Can’t We All Just Not Get Along?

Why a decade of war hasn't provoked a real debate about America's role in the world.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

After Oct. 22’s debate — in which Mitt Romney seemed to support President Barack Obama’s policies toward Syria, Iran, and even Afghanistan — a number of analysts seemed surprised at the amount of agreement around the table.

They should not have been. After all, both presidential candidates share the same basic assumptions about American foreign policy, believing that the United States is exceptional in its values, history, and power. When asked about "America’s role in the world," the heated discussion that broke out was about domestic policies, not only because of the import of economic matters this year but also because the candidates were trying to draw real contrasts between themselves. The rest of the debate, like that in Washington, was about how the United States should lead the world, not whether it should in the first place.

If the financial crisis inspired a deep, and deeply polarized, conversation about the role of government in the economy, the past decade’s struggles abroad have not stimulated a similar conversation about the U.S. role in the world. Although the American public may be wary of foreign entanglements, the idea that the United States should consider changing the way it deals with the world (let alone disengaging from it) is rarely talked about in polite Washington company.

Instead, the foreign-policy discussion within the national security establishment has been needlessly narrow and counterproductively shallow for the past decade. The heated debate that does occur is over daily headlines, crises, and tactics.

There are structural reasons for this limited debate. As opposed to domestic policy, where politicians must chose positions as vocal and dedicated advocacy organizations on both sides of an issue fight it out, the interest groups in foreign policy — be they defense contractors, ethnic lobbies, or issue organizations — tend to all push for greater international involvement. And the fragmented foreign-policy process breaks what debate there is into tactical or issue-specific matters. Very few in Washington focus on the country’s overall approach to the world; rather, they specialize in certain functions or certain regions.

But the most significant cause may be personnel: As Obama and Romney demonstrated Monday night, there are not many members of official Washington eager to debate America’s fundamental relationship with the world. The resulting foreign-policy groupthink has allowed — at a challenging time at home and abroad — questionable assumptions, muddied objectives, and suboptimal strategies to persist.

The voices in the Washington foreign-policy community all sound the same. Certain concepts, like isolationism, are verboten. Charges of "imperialism" get the accuser written off as a radical. And perhaps no limitation is more consequential right now than any suggestion that America is somehow unexceptional.

Republicans have built much of their critique of Obama’s foreign policy on a single answer the president gave to a question at a news conference in Italy in April 2009, when he suggested that feelings of American exceptionalism are akin to those of British and Greek patriotism. Even if the related accusation that Obama went on an "apology tour" is a myth — Romney brought it up again Monday night and in a new advertisement after the debate — Washington took notice of the reaction to Obama’s answer. In the years since, exceptionalism has become both a trending topic in public discussion and an article of faith within the establishment.

To be sure, there are Democratic approaches to America’s global leadership (which are more about indispensability) and Republican approaches (which are more about unipolarity). But the parties largely agree with the prevailing post-Cold War American consensus, which calls for an American-led economic and political global order enforced by the country’s unprecedented military power. What’s more, they have an incentive to sweep whatever differences they have about this vision under the rug.

As Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, suggested in an interview, because of historical intraparty divisions over foreign policy, presidential candidates and campaigns prefer to draw differences on "stylistic and leadership grounds" rather than having a "deep and sophisticated discussion about America’s role in the world." The alternative would be to alienate some elements of their respective bases and "tear apart" their respective coalitions. As the "permanent campaign" has become an indelible feature of American politics, so has the parties’ use of this postural approach to discussing foreign policy.

For example, Democratic and Republican approaches to Afghanistan have to remain broad enough not to offend respective party bases. The result is a regression to the mean in debate and on policy. When Obama called for the surge, he simultaneously set a deadline for withdrawal reportedly so that he would not "lose the Democratic Party." Conversely, Sen. John McCain publicly shamed Romney and other Republicans over Afghanistan during the presidential primaries. Accused of isolationism after he hinted at his ambivalence over continued military engagement in the country, Romney quickly got in line and backed the Republican Party’s preferred modus operandi.

The current generation of elected and aspiring leaders by and large does not have the experience, the stature, or the incentive to challenge the parties’ narratives about America’s role in the world. Many of the older lions of foreign policy have either passed away or been put to pasture. Edward Kennedy, Robert Byrd, and John Murtha have died; Dick Lugar recently lost his primary; and others, like Chuck Hagel, Jane Harman, and Jim Webb, have moved (or are moving) on freely. Ron Paul, one of the few real outliers on foreign policy, is retiring from Congress.

Their replacements are either focused more on domestic matters or not experienced enough to push a new approach to foreign policy. For example, there is a growing lack of military experience among elected officials. Although present at higher percentages than in the general population, fewer veterans are serving in the House and Senate than at most times in the past. That lack of experience not only takes an important perspective out of the debate, but it makes it harder for officials to question the military without appearing anti-troop and to challenge the military-centered status quo.

