What the election means for American foreign policy

These days I keep getting asked what the 2012 election means for U.S. foreign policy. I have no doubt that Romney's foreign policy would differ in some ways from Obama's, though it's hard to know exactly how, given Romney's remarkable ignorance of the subject and the opacity of many of his comments. Some of Romney's advisors have worrisome track records -- i.e., they were among the architects of some of our country's biggest foreign policy blunders -- but most of Obama's foreign policy team supported the invasion of Iraq too.

But on balance, I'd say the similarities would outweigh the differences. For one thing, Obama has run a pretty hawkish foreign policy for most of his first term, which is why Romney can hardly find anything serious to criticize. But equally important is the fact that there is a strong bipartisan consensus among mainstream foreign policy experts these days, with virtually all of them favoring the use of American power in lots of different places and lots of different ways. In other words, there's just not a lot of daylight between the liberal interventionists who run foreign policy in Democratic administrations and the neo-conservatives who are in charge when Republicans hold the White House. (Yes, new Romney advisor Robert Zoellick isn't really a neoconservative, but he did sign one of those PNAC letters calling for the U.S. to topple Saddam). Although neocons are usually quicker to call for the ambitious use of American power(and especially military force), the liberals tend to get there eventually. Both groups, in short, are addicted to the impulse to intervene.

Case in point: the current debacle in Syria. It's obviously a mess, and it's hard for any of us to observe what is happening there without feeling an urge to do something. Neoconservatives see an opportunity to deliver a fatal blow to the "axis of resistance" (Iran, Syria, Hezbollah), and liberal interventionists like my friend Anne-Marie Slaughter see an imperative to topple a tyrant, defend human rights, and strengthen the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine. Mainstream foreign policy institutions like the Aspen Strategy Group (the very embodiment of ‘conventional wisdom') become cheerleaders for action, and even a normally sensible pundit like Nicholas Kristof eventually gets won over by the consensus in favor of action. Never mind that we will almost certainly be fueling a sectarian war whose longer-term regional implications are deeply worrisome; we simply cannot resist the pressure to get involved.

Where does this impulse come from? It's partly a reflection of American power and wealth: Despite our economic woes, this is still a rich country and the government can always find the bucks to finance another military action. Plus, having outspent most of the world combined on military power for a couple of decades, there's always a pile of weapons lying around that we could send to whichever rebel groups have currently caught our fancy. If necessary, there is usually some airpower and special forces available to assign to the task, along with training, intelligence, and political advice (which is often ignored).

Add to that the crucial fact that there isn't a great power rival who could cause us serious harm in most of these contexts, which makes it less risky in the near term to contemplate action. We wouldn't be thinking about getting involved in Syria if we thought it might escalate to a great power war (as it might have back when the Soviet Union was around), or if we thought -- heaven forbid -- that U.S. territory might actually be at risk as a result.

As I wrote awhile back,

It is as if the president has big red button on his desk, and then his aides come in and say, "There's something really nasty happening to some unfortunate people, Mr. President, but if you push that button, you can stop it. It might cost a few hundred million dollars, maybe even a few billion by the time we are done, but we can always float a bit more debt. As long as you don't send in ground troops, the public will probably go along, at least for awhile and there's no danger that anybody will retaliate against us -- at least not anytime soon -- because the bad guys (who are really nasty, by the way) are also very weak. Our vital interests aren't at stake,sir, so you don't have to do anything. But if you don't push the button lots of innocent people will die. The choice is yours, Mr. President.

It would take a very tough and resolute president -- or one with a clear set of national priorities and a deep understanding of the uncertainties of warfare -- to resist that siren song."

And that's the issue in Syria in a nutshell. We don't know if intervention would make things better in the long run or not. Maybe we can speed Assad's departure, get a U.N. or Arab League peacekeeping force in place, and help Syria avoid a bitter cycle of revenge-taking afterwards. Or maybe we'll just add more fuel to an already nasty fire, and eventually help bring to power a government that is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. Or perhaps there will be a lingering power vacuum that gives Al Qaeda new opportunities, and that invites lots of external meddling by all of Syria's neighbors. (Marc Lynch has a nice rundown of the dangers here).

