Are Domestic Politics Evil?

What really happens when the national interest meets the water's edge.

I haven't done a statistical survey, but I bet if you polled 100 U.S. diplomats, foreign-policy analysts, and academics in Washington, 99 of them would be contemptuous and hostile toward mixing domestic politics and foreign policy.

The first is seen as hot, sordid, irrational, and, more often than not, unworthy.

The second is thought to be cool, principled, logical -- an endeavor of the highest order.

One is the domain of hacks and scoundrels. The other is the purview of skilled practitioners and dedicated professionals.

Having worked in the government trenches for a good many years, I understand the foreign-policy community's frustration and the exasperation with domestic politics.

You feel strongly about an issue -- say, Israeli-Palestinian peace or whether the United States should intervene in Syria. You think U.S. interests are being harmed, and your conclusion is that U.S. policy on both must be forceful -- driven by principles not politics. And those who want to behave otherwise -- lobbies, craven politicians, even presidents -- are cowards, knaves, or, even worse, leaders from behind.

I get all that. What I can't abide is the hostility, moral indignation, disrespect for the system, and tendency to demonize domestic politics that often accompany the rants of these priests of the foreign-policy temple.

Are domestic politics evil? Are those who play the game self-interested political hacks devoid of principle? Absolutely not. Domestic politics -- the lifeblood of the republic -- are necessary and inevitable, if at times inconvenient. And here's why.

According to the purists, there exists in the universe something called the National Interest (you can actually hear the capital letters when they speak). And determining what that is must be based almost exclusively on what is good for American national security and foreign-policy interests untainted and unsullied by domestic matters and other non-foreign policy priorities. It's above politics. And like mixing matter and anti-matter in a Star Trek episode, when politics and foreign policy intermingle, disaster follows. They simply shouldn't be allowed to occupy the same space in the universe.

Indeed, the National Interest is simply too important to be left to the politicians, the lobbies, or for that matter the public, none of which care enough or know enough to make the right decisions.

Instead, it should be entrusted to the Department of State or ex-members of the national security community, who are foreign-policy experts and know what's best for America, or to the president, who is supposed to make the tough and hopefully right calls. Presumably, those decisions will be based on what's best for the National Interest, regardless of the pull of domestic politics, Congress, and public opinion.

That the system doesn't always work that way is something of a shocker to the purist crowd. But I'm not sure why it should be. No leader in the world -- democratic or authoritarian -- makes foreign policy without taking domestic politics into account; indeed, leaders are often driven by politics.

Sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use the Edward Snowden affair to stick it to America. But he also wants to exploit the National Security Agency's connection to the big Internet and social media corporations to delegitimize his own domestic opponents' reliance on that same social media.

Yet somehow the United States -- where no foreign policy survives without a sustainable domestic consensus -- is supposed to make its foreign policy in a vacuum?

Sure settlements are bad. They humiliate Palestinians and prejudge the outcome of a final deal. But is Barack Obama supposed to go to war with Benjamin Netanyahu over them without reference to his other domestic priorities or the upcoming 2014 midterm elections because it's the right thing to do or because it will make the Arabs happy? If a fight would produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, maybe. But that's just not going to happen.

And, yes, Syria is a tragedy that harms U.S. interests. But should the president leap into a civil war regardless of the public's wariness of foreign interventions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan and the uncertainties that accompany a U.S. military role? The president is thinking first about the middle class, not the Middle East, and he has every reason to.

Good luck in trying to separate the so-called national interest from the president's own priorities. What's good for the United States is often seamlessly mixed together with what's good for a president, including his own priorities and inclinations, competing domestic policy choices, election realities, and international constraints that bear on the foreign-policy matter at hand.

Disrespecting the system

The U.S. system is far from perfect. The Founders feared special interests, and the marriage of media, money, and lobbies has had a corrupting influence on American politics. But as political scientist Edward Corwin observed, the U.S. system, for better or worse, is an open invitation to struggle -- not just among the three branches of government but among lobbies, public interest groups, and the government too.

