts must be complemented—in both our political discourse and our policymaking process—with a greater focus on how these goals will be carried out in practice and how they will impact the lives of ordinary Americans. All of our policies should be able to pass the basic test of pragmatism: not just how proposals sound in speeches or what they would accomplish with limitless resources—but how would they work out in practice?

That means we should seek progress instead of perfection in our policies. And we should be more precise in our aims. Let’s take the War on Terror: Instead of conflating all terrorist and extremist groups, we should focus our resources on the core of Al-Qaeda. Instead of demanding the change of regimes we do not like, we should try to change their behavior—and we must decide what kinds of behavior deserve our immediate attention because there is plenty of egregious behavior in the world to go around. Instead of demanding the immediate transformation of closed governments into full-blown democracies, we should seek the extension of more rights and opportunities to their citizens, and more transparency and accountability by their governments. Instead of demanding American hegemony, we should try to shape a multipolar international system to serve our interests, as is the case with the Six Party Talks over North Korea and the Iraq Study Group’s proposed regional conference on Iraq’s future. We should be idealists without illusions and pragmatists with a vision.

ONE CANNOT discuss foreign policy today without mentioning democracy, but the democracy that demands the most attention is our own.

The understandable fact is that foreign-policy debates are driven by domestic politics. Thus, candidates often fall back on sloganeering—debates about who is “tough” or “strong” or, as the cover of previous issue of The National Interest phrased it, who loves America more. Instead of looking ahead to how a candidate will govern in office, much of the debate revolves around a simplified or partisan analysis of the headlines—so as a candidate, George W. Bush decried “nation-building” in reference to Kosovo, but it became a central aspect of his own foreign policy; or Bill Clinton ran for re-election on a collection of domestic-policy platforms, and then focused his second term on the Balkans and Middle East peacemaking. When ethnic constituencies come into play—as they do, for instance, with Cuba or the Middle East— campaign positions can be shaped by our political map, not our overarching interests.

The political considerations of foreign policy are even more acute in Congress. Foreign policy rarely dominates congressional campaigns. When it does—or when it comes to votes—members are often driven by party discipline or ethnic politics. I’ll never forget talking to one member about a particularly contentious question involving U.S. policy toward Turkey. My colleague told me his district was 100 percent for taking a hard-line toward the Turks. When I asked him the basis of this determination, he said he’d heard about the issue at three Greek Orthodox churches over the last recess.

The problem with this simplified or distorted debate is that whereas education or health-care policies are subjected to extensive vetting by a broad cross-section of the American population, foreign policy ends up being debated and shaped by an elite group of people—academics, pundits, lobbyists and activists who follow the issues closely. It is from this group that the president’s closest advisors are chosen. This was the case when I came to Congress in 1965, and it is very much the same today. With regard to military intervention—which takes place at an alarming clip of roughly one major intervention every two years—this may be more pronounced today since we shifted to an all-volunteer fighting force, insulating the direct consequences of military action from the vast majority of the American people.

This is not to criticize America’s foreign-policy elite—many talented and patriotic individuals rise through these ranks. But there are problems borne out of this disconnect between policymaking and the people. The decision-making responsibility that policymakers inside the beltway have is disproportionately greater—in astronomical terms—to the burdens they bear for those policies. The opposite is true of the American people. Ordinary Americans—not just the troops and their families, but taxpayers who fund expensive endeavors, consumers and workers whose well-being is increasingly tied to our relations with other countries, or, most dramatically, the person going to work in the World Trade Center—pay the price for our policy follies. Yet the root of so many ambitious foreign-policy decisions—take, for example, the decision to go to war in Iraq—is made by a strikingly small group of people.

After 9/11, Americans knew we needed to be more engaged in the world. After the shock of the last few years, Americans understand the limits of what we can accomplish. They are ready for leadership that speaks candidly about these questions: laying out goals that are achievable; setting priorities; using our awesome power not to transform the world, but rather to make the lives of ordinary Americans safer and better, moving the arc of history steadily in the right direction.


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