Why is there so little accountability in foreign policymaking?

I gave a lecture last night at the Cape Ann Forum, on the topic of America's changing position in the world and what it might (should) mean for U.S. grand strategy. My hosts were gracious and the crowd asked plenty of good questions, which is what I've come to expect when I speak to non-academic groups. Indeed, I'm often impressed by how sensible many "ordinary" Americans are about international affairs in general and U.S. foreign policy in particular. And so it was last night.

One of the attendees was iconoclastic journalist Christopher Lydon, who's been a friend for some years now. Chris asked a great question: Why is there so little accountability in contemporary U.S. policy-making, and especially regarding foreign policy? To be more specific: He wanted to know why some of the same people who got us into the Iraq debacle, mismanaged the Afghanistan war, and now clamor for war with Iran are still treated as respected experts, welcomed as pundits, and recruited to advise Presidential campaigns?

I didn't have a particularly good answer for him, but I thought about it more as I drove home. I'm not sure why there seems to be so little accountability in the American establishment these days (though it is true that if you lose $2 billion dollars, it does affect your job security), but here are a few thoughts.

Part of the problem is institutionalized amnesia. The United States is busy all around the world, and if the short-term results of some action look okay then we tend to move on and forget about what we've left behind. We fought a proxy war in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and it was a controversial issue at the time, with 40,000 or so Nicaraguan perishing as a result. But eventually the war ended, and we moved on with nary a backward glance. We intervened in the Bosnian civil war, patched together a Rube Goldberg-like structure to govern the place, gave ourselves high-fives, and spend the next fifteen years telling ourselves what a success it was. Except that it wasn't. Really. Last year we helped topple the Gaddafi regime in Libya, rejoiced at the fall of a despised and brutal dictator, and then moved on again, even as Libya descends into chaos. But it's not our problem anymore, unless a contraband MANPAD eventually finds its way to some unfortunate civilian airline somewhere. And if that airliner doesn't have Americans on board, we won't worry about it very much.

Heck, I'll bet if Bush had just pulled all our troops out of Iraq after his "Mission Accomplished" photo op, we'd be hailing it as a great military victory no matter what condition Iraq was in today. ("Hey, we got rid of Saddam for them; it's not our fault if the Iraqis can't run the place...")

A second reason is the incestuous clubbiness of the foreign policy establishment. Mainstream foreign policy organizations like the Council on Foreign Relations thrive by being inclusive: It's not clear what a member in good standing would have to do in order not to be welcome there. This is actually a smart principle up to a point: Because none of us is infallible, you wouldn't want to live in a society where being wrong rendered anyone a pariah for life. But neither does one want a system where conceiving and selling a disastrous war has no consequences at all.

Third, the incestuous relationship between mainstream journalists, policy wonks, and politicos reinforces this problem. All three groups live in a symbiotic relationship with each other, and you wouldn't expect to see many people in this world donning their brass knuckles and saying what they really think about other members of the club. And because their livelihoods and well-being aren't directly affected by catastrophes that happen Far Away, why should they worry about holding people accountable and conducting their relations in a more adversarial fashion? Bad for business, man....

A related reason has to do with career paths in the foreign policy world. I'm well aware that most would-be foreign policy wannabes don't have the luxury of tenure, and a lot of them have to survive on soft money budgets at think tanks or as in-and-outers doing private sector work when their party is out of power. In a world like this, yesterday's adversary is tomorrow's ally, and that means pulling punches and doing a lot of forgiving and forgetting. In most case, a bland conformism is the best route to long-term professional success, which diminishes the tendency to render harsh judgments, even when they are appropriate.

Fifth, as U.S. neoconservatives have long demonstrated, the best defense is sometimes a good offense. No influential political faction in America is more willing to engage in character assassination and combative politics than they are, in sharp contrast to most liberals and even most realists. I'm not talking about spirited debate over the issues -- which is a key part of effective democratic politics -- I'm talking about the tendency to accuse those with whom they disagree of being unpatriotic, morally bankrupt, anti-semitic, or whatever. Their willingness to play hardball intimidates a lot of people, which in turn protects them from a full accounting for their past actions.

Finally, there is obviously less accountability for anyone who has reliable financial backing. It doesn't matter how often people at the Weekly Standard or American Enterprise Institute advocate failed policies, so long as somebody is willing to keep bankrolling them. If you've got the Koch Brothers, Rupert Murdoch, or Sheldon Adelson in your corner, you can stay in the game no matter how often you've been wrong about really big and important issues, and no matter how big a price others may have paid for your mistakes.

Ralph Orlowski/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

A heated rant about climate change

Strategy is all about setting priorities: Deciding which problems merit the most attention and allocating the right level of resources to each challenge. It is about not letting the urgent overwhelm the important, and not getting blown off course by random events or unexpected surprises. Whether we are talking about a country's overall policy menu, a corporate business plan, or a military engagement, success requires first identifying what really matters.

So when I read James Hansen's op-ed about climate change yesterday, my first thought was: "Boy, do we have our priorities screwed up." Here in America, we spend endless hours arguing and debating trivialities, like who is going to get to run Afghanistan (a country whose entire GDP is about one-third the size of the municipal budget for New York City). We turn issues of personal freedom and preference (like marrying whomever you want) into Grand Moral Challenges. We kvetch about a single blind dissident in China, and work ourselves into a lather over not-very-powerful countries like Iran that pose no serious threat to any vital U.S. interests. Like a paranoid nation of sheep, we accept an increasingly onerous set of security restrictions in a futile attempt to drive the probability of a terrorist attack on an airliner down to absolute zero, no matter what the cost or the inconvenience. (And some people now think the current level of TSA madness isn't enough!)

Meanwhile , we merrily go about finding new sources of hydrocarbon-based energy -- like Canada's tar sands -- and get excited about the possibility that "fracking" will free us from dependence on "foreign oil" and allow us to keep using energy at our current profligate levels. Instead of orchestrating a gradual increase in the cost of hydrocarbon-based fuels -- to discourage consumption -- politicians search instead for ways to keep the cost low (and our SUVs running).

If Hansen is right -- and his track record is pretty good -- this behavior is utterly myopic. I'm not saying that we shouldn't devote some attention to other issues -- and if you're been reading this blog, you know that I'm as guilty as everyone else of doing just that -- but I wonder how much of Barack Obama's time and attention has been spent thinking about what his administration could do to advance a sensible agenda of long-term environmental protection, as opposed to the time he's spent on things that basically won't matter a damn in a few years. Remember that big climate-change summit back in 2009? Haven't heard much about that agenda lately, have you?

When historians of the 22nd century look back on our era, I suspect we'll take a lot of heat (sorry for the pun) both for what we did, but also for what we failed to do. Especially if a lot of places that are dry land today are under water. The only good news: China and its various Southeast Asian neighbors won't be squabbling over all those bits of rock in the South China Sea that are barely above sea level now.