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.