Why Does America Keep Making the Same Mistakes?

Fish for neighbors, and three other reasons behind our blunders.

Two years ago, I wrote a cover story for Foreign Policy that received a great deal of attention.

The article, titled "The False Religion of Mideast Peace," argued that for too long too many American officials (myself included) had embraced assumptions and propositions about Arab-Israeli peacemaking that were not grounded in reality. My argument was not that Arab-Israeli peace couldn't be achieved, but only that the elemental conditions for success were simply not in place. In an effort to do something, anything, and always with the best of intentions, U.S. policymakers -- presidents and secretaries of state -- and their advisors had either ignored the realities on the ground or tried to fashion new ones out of whole cloth that could never sustain a successful negotiation, let alone an agreement.

My essay was widely applauded by the anti-peace process crowd as one galactic we-told-you-so and was broadly dismissed by the peace-process establishment (a waning but still determined constituency) as the musings of a frustrated and annoyingly negative former government negotiator who was no longer in the business.

My point in writing, however, was neither to bury the peace process nor praise it, never mind find a suitable rationale to justify 20-plus years of failure; it was designed as a cautionary and highly personalized tale to demonstrate what happens when people in positions of influence persist in seeing the world the way they want it to be rather than the way it is. Successful policy, of course, requires the blending of both, however hard and inconvenient that may be.

The tendency for U.S. politicians and policymakers to distort the reality they inherit -- willfully or unintentionally -- is not exclusive to either Democrats or Republicans. I worked for both, and neither had a monopoly on bad analysis or bad policy. Indeed, reality distortion is a truly bipartisan affair, perhaps even a pathology. And it's certainly not unique to Americans, though they bring a special set of traits to it. In the final years of Bill Clinton's administration, on matters pertaining to peacemaking, we followed our illusions instead of looking at the world the way it was, with predictable results. Throughout much of George W. Bush's administration, we did the same on matters relating to war, with consequences far more disastrous.

What is it about the way Americans look at the world that seems to skew it for us so? Why do we seem so often to wobble in our policies -- like a drunk careening from lamppost to lamppost -- either trying to do too much or not doing enough? Why can't we seem to find the right balance between our interests, ideals, and policies? And why haven't we had much success in the Middle East these many years when it comes to war or peacemaking, key elements in the job description for any great power?

These are tough questions that have preoccupied scholars, pundits, journalists, and practitioners of foreign policy for a very long time now. Wrestling with them -- and we must -- is very much akin to what Dutch historian Pieter Geyl said about history: that it was an argument without end. So let's argue. Today, as we launch Reality Check, a weekly column that will test and examine some of the basic assumptions of America's broader Middle East policy, as well explore how U.S. presidents cope with both the process and substance of foreign policy, here are four propositions very much worth pondering.

1. Fish for neighbors. I'm from a family of real estate developers. In the business, the three most important factors are location, location, location. If you want to understand why America behaves the way it does abroad, start with location. We have achieved a degree of physical security and detachment unprecedented in the history of great powers. To our north and south we have nonpredatory neighbors; to our east and west, oceans and fish -- what one historian called our liquid assets.

This single fact goes a long way in explaining our naiveté. From Woodrow Wilson to Barack Obama and from China to Israel, we have a tough time understanding the world of lesser powers who live on the knife's edge (or even the competitive world of great ones) all that well. We too often assume they are like us or somehow want to be. And in the rough and tumble world of Middle East politics, especially, that's a serious liability. Location and the security and prosperity it carries also explain our boundless optimism and our conviction that all problems somehow can be resolved, when in fact that may not be the case. I would very much like to believe that Obama's former peace envoy, George Mitchell, one of our most talented negotiators, is right that conflict made by men and women, whether Irish or Israeli, can be resolved by them, but I'm not at all sure he's right.

Our physical power combined with our detachment also explains our arrogance. We often don't listen because we believe we don't have to. It was the cruelest of ironies that in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, a moment of unprecedented vulnerability, instead of assessing our strengths and weaknesses accurately, we launched a discretionary war in Iraq -- a trillion-dollar social science experiment, really -- that cost thousands of lives and life-wrecking injuries and sapped our strength and credibility.

2. "Trying and failing is better than not trying at all." I'll never forget how impressed and inspired I was by those words (President Clinton's) after we briefed him in the run-up to the July 2000 Camp David summit. Pushed by an Israeli prime minister with grandiose ambitions and to whom we wouldn't say no, and enabled by the rest of us who thought it was worth a try, we plunged ahead with no strategy and without much regard to the costs of failure.