The ambitious young people who staff elected officials suffer from the same single-mindedness — in part because entry to the foreign-policy establishment requires navigating several defining gateways. These gateway institutions shape how these young people think about the world and America’s role in it. One is schooling: Getting a master’s degree from one of a few choice policy schools is a key way to gain entry to the U.S. foreign-policy community and job opportunities. Another is the need for a first security clearance, which requires, among other lifestyle choices, finding an employer with the capacity and financial resources to assure one. That often involves joining a tribe: the military, the intelligence community, the Foreign Service, the development community, or a contractor.

Each of these tribes has a stake in the status quo conversation and approach to the world, but each also has its own worldview, its own preferences, and its own way of enforcing discipline — which limits debate. High-profile ousters — for example, that of Army Gen. Eric Shinseki amid disagreement over the Rumsfeld Pentagon’s Iraq war plan or Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig’s departure amid acrimonious internal debates about terrorism policies — signal loudly and clearly that questioning the team limits opportunities for employment, influence, and advancement. And the extraordinary degree of ambition among Beltway denizens means that young Washingtonians are prone to accepting not only that America has an exceptional role to play in the world, but that it can do so effectively.

As a result, most members of the Washington foreign-policy community sound the same, remain committed to the prevailing mean, and are disconnected from the rest of the country. While 62 percent of Americans believe the United States should be "no more or less assertive than other leading nations," the Pew Research Center found that majorities of retired military officers (72 percent), scholars (63 percent), government officials (58 percent), and business and trade leaders (58 percent) believe the United States should be the "most assertive of the leading nations." Obama and Romney suggested the same Monday night.

This groupthink is not a nefarious plot, but it is a nasty cycle: Groupthink results from and leads to too little debate about America’s relationship with the world. It is reinforced by professional and personal self-interest and by Washington foreign-policymakers’ feeling beset abroad by global challenges and challengers to American leadership and pressured at home by voters always teetering on the edge of a return to isolationism.

In the nearly constant crisis environment that foreign-policymakers work in, those challenges can make debate feel inefficient and thus undesirable, but a lack of robust debate can contribute to bad policy. During the Cold War, the near universal acceptance of the urgent need to contain the spread of communism made it an end in itself (embodied by the domino theory) and gave cover and cause to underexamined policy choices, such as increased American involvement in Vietnam.

As has been seen in Afghanistan, Washington foreign-policy groupthink has allowed questionable assumptions to persist (e.g., with enough time, resources, and effort, the United States can turn the war around), unprioritized objectives to be pursued simultaneously (e.g., preventing the return of the Taliban, defeating al Qaeda, building a sustainable central government in Kabul, stabilizing Pakistan), and the least objectionable strategy to be implemented (e.g., troop levels that split the difference between various recommendations).

Most perniciously, U.S. global leadership is considered an end in itself rather than a means to achieving America’s core interests.

Admittedly, it is a tough time for a real foreign-policy debate. When Americans’ paychecks are missing or too light to make ends meet, it is no surprise that people want to focus on kitchen-table matters and that politicians want to be seen doing the same, as they did on Monday night. And those politicians will want to avoid foreign policy even more when it involves tough topics, such as the frustrated American performances in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, especially if they are culpable for them.

But there are reasons to be hopeful that a wider debate may be in the offing. For example, new voices are utilizing new communications channels to ask hard questions about the aggressive use of drones to target terrorists and insurgents. Drones, and their bipartisan foreign-policy establishment support (Romney gave a full-throated endorsement to the president’s aggressive use of them Monday night), are among the most glaring examples of America’s exceptionalist approach to global leadership. The arguments against drone warfare have been slowly building, with 140-character assaults on Twitter, aggressive long-form exposés, and reports conducted by groups outside the Washington bubble.

What’s more, budget fights are going to prompt real discussions about priorities at home and abroad. Since the 9/11 attacks, when confronted with hard choices, Washington has felt it could afford to say: "We’ll take both." That is no longer true. In fact, P.J. Crowley, a former State Department spokesperson and now a professor of practice at George Washington University, said in an interview that the biggest player in reviving a foundational debate about America’s relationship with the world may be the Tea Party. The recent fight over budget deficits suggests that when presented with a choice between guns and butter, there are now many Washington policymakers willing to answer "neither." As they attempt to starve the beast, these empowered deficit hawks will make it difficult for foreign-policy hawks and doves alike. The foreign-policy community may be forced to argue over essentials in a way they have not over the past decade.

That would be a good thing.

Writing at the demise of the Soviet Union, then-U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan argued, "We won! There will be plenty of troubles ahead. Plenty of horror and pain.… How do we move from a national security state to a government that merely asks what are our interests abroad and our needs at home, and calmly and openly pursues them? What a wonderful challenge!" One senses that Moynihan was almost as excited about the coming debate as about finding the right balance he sought.

While few would argue the United States has won much these past 10 years, the same could be said today: America’s greatest challenge remains finding the best way to meet its values and interests at home and abroad. That’s a high-class challenge to have. So is a Washington full of committed individuals, eager to make history and serve the nation’s interests. A debate on that challenge by those individuals could be fun. Perhaps the thing to do is to forget Monday’s debate and start a real one.

John Gans, who served as chief speechwriter at the Pentagon until 2017, is the director of communications and research at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House. He writes about the Reagan and Trump National Security Councils in his new book, White House Warriors. Twitter: @johngansjr

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