Micah Zenko

The All-Powerful President

And four other lies we tell ourselves about foreign policy.

Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images
Michael Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images

Throughout the U.S. presidential campaign, Republican and Democratic political operatives have strived to articulate major foreign-policy distinctions between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney. Several close foreign-policy watchers, however, have struggled to identify any such differences.

The final presidential debate on Oct. 22 finally cemented what has been apparent to many over the course of the campaign: Neither Romney nor Obama wants to discuss foreign-policy issues because they don’t matter to prospective voters, and there are no substantive distinctions about how either candidate would deal with prominent issues such as Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and targeted killings via drones. The only potential variation is that Romney has promised massive defense budget increases, but his advisors admit that they would "very much depend on the state of the economy."

On a deeper level than specific countries or issues, there are five core principles of U.S. foreign policy that are widely held on both sides of the aisle. These principles underscore how presidents — Republican and Democrat alike — conceive of the U.S. foreign-policymaking apparatus, their role as the chief executive officer, and the responsibility of the United States in the world. However, these principles also rest on shaky ground and often undermine U.S. national interests because they reflect a profound misunderstanding of policymaking and how the rest of the world views the United States.

Regardless of who resides in the White House on Jan. 21, 2013, you can assume that he, his senior advisors, and his partisan commentariat allies will believe the following five precepts.

First, the U.S. intelligence community (IC) should have total omniscience over global events, including the precognitive ability to perfectly forecast any malicious behavior by potential adversaries. The IC is a sprawling network of roughly 210,000 civilian and military employees, 30,000 private contractors, and 17 agencies. With a budget of $75 billion for the national and military intelligence programs, the IC is expected to provide warning of national security threats and challenges to policymakers that is timely, accurate, and easily condensed into a one-page memo.

For policymakers who expect the impossible from the IC, intelligence doesn’t merely "fail," but fails spectacularly in ways that are routinely described as "catastrophic," "colossal," or "massive." To be repeatedly shocked by the IC’s inability to flawlessly warn about the behavior of malicious actors is to misunderstand how such information is generated. As the director of national intelligence, James Clapper, stated this month about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya:

The challenge is always a tactical warning, the exact insights ahead of time that such an attack is going to take place.… If people don’t behave and emit a behavior or talk or do something else ahead of time, and if you don’t detect it, then it’s going to be very hard to predict and come up with an exact tactical warning that you need.

But blaming the IC allows policymakers to hide behind such allegedly predictable failures. As John Maynard Keynes remarked: "There is nothing a Government hates more than to be well-informed; for it makes the process of arriving at decisions much more complicated and difficult." The IC is tasked to provide specific information and analytical judgments in order for the executive and congressional branches to construct informed policies.

Second, policymakers have the ability to fully understand the beliefs and motivations of U.S. friends and enemies. During the vice-presidential debate, for example, Rep. Paul Ryan and Vice President Joe Biden arrived at the bipartisan consensus that they could read the mind of the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Ryan: "Let’s look at this from the view of the ayatollahs. What do they see?… They see President Obama in New York City the same day Bibi Netanyahu is, and instead of meeting with him goes on a daily talk show." Biden: "Let me tell you what the ayatollah sees. The ayatollah sees his economy being crippled. The ayatollah sees that there are 50 percent fewer exports of oil." Likewise, in the final presidential debate, Romney and Obama both described how China, Israel, participants in Iran’s Green Revolution, and the "42 allies" perceive the United States.

It is, of course, delusional to believe that policymakers sitting in Washington know how foreign leaders or protesters marching through Tehran perceive the United States. Moreover, policymakers do not even believe they possess clairvoyance: You can tell this by the fact that no policymaker ever claims to see through the eyes of friends or adversaries when that perspective runs counter to whatever argument the policymaker is trying to make.

Third, the president is directly responsible and should be held fully accountable for whatever successes or failures occur during his term in office. After Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told several journalists on Oct. 15, "I take responsibility" for the Benghazi attack, moderator Candy Crowley asked Obama during the second presidential debate, "Does the buck stop with your secretary of state?" Obama replied: "[Clinton] works for me. I’m the president. And I’m always responsible." Of course, 2.8 million executive branch federal employees also work for Obama.