The old college try may be an appropriate slogan for an NCAA football team; it isn't a substitute for the foreign policy of the most powerful nation on Earth. Failure costs and accumulates because, unlike success -- the world's most compelling ideology -- it doesn't generate power and constituents. Today, Americans are not taken seriously in Middle East peacemaking because of our repeated failures and our preference for process over results. As a consequence, our street cred on this issue is near zero. These days, everyone one from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says no to America without cost or consequence. And failing in the Middle East or in any area emboldens others -- Russians, Chinese -- to take us less seriously too.

3. We don't run the world. Reinhold Niebuhr said it best: America can't manage history. Part of the reason the trope of American decline has so much resonance today is that we have idealized our past role and power in the world. At best, the United States has had moments when it found a way to project its military, political, and economic power effectively: 1945-1950 in postwar Europe, the early 1970s détente with the Soviets and the opening to China, and the tail end of Ronald Reagan's and George H.W. Bush's administrations. But the notion that we are an effective hegemon in the Middle East has never been the case. That region is littered with the remains of great powers who thought wrongly that they could impose their will on small tribes. What makes us believe we can build nations there and mediate historic conflicts we scarcely understand?

The Arab Awakening caught the United States by surprise, washed away many of its allies and adversaries, and dramatically reduced its political space to maneuver. America can play an indispensable role at times if it has a good deal of buy-in from the locals and a sound strategy. Think Jimmy Carter at Camp David with Israel's Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat, or Bush 41 in the first Gulf War. But these successes are rare, the exception rather than the rule, and they may be rarer still in the future.

4. We ignore the past at our own peril. During the course of nearly 25 years in government, I can count on one hand the number of times I drew on history to argue for or against an issue. And I'm a trained historian. History doesn't repeat, Mark Twain observed; it rhymes. We need to look for those past rhythmic patterns as we assess liability, opportunity, and risk in the present. Forget the specific lessons of history; study it because it's a guard against the transgressions that can get great powers and their presidents into real trouble.

The United States occupied Japan for seven years between 1945 and 1952; not a single American was killed in a hostile action by the Japanese during that period. What do you suppose we were thinking when we invaded Iraq with insufficient forces and a woeful misunderstanding of the country's history, politics, and sectarian landscape? We weren't, and that's the point. Understanding why Carter succeeded at the Camp David summit in 1978 might have spared Clinton his failure at his own summit. (We in fact did our due diligence on this one, but chose to ignore those lessons and rely on our hopes over others' experience -- with predictable results.) Indeed, the notion that the world begins anew with each administration -- without much reference to the past -- is a serious flaw in the way any new administration fashions its policies.


Each week, Reality Check will look at a salient issue in U.S. foreign policy with a view to asking some of the tough questions and sorting through how the United States might find a better balance in its policies. Next week we'll take a look at Syria and the week after at Iran, both poster children for the new kinds of challenges and traps that America faces without many good options.

I admit to a certain bias here. I am not a declinist; America is still the most consequential country on Earth. And I still believe in American greatness, though perhaps these days with a somewhat smaller G. America is not a potted plant that lacks the will or capacity to act in ways that can make the world a better place. At the same time, my days of trying to fix things have made me a bit wiser and more respectful when it comes to the need for rigorous and disciplined thinking before we throw ourselves into or at a challenge. We live in a cruel and unforgiving world, much of which is no longer as easily amenable to the application of conventional military and diplomatic power as it once was. Nor are the domestic sources of that power in the healthiest condition.

Think about it: We have only recently come out of one of the two longest wars in U.S. history. And victory in Iraq and Afghanistan (if we can even speak in such terms) seems to be measured more not by whether we can win, but by whether we can ever fully leave, and what we will leave behind if we do.

If there were a shorthand way of summoning up my view of America's role in the world today, I'd borrow a phrase from Jack Kennedy, who once described himself as an "idealist without illusion." The United States has the capacity to do much good in the world, and it must never abandon that goal. But as we seek to change things, we must keep our eyes wide open. These days, when America contemplates projecting its power abroad, it must ask and answer at least three questions: Should we do it? Can we do it? And what will it cost in relation to what we hope to achieve? The answers will never be precise, and the process always messy. But if asked and answered honestly with depth and discipline, we'll stand a better chance. None of this guarantees success, but it might go a long way in helping us reduce the odds of failure.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images