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What Happens Overseas Should Stay Overseas

Why foreign-policy wonks shouldn't write about domestic policy.

The foreign-policy universe is a bit like Mean Girls. Just as that film broke down high school into very specific subcultures, the world of foreign-policy wonks also has its own particular fiefdoms. Smug Realists, for example, can't resist teasing other cliques with taunts about Iraq or "imperialism." There are the Snooty Africanists, who disdain (often with cause) all popular media coverage of that continent as ridiculously superficial. And the Climate Change Crowd can't believe the rest of us are debating trivialities as the atmosphere gets saturated with carbon dioxide.

In recent years, however, I've noticed a new subculture emerging among foreign policy professionals. They frequent Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) meetings, Sunday morning talk shows, C-SPAN Book TV talks, and the New York Times op-ed page. Let's call them the Turning Inward crowd. To be clear, they are not isolationists -- I defy anyone to use that term on Thomas Friedman, Michael Mandelbaum, Charles Kupchan, or Richard Haass. Rather, what defines the Turning Inward crowd is the belief that the source of America's biggest problems does not lie overseas, but at home. Therefore, any responsible foreign-policy wonk needs to turn his or her analytic lens to what ails the United States first before focusing on the rest of the world.

This kind of logic has its appeal and cheerleaders -- including President Barack Obama, who has riffed a lot about "nation-building at home." This was a theme of Friedman and Mandelbaum's That Used to Be Us as well as one of the themes in Kupchan's No One's World. CFR President Richard Haass has penned the latest manifesto from the Turning Inward crowd, with Foreign Policy Begins At Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order. More than any of these other works, Haass's book illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this particular subculture. Let's look at them one by one.

STRENGTH: PROVIDING REALISTIC THREAT ASSESSMENTS

Reading a lot of foreign policy commentary, you'd think that the United States was facing a world of unprecedented threats -- China's rise, old-fashioned terrorism, new-fangled cyberterrorism and the like. The truth is that the United States faces no threat even remotely as big as it did during the Cold War.

This is one of the points that Haass and the Turning Inward crowd like to stress for why turning inward might be a good idea. It is precisely during a moment of minimal external threats that a country should turn inward to remedy its internal weaknesses. Indeed, the opening sentence of Haass's Foreign Policy Begins at Home concludes, "The biggest threat to America's security and prosperity comes not from abroad but from within."

WEAKNESS: AUSTERIAN ECONOMICS

Goodness, but the Turning Inward crowd likes austerity. Their general perception is that the United States has bankrupted itself over the past few years with profligate spending and borrowing, and that painful cuts are necessary. Haass epitomizes this argument, arguing that the federal government needs to cut its budget deficit by approximately "$250 billion a year over the next four to five years," explaining that: "The world is looking for a signal that the United States has the political will and ability to make hard choices."

The trouble with this argument is that it overlooks three rather important facts. First, based on borrowing rates, the world has been copacetic with U.S. fiscal policy for the entire post-2008 era. Indeed, as the Economist pointed out, "never in recent economic history have interest rates been so low for so many for so long."

Second, by engaging in expansionary Keynesian policies, the federal government (successfully) aided in the deleveraging of the private sector.

Third, this demand for fiscal austerity is two years out of date. Indeed, as the Congressional Budget Office recently reported, the budget deficit as a percent of GDP has dropped faster in recent years than at any time in postwar economic history. The contrast with the far more severe, and far less successful British exercise in austerity is rather stark.

New York Times columnist Paul Krugman recently argued that many austerians advocate these policies because of "the urge to see economics as a morality play." Haass, and the rest of the Turning Inward crowd, seem to fit this accusation all too aptly.

STRENGTH: HIGHLIGHTING THE RIGHT WEAKNESSES

If you only paid attention to news coverage out of Washington right now, you would conclude that the greatest domestic threats facing the United States are homegrown terrorism, overregulation, corruption, and fiscal laxity. All of those are problems, but weaknesses in America's infrastructure and K-12 education system are more serious. It is to Haass's credit, for example, that even though he wants a smaller federal budget, he simultaneously calls for a hike in the gasoline tax to pay for better roads and bridges. He also advocates for a longer school year.