Organize, compete, and take your best shot. That's the American way. But don't whine and complain about it. And don't think that you're somehow entitled to have your way in the foreign-policy arena just because.

Exasperated, a very senior State Department official once exploded: Congress doesn't know shit from Shinola about U.S. foreign policy. That might be true. But the notion that the State Department has all the answers is ludicrous too. I no more want the executive branch having an entirely free hand in foreign policy than I'd like to see Congress do it.

And nothing offends me more than those who don't understand the screwed-up system disrespecting it. A very influential Saudi once told me that in his view, Congress was the Little Knesset; and more European and Arab diplomats than I care to count just assume that the White House is Israeli-occupied territory. The Arabs only wish the pro-Arab community in America were as influential as the pro-Israeli one.

And in a hot argument about Syria the other day, a former State Department official pronounced that he didn't give a damn what the American people wanted; the president needed to lead and intervene militarily. So let me get this straight: What the public wants or doesn't shouldn't matter? Really? I dare say that had there been a draft in the United States in 2003, it might not have invaded Iraq -- and it certainly wouldn't have stayed for a decade.

The president's voice is the most important one on foreign policy, both as a practical matter and as a consequence of the powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution. But he doesn't and shouldn't have a free hand. In America's democratic polity, he presides over a cacophonous, competitive system in which various elements fight to make their case or constrain his.

And politics -- both those that pertain to the election of presidents and to their other domestic priorities -- aren't some evil conspiracy hatched in a dark room. They are the natural, inevitable currency in which business is done in both domestic and foreign policy.

Smart presidents who are skillful, willful, and lucky, particularly when it comes to the Middle East, can find a way to get stuff done, overcome domestic lobbies, manage their domestic politics, and further the national interest in the process (see Richard Nixon and Bush 41). Others aren't so lucky because they screw up either their foreign policy (Bush 43) or their politics (Jimmy Carter). Obama is getting hammered by the liberal interventionists and the conservative hawks because of his risk-aversion in the Middle East. But he's betting that a second-term domestic legacy -- immigration reform, economic recovery, action on climate change, maybe another run at gun control -- is more in step with what Americans want than risky wagers abroad.

But, like Newton's law of universal gravitation, no president escapes the political rules that govern the American system. Domestic politics are as old, inevitable, and American as apple pie or ice cream melting on a hot Fourth of July. What goes up must come down. And sometimes, the best an American president can do is to make sure the apple doesn't hit him on the head.

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Reality Check

What's Really Wrong with the Middle East?

Explaining the persistence of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence.

The Middle East really doesn't need any more bad news.

Still, it's official. The region now has its own disease: a dangerous virus called MERS, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome -- perhaps related to the SARS virus, but apparently deadlier.

This sad news started me thinking (again) about the sad state of the region. There are some bright spots -- or at least some spots that are not as dark. Tunisia seems to be making a relatively stable transition without paralytic violence and incompetent governance. And there's a younger generation of Arabs and Muslims who seem bent on freeing themselves from the old ways, demanding not only personal freedom but dignity, too. I'm reminded of Howard Beale's famous rant in Network: They're mad as hell, and they're not going to take it anymore.

Nevertheless, much of the region looks bad: violence in Iraq; civil war in Syria and violent spillover into Lebanon; growing popular despair in Egypt; repression in Bahrain; lack of central authority in Libya; and an impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Even in Turkey, the wonder state, things have become unhinged.

What's going on here? Why, when much of the world seems to be moving forward, is the Middle East being left behind? And why has its big transformative moment -- the Arab Awakening -- seemingly been lost amid a jumble of violence, sectarianism, and incompetence? There may be many reasons for this sorry state of affairs. But here are my top five.

Mistreating Women

The status of women -- what they can and cannot do -- in theory and in practice varies widely in the region. But there's far too much inequality and discrimination. Countries that systematically discriminate against half their population, intentionally or otherwise and for whatever reason (culture, religion, tradition, inertia) try to hold women back, keep them down, or just plain ignore them aren't going to be as moral, productive, creative, or competitive as those that empower women -- whether in the Middle East or anywhere else. And their futures won't be nearly as bright. Period.

