Terms of Engagement

Hope Against Hope

A look back at what I've gotten wrong, and why I'm (mostly) not sorry.


Last week, I wrote about the lessons that President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team have learned — or should have learned — from their mistakes over the last four years. The civilian side of government, I noted, doesn’t have a "lessons learned" apparatus the way the military does. It should, but then, so should my line of work. Reporters can be called to account for factual errors, but columnists, who traffic in opinion, need not even acknowledge the category of "mistake." It is largely up to us to blow the whistle on ourselves. And this is what I propose to do this week.

In looking back through my columns of the past three years, I had no trouble coming up with my most egregious misjudgment: A year ago, on the eve of Egypt’s parliamentary elections, I wrote that while Egypt’s new government "may have a strongly Islamic cast, it won’t actually be Islamic," since experts were predicting that the Muslim Brotherhood would win 15 to 40 percent of seats, with the rest divided among various forces, including Salafists. In fact, the Brotherhood and the Salafists took three-quarters of the seats in Egypt’s new parliament.

But that’s just electoral math. My deeper misjudgment was to think that, once in power, the Brotherhood would take democracy as seriously as they had while serving as a parliamentary minority under President Hosni Mubarak. Instead, Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Morsy has taken his electoral victory as a mandate to demolish obstacles to his rule — temporarily, he insists. The most reform-minded members of the Brotherhood have left the fold, but have not themselves become a significant political force. Egypt now faces a spreading politics of confrontation in which no party believes that it can afford to trust to democratic tactics. The situation is utterly fluid and unpredictable, but it is by no means obvious that Egypt’s political marketplace will prove self-correcting.

Like any prudent columnist, I have hedged my hopefulness with cautionary notes. But I was too hopeful — my besetting flaw. I put too much stock in Obama’s ability to put a new face on America, which is to say that I shared the somewhat giddy expectations of many people in the administration. When I look back at what I wrote about the counterinsurgency strategy that Obama adopted in Afghanistan, I see that I was too willing to suspend my own skepticism about the civilian side of the policy. In 2010, I suggested, correctly, that "the organic time scale" of governance reform "is just too gradual to match any military timetable Americans will accept."

But then I contradicted myself. Earlier that year, I had spent time with soldiers and civilians in the critical southern district of Arghandab, as well as with officials in Kandahar and Kabul, who "believed that they could make a meaningful difference" by the time troops began to draw down, if only Afghan president Hamid Karzai would stop frustrating their efforts at reform — a thought which I endorsed. But Karzai was never going to stop being Karzai, and my impulse that the institution-building effort could only work generationally, if at all, was right. I was too susceptible to their hopefulness.

Experience has been a painful teacher — for the last two administrations, and for those who have invested in their soaring aspirations. And experience has taught us, among other things, that while America can blow things to smithereens, it cannot do nearly as much as it thinks to put them back together: "The world is so much more complicated, and so much more refractory, than we wish it to be; and our wishes all too often govern our understanding." That was me, writing about Iraq — though it could have applied to plenty of other things. "It behooves us, then, to act with humility," I concluded, "and to try as best we can not to confuse what we wish to be with what can be."

Easier said than done, of course. Still, I have a paragon before me: I am in the midst of writing a biography of John Quincy Adams, a thoroughly astringent soul who, as a diplomat and then as secretary of state, admonished everyone around him of the potential calamities lurking beneath noble prospects. In his famous July 4, 1821 oration — the one where he warned against going abroad "in search of monsters to destroy" — Adams predicted that a policy of foreign intervention, even on behalf of the Greeks then struggling for independence from the Ottoman Empire, would corrupt the nation’s republican spirit and alter "the fundamental maxims of her policy … from liberty to force." If I had been around at the time, I’m sure I would have thought, as did Henry Clay and a great many other of the proto-liberal internationalists of the day, that President James Monroe should have spoken up for Greece. Adams persuaded him not to. And Adams did a magnificent job of advancing America’s national interests. 

Still, I tend to think of my bias towards hopefulness as not only a glandular condition but a conscious choice. Journalists are afraid — almost terrified — of being accused of naiveté. It was, for example, almost an article of faith in the media in 2007 that President George W. Bush’s "surge" in Iraq would fail, disastrously; but I don’t recall any of the naysayers being taken to task as harshly, for example, as were the sorry folk who predicted in 2003 that regime change would lead to a better, less brutal, Iraq. Courting accusations of naiveté can thus be its own form of journalistic integrity.

Early in the 2008 presidential campaign I wrote an article about Barack Obama’s worldview. He had a worldview, I concluded; and it was the right one. Wrong, said my editor: The story is that he has a worldview, and nobody’s buying it. That is what it looked like in September 2007. Of course he was the one who was wrong. (But he still made me change the piece.)

I do not, that is, want to be entirely cured of my folly; I am wary of John Quincy Adam’s wisdom. Were he around today, Adams would have warned against the intervention in Libya, and would have advised the president to stand by the devils he knew. And yet I’m glad Obama stuck his neck out in Libya and elsewhere, and still wish he would take stronger steps in Syria. Last week, I wrote that Obama’s extreme caution in Syria might come from over-learning the lesson of American limits. Pundits can over-learn lessons, too. Peter Beinart, an all-in supporter of the war in Iraq, repented of his folly by writing The Icarus Syndrome, a book that made the idealistic tradition in American foreign policy sound so reckless that he was rebuked in the New York Times Book Review by, of all people, the arch-realist Leslie Gelb. Yes, idealism can breed "hubris"; but it’s hard to accomplish fine things without unreasonable expectations. 

Reviewing my 140-odd columns has given me many opportunities for mortification. I haven’t even mentioned my extremely premature congratulations to ECOWAS, the West African organization, for restoring democracy in Mali in the aftermath of a coup (though, with Mali’s government remaining hapless, the U.N. Security Council has just authorized ECOWAS to oust Islamist rebels from the country’s north). It’s been a salutary exercise; if I was chastened before, I am yet more so now. We are all more or less chastened after a decade of seeking monsters to destroy. So yes, let us practice humility rather than hubris. Let us lower our expectations. But not too far.

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book "John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit."

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