WEAKNESS: CONTEMPT FOR DOMESTIC POLITICS

When foreign-policy wonks analyze the United States, they get easily frustrated because, to them, the solutions seem so simple and the politics seem so hard. So they start focusing on gerrymandering and outside money and special interests and the Internet and How Much Better Things Used to Be. Haass manages to avoid the gerrymandering trap, but he does fall prey to some of these other tropes.

This nostalgia for an age of pre-partisan politics makes a few errors. First, as Larry Summers pointed out last month in the Financial Times: "Throughout American history, division and slow change have been the norm rather than the exception. While often frustrating, this has not always been a bad thing.... The great mistake of the gridlock theorists is to suppose that all progress comes from legislation and that more legislation consistently represents more progress." Indeed, two of the major trends favoring the U.S. economy over the long run -- the domestic energy boom and the revival of manufacturing -- had little to do with the federal government.

Second, compared with its peers, the U.S. system of government has been surprisingly nimble. In the five years since the financial crisis, Congress has passed legislation that saved the U.S. financial system, rescued the auto sector, enacted the largest fiscal stimulus program in the world, overhauled its financial regulation, passed ambitious health-care legislation, and then took steps to rein in deficit spending. As I type this, the House and Senate are moving forward on comprehensive immigration reform. Next to either the European Union or Japan, the United States has been a hive of productive political activity.

It is certainly true that the United States has seen its share of rancorous domestic debate -- but the Turning Inward crowd mistakes this for complete paralysis. Which it isn't.

Most members of the foreign-policy community embrace economic globalization, and believe firmly in David Ricardo's principle of comparative advantage.  The problem with the Turning Inward crowd isn't that they are completely wrong about what ails the United States. It's that they, compared with those policy wonks who work on American political economy, simply don't know as much. So while the grand strategy of Turning Inward has its appeal, perhaps this clique should take a cue from Ricardo and maintain its focus on the rest of the world.

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Argument

Hezbollah's Fallen Soldiers

The self-proclaimed "Party of God" is throwing its fighters into Syria's bloody war. And according to its own media sources, it has already suffered significant losses.

Hezbollah is throwing its men into battle in the Syrian city of Qusayr, and many are returning to Lebanon in coffins. Through their funerals and commemorations posted on pro-Hezbollah Facebook pages, we are now getting a sense of the casualties that the self-proclaimed "Party of God" is suffering as it joins the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

It's no secret why Qusayr is a vital piece of real estate for both the Syrian regime and the Lebanese paramilitary group. The city is a strategic link in the Syrian communications chain, connecting the capital of Damascus, Syria's Alawite-dominated coastal highlands, and Hezbollah's heartland in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley. The Lebanese border is only a few miles to the city's west, and the Damascus-Aleppo highway lies to its east.

Hezbollah maintains a tight lid on information about its fighters. The Lebanese paramilitary organization does not acknowledge that its fighters are being killed in Syria, and employs vague language to explain their deaths: All fighters who have been killed in Syria are said to have died performing their "Jihadist duties." Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 22 there were "several thousands" of Hezbollah fighters engaged in combat in Syria.

But Hezbollah can't conceal the reality of their fighters' deaths in Syria entirely. The group often announces a fighter's death on the day of the funeral, or a day before it. These funerals are carefully scripted, and access by non-Hezbollah media is severely restricted. New York Times reporter Anne Barnard was even thrown out of a funeral when she was covering the death of Hassan Faysal Shuker, one of 12 dead Hezbollah members named by the organization during the height of the fighting in Qusayr.

Utilizing a mixture of YouTube videos of funerals and of the fighters, Hezbollah's official announcements, webpages for Hezbollah-controlled towns and villages, quasi-official Facebook pages (including the personal pages of some Hezbollah members), and Hezbollah web forums, I have been able to compile figures tracking the party's dead in Syria. While this system primarily relies on Hezbollah sources, which tend to conceal total numbers of dead, it has so far provided roughly three to 10 hours of advance knowledge of a Hezbollah member's death before their passing is announced on Hezbollah's official al-Manar television station.

Facebook announcements of Hezbollah fighters' deaths are not just the work of overzealous activists or family members. The vast majority of posted photos and announcements appear to have been approved by Hezbollah's extensive media apparatus. Many Facebook announcements overlap with the party's official forum, Qawem.org. This suggests the same administrators at that forum also run many of the myriad pro-Hezbollah Facebook pages.