In part, the mindset articulated by Crowley stems from a small sign that President Harry Truman kept on his desk in the Oval Office that read, "The BUCK STOPS here!" As historians point out, Truman was referring only to decisions that reached his desk, rather than everything that happened within his administration. (Interesting historical fact: The reverse side of his sign read "I’m from MISSOURI." What would we think about presidential accountability if Truman had simply turned it around?)

In practice, presidents have only one significant power that they can exercise unilaterally — albeit with less and less oversight from a disinterested Congress — the use of military force. That the U.S. military’s capabilities are an awesome resource for one person to behold assuredly explains why presidents increasingly seek tactical military solutions to enduring foreign-policy challenges (see drones, targeted killings, and al Qaeda). In fact, though Congress has not declared war since June 1942 against Bulgaria, over 100,000 U.S. service members have died in wars since World War II.

However, when you consider the major foreign-policy objectives of recent presidents — such as the serial promise to make America energy independent — almost none can be solved by the president alone. In reality, the president can use force, provide strategic guidance, and make executive decisions that are implemented by those who serve in his administration, but he is not an action officer with a 6,000-mile-long screwdriver.

Fourth, the ultimate currency in world affairs is the ill-defined concepts of strength and credibility. Last weekend, Romney’s foreign-policy spokesperson stated, "Romney’s foreign-policy doctrine is he will do whatever it takes to make America stronger." The following day, Ryan vowed: "Peace through strength is not just a slogan. It’s not just something we say; it’s what we do. It’s our doctrine." Set aside the image of Uncle Sam building muscle through one of Ryan’s P90X workouts; what is left unsaid is what grand strategy such strength would be marshaled to achieve or how Romney’s foreign-policy objectives ultimately differ from Obama’s.

Likewise, the president boasted during the final debate about "how we’ve restored American credibility and strength around the world" and how his administration’s "credibility is precisely why we’ve been able to show leadership on a wide range of issues facing the world right now." The Obama administration has played a leadership role in coordinating more effective multilateral approaches to things like the Nuclear Security Summit and the sanctions regime on Iran. The willing participation of other countries, however, is not due to the size of the U.S. military or the Obama administration’s credibility — which has only diminished throughout the world in the past three years –but because it was in their own self-interest to do so.

We know from recent history that America’s "strength" — crudely defined by politicians and the media as defense spending — and threats do not compel others to do what Washington wants. Most countries balance against threats, form coalitions to mitigate threatening behavior, or remain neutral nonparticipants whenever Washington demands they do something, rather than jump on the U.S. bandwagon. Moreover, as international relations scholar Daryl Press demonstrated, credibility is not determined by reputations that are earned through past behavior, but by the power and national interests associated with a current challenge.

Finally, the world is wet clay and America is its eager sculptor. From Republicans, this belief was best captured by an off-the-cuff comment by a senior Bush administration official to reporter Ron Suskind in the summer of 2002:

[Some people] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.… That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors.

Romney often repeats his conviction that it is a duty, honor, privilege, and responsibility of the United States to shape and lead the world because of a "longing for American leadership." This week, Romney advisor Eliot A. Cohen claimed: "If you don’t even try to shape events, then for sure you are going to get a bad outcome."

Democrats conceive of America’s shaping role for slightly different outcomes, but the eagerness to take on this global chore is the same. Before the Democratic National Convention, Sen. John Kerry declared, "Global leadership is a strategic imperative for America, not a favor we do for other countries." Or, as Obama told a private audience in May:

The truth is, as we travel everywhere, we continue to be the agenda setters. Folks continue to look to us.… We continue to be the one indispensable nation. And because we project it with our values and our ideals, and restored a sense of rule of law, people are paying attention, people are listening, and people are hungry for our leadership.

This is not the world I see. When I travel and speak to admittedly lower-level officials, I do not hear a global craving for U.S. involvement and influence. What I hear constantly is a desire for clarity over U.S. policies toward a specific country or issue, such as climate change, the Middle East peace process, or the Arab Spring. Furthermore, when not seeking clarity, foreign officials expound on the vast hypocrisy in how the United States treats some countries versus others. When foreign governments and their citizens publicly express a desire for U.S. leadership, and when it is in the U.S. national interest to act on that desire, the United States should play a central role. Yet, more often than not, American policymakers would be better off doing nothing.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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