Stephen M. Walt

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 ...

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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