Based on these official Hezbollah and pro-Hezbollah sources, I counted a total of 20 Hezbollah members killed from the period starting on May 18 until mid-day on May 20. Due to the timing of the announcements, it stands to reason that a majority of these fighters died while engaged in the heavy fighting around Qusayr.

Despite Hezbollah's obscuring of facts surrounding their dead, it is clear their supporters know these men met their end in Syria. Chants of "Labayka ya Zaynab" ("We are here for you, O Zaynab") are ubiquitous at funerals for Hezbollah's martyrs. The highly sectarian and mantra-like chant references the Zaynab mosque in Damascus, an important Shia shrine near Damascus and a gathering point for pro-Iranian foreign fighters in Syria.

Qusayr isn't Hezbollah's first battle in Syria -- for months, its militiamen have also taken part in fighting around the Zaynab shrine. While in Damascus, Hezbollah members tend to operate under the moniker of a group called Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). The group is comprised of fighters from throughout the Shia world, the vast majority coming from Iranian proxy parties in Iraq and from Hezbollah. The group takes its name from a legendary Shiite fighter who was martyred during the Battle of Karbala, a central event in Shiism. Hezbollah's dead are often also claimed by LAFA on their wide network of Facebook pages.

When a Hezbollah fighter is killed, the party often releases a photograph of the militiaman when he was still living. Their posters sometimes feature the Zaynab shrine's golden dome in the background. Hezbollah's semi-official Facebook announcements tend to offer the best information of the circumstances of a fighter's death: Some photographs are posted with a caption reading "[Died while] defending Sayyida [Lady] Zaynab" or "martyred during the sacred defense."

Sometimes, there is enough publicly available information about a fallen Hezbollah militiaman to reach a conclusion about where he was fighting at the time of his death. The case of Hezbollah’s “Haidar” Ali Jamal Jishi presents the perfect case where cross-referencing on YouTube, Facebook, and official Hezbollah pages established, without a doubt, that he was operating in Damascus. In one video, Jishi is seen firing a recoilless rifle in Damascus's Midan neighborhood. Semi-official Facebook announcements of his death said he died "defending Sayda Zaynab." Jishi was also pictured fighting in an urban area, and some of his martyrdom posters feature the gold dome of the shrine. However, Jishi's case is a rarity -- in most cases, it is difficult to determine with any degree of certainty where a Hezbollah fighter died.

Other death notices suggest strongly that Hezbollah fighters were killed in Qusayr. One of the deceased fighters, Muhammed Fouad Raba', was pictured in an April 15 photo with what appears to be a Syrian military ZSU-23-4 anti-aircraft gun. The photo's date also coincides with the beginning of the joint Syrian military-Hezbollah assault on Qusayr.

Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah has explained his party's involvement in Syria by saying that it is an ad hoc effort by fighters from areas bordering the conflict zone to protect Shia villages within Syria. But the information coming to light about the dead belie that claim: Hezbollah's slain fighters come from a diverse set of locations within Lebanon, from towns in the central Beqaa to southern Lebanese towns on the Israel-Lebanon border. While burials of the Hezbollah fighters occur in these villages and towns, it is still hard to gauge where exactly they were living in Lebanon prior to the fighting in Syria, as funerals are generally held in those areas from where their families originated.

Another narrative, primarily one emerging from pro-rebel sources, was that Hezbollah was mainly losing young men. This too appears to be incorrect: While ages of those killed are very rarely posted by any Hezbollah-affiliated source, a number of older members have been killed in Syria. Ahmed Kamal Khurees, a Hezbollah fighter from the southern Lebanese town of Khiam, sports a white beard in his martyrdom photo. Fadi Muhammed Jazar, a Hezbollah member -- and possible commander -- who served time in Israeli prisons and was released during a 2004 Hezbollah-Israel prisoner exchange, was no youngster. Ibrahim Husayn, reportedly a Hezbollah commander, was also an older fighter. The presence of veteran fighters in Syria underlines the importance of this campaign for Hezbollah.

As fighting around Qusayr continues and announcements of new deaths flood in, one thing is certain: Hezbollah's involvement in Syria will only continue to grow. The group's slain fighters will now find graves in the soil of Lebanon, and on pages commemorating their life and death on Facebook.

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