No Separation of Religion and State

I know it's politically incorrect to point out, but show me one truly healthy and successful society run according to divinely mandated religious rules based on the idea that its god is better than any other -- or where extremist religious groups intimidate and wage war against fellow citizens, sometimes using terror and violence. I thought Turkey might be an exception. But Prime Minister Erdogan's recent my-way-or-the-highway behavior makes me wonder.

The societies that have proven the most durable and successful over time (all of which are outside the Arab world) are those where the realms of god and man/woman remain separate, where institutions are inclusive, and where freedom of religion, but perhaps even more important freedom of conscience, prevails. Indeed, freedom of expression is a critically important element in realizing human potential, inventiveness, and creativity. And it must be respected and safeguarded by the state, not restricted by it. Go into Times Square and, unless you're threatening public order, you can say just about anything you'd like about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam without fear of arrest or worse. Don't try that in Tahrir Square.

Too Much Conspiracy

Too many people in the Middle East refuse to look in the mirror. They'd rather come up with excuses and justifications as to why others, particularly forces outside their neighborhood, are responsible for their misfortunes. I know all about colonialism, Zionism, imperialism, communism, secularism, Islamism, and every other -ism that's been marshaled to show why outsiders and not locals deserve the blame for what goes on in the Arab world.

But let's get real. At some point, as every person knows, there's an expiration date for blaming your parents for the way you turned out. And in the case of the Arab world, the warranty on coverage for blaming the Mossad, the CIA, America, the Jews, or Bozo the Clown for the absence of democracy, the lack of respect for human rights, and gender inequality has long expired.

To be sure, outsiders still influence the Middle East in very negative ways. But that's no excuse for believing its people can't shape their own destiny. After all, that is what the Arab Awakening was supposed to be about. And wouldn't you know it: the Arab Awakening got hijacked not by Western bogeymen, but by forces within Arab society itself, including Muslim fundamentalists, secular and liberal elements that couldn't organize effectively, and remnants of the old regimes who hung on to power after the dictators were gone. 


I know it comes as a shocker, but the Middle East really isn't the center of the world any more. Today, Asia, Europe, America, and even Africa are where free market economies, pluralism, and human enterprise are innovating, inventing, producing, and creating stuff -- leaving the Middle East in the rear-view mirror. Read any of the U.N. Human Development Reports, which chronicle the sad tale. But too many Middle Easterners still think they're at the epicenter of it all -- or somehow deserve to be.

Many Arabs and too many Israelis still believe that the world sits on the edge of its collective seat 24/7 wondering what's going to happen next in their region and devising new ways to rescue them. I'm really tired of Israeli peaceniks hammering the United States for not rescuing the peace process and of Arabs waiting for us to punish Israel, which too many ridiculously dismiss as either America's master or its unruly child. Meanwhile, talk to any Lebanese and you'd think what happens in Beirut is on the minds of U.S. policymakers from morning till night. And, despite America's loss and lack of credibility, there's still this misplaced hope that the United States will save Syria.

Here's a news flash: the cavalry isn't coming. Maybe if this sinks in, the locals will do more for themselves. But I doubt it.


There really isn't any. It's ironic -- particularly against the backdrop of the Arab Awakening's democratic impulses -- that the most durable leaders have turned out to be the authoritarian monarchs. The King Abdullahs (Jordan and Saudi Arabia) look like statesmen compared to Egypt's Mohamed Morsy or Iraq's Nouri al-Maliki.

But even here there's a problem. Middle Eastern leaders have become masters at acquiring power, but they're not all that interested in sharing it. Marry that to the absence of legitimate and inclusive institutions -- and to politicians more interested in furthering the interests of their tribe, family, or religious sect than the nation as a whole -- and the future of good, accountable governance in the Arab world doesn't look all that bright.

MERS is still a mystery. But I'm pretty confident the epidemiologists will eventually figure it out. And I know we must give this region a couple more generations to sort things out. Still, I'm not nearly as confident they will, even though what ails this region is an open, if inconvenient, truth.