Foreign policy is always uncertain, of course, and one could argue that the United States should still do whatever it can to try to tilt the outcome in a positive direction. This argument fits in perfectly with the incentives of the mainstream foreign policy community, which is usually looking for problems to solve and always eager to establish their street cred as tough-minded hawks. (Even when they favor diplomacy, most people in the foreign policy community understand that sounding like a pacifist or a principled anti-interventionist is not a good career move, because the default condition of U.S. grand strategy emphasizes our "global leadership" and that means lots of international crusading). I get all that, and it's not as if I have a brilliant sure-fire solution to the Syrian problem. But I am troubled by the systematic bias that keeps driving the United States to get involved in intractable internal conflicts, even when it's not clear what the U.S national interest is or whether intervention will actually advance whatever interests might be at stake.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt

What Americans outside the Beltway think about war with Iran

I'm just back from a brief trip to Maine, to give a lecture at the Mid-Coast Forum on Foreign Relations. As I have in a couple of other venues, I spoke on the similarities and differences between the earlier campaign for war with Iraq and the current debate over war with Iran. The main similarity, of course, is that the same groups and individuals who pushed hardest for war with Iraq are also in the vanguard of the groups pusshing for war with Iran today. But there are also some critical differences, most notably the fact that the Obama administration isn't staffed by die-hard neoconservatives and Obama isn't as gullible as Bush and Cheney turned out to be. For those of us who believe that war with Iran is neither necessary nor wise, this is good news.

My hosts were exceptionally welcoming, and the attendees asked a lot of smart questions, so I had an excellent time. A fair number of the people I met have backgrounds in international affairs (in business, academia, government, intelligence, etc.), and all are obviously engaged by the subject. I didn't hand out a questionnaire so I don't know what everyone in attendance thought, but I was struck by two themes in both the Q & A at my talk and in my private conversations with various members.

First, I detected no support for any sort of war with Iran. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not by us, not by Israel, and not by anybody else. It's possible that some people in the audience would use force as a last resort, but no one in the audience or in private spoke in favor of that option or even asked a question that leaned in that direction. (One retired government official said he believed there would eventually be a war, but he made it clear that he thought that it was a terrible idea). Instead, they were mostly interested in what could be done to prevent a war, and several questions centered on what could be done to improve U.S.-Iranian relations over the longer term. That view, by the way, is more-or-less consistent with recent surveys showing relatively little support for the "military option." This result is especially telling given that Americans also seem to hold quite alarmist views about Iran's nuclear intentions, and given that the war party has been working overtime to hype the threat for years.

Second, I was also struck by the intelligent skepticism that several attendees expressed regarding America's global role. This was a sophisticated group, and most of the people with whom I spoke would be considered "internationalist" in orientation. Yet several also spoke against what they perceived as excessive U.S. interventionism, and one openly complained about the U.S. serving as the "world's policeman." Statements such as these reinforce my sense that a lot of well-informed Americans recognize that trying to run most of the world isn't in America's interest or the world's interest, and that a smarter and more selective approach to global engagement would be easy to sell.

In fact, because the United States is in reality amazingly secure (relative to most other nations) it takes a lot of effort to get us to shoulder all these international burdens. Our leaders and other interested parties have to do a lot of threat-mongering, usually by treating minor powers as if they were looming international dangers. And these minor powers can't be portrayed merely as regimes with whom we have differences; they have to be given scary labels like the "Axis of Evil" or demonized as the Greatest Threat to Human Decency since Hitler (or Stalin, or Saddam, or Genghis Khan or whomever). Advocates of endless intervention also rely on elaborate domino-theory scenarios whereby some obscure setback somewhere eventually leads to a snafu, which triggers a defeat, which in turn provokes a crisis, which then undermines our credibility, which leads allies to defect, and eventually leaves us isolated and vulnerable. Via this sort of logic, victory is necessary in Afghanistan or else someday North Korea will invade and conquer all of North America.

As I said, these impressions aren't based on a scientific survey, and the views expressed above are my own. But the whole trip made me wish that Barack Obama and Mitt Romney could spend less time with their advisors and less time cuddling up to fat cat donors with bellicose agendas, and more time talking about foreign policy with well-informed regular citizens. I'll bet they'd discover that what passes for unquestioned truth inside-the-Beltway is much less widely accepted in a lot of other places.