Reality Check

Are Domestic Politics Evil?

What really happens when the national interest meets the water's edge.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

I haven’t done a statistical survey, but I bet if you polled 100 U.S. diplomats, foreign-policy analysts, and academics in Washington, 99 of them would be contemptuous and hostile toward mixing domestic politics and foreign policy.

The first is seen as hot, sordid, irrational, and, more often than not, unworthy.

The second is thought to be cool, principled, logical — an endeavor of the highest order.

One is the domain of hacks and scoundrels. The other is the purview of skilled practitioners and dedicated professionals.

Having worked in the government trenches for a good many years, I understand the foreign-policy community’s frustration and the exasperation with domestic politics.

You feel strongly about an issue — say, Israeli-Palestinian peace or whether the United States should intervene in Syria. You think U.S. interests are being harmed, and your conclusion is that U.S. policy on both must be forceful — driven by principles not politics. And those who want to behave otherwise — lobbies, craven politicians, even presidents — are cowards, knaves, or, even worse, leaders from behind.

I get all that. What I can’t abide is the hostility, moral indignation, disrespect for the system, and tendency to demonize domestic politics that often accompany the rants of these priests of the foreign-policy temple.

Are domestic politics evil? Are those who play the game self-interested political hacks devoid of principle? Absolutely not. Domestic politics — the lifeblood of the republic — are necessary and inevitable, if at times inconvenient. And here’s why.

According to the purists, there exists in the universe something called the National Interest (you can actually hear the capital letters when they speak). And determining what that is must be based almost exclusively on what is good for American national security and foreign-policy interests untainted and unsullied by domestic matters and other non-foreign policy priorities. It’s above politics. And like mixing matter and anti-matter in a Star Trek episode, when politics and foreign policy intermingle, disaster follows. They simply shouldn’t be allowed to occupy the same space in the universe.

Indeed, the National Interest is simply too important to be left to the politicians, the lobbies, or for that matter the public, none of which care enough or know enough to make the right decisions.

Instead, it should be entrusted to the Department of State or ex-members of the national security community, who are foreign-policy experts and know what’s best for America, or to the president, who is supposed to make the tough and hopefully right calls. Presumably, those decisions will be based on what’s best for the National Interest, regardless of the pull of domestic politics, Congress, and public opinion.

That the system doesn’t always work that way is something of a shocker to the purist crowd. But I’m not sure why it should be. No leader in the world — democratic or authoritarian — makes foreign policy without taking domestic politics into account; indeed, leaders are often driven by politics.

Sure, Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to use the Edward Snowden affair to stick it to America. But he also wants to exploit the National Security Agency’s connection to the big Internet and social media corporations to delegitimize his own domestic opponents’ reliance on that same social media.

Yet somehow the United States — where no foreign policy survives without a sustainable domestic consensus — is supposed to make its foreign policy in a vacuum?

Sure settlements are bad. They humiliate Palestinians and prejudge the outcome of a final deal. But is Barack Obama supposed to go to war with Benjamin Netanyahu over them without reference to his other domestic priorities or the upcoming 2014 midterm elections because it’s the right thing to do or because it will make the Arabs happy? If a fight would produce an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, maybe. But that’s just not going to happen.

And, yes, Syria is a tragedy that harms U.S. interests. But should the president leap into a civil war regardless of the public’s wariness of foreign interventions in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan and the uncertainties that accompany a U.S. military role? The president is thinking first about the middle class, not the Middle East, and he has every reason to.

Good luck in trying to separate the so-called national interest from the president’s own priorities. What’s good for the United States is often seamlessly mixed together with what’s good for a president, including his own priorities and inclinations, competing domestic policy choices, election realities, and international constraints that bear on the foreign-policy matter at hand.

Disrespecting the system

The U.S. system is far from perfect. The Founders feared special interests, and the marriage of media, money, and lobbies has had a corrupting influence on American politics. But as political scientist Edward Corwin observed, the U.S. system, for better or worse, is an open invitation to struggle — not just among the three branches of government but among lobbies, public interest groups, and the government too.

Organize, compete, and take your best shot. That’s the American way. But don’t whine and complain about it. And don’t think that you’re somehow entitled to have your way in the foreign-policy arena just because.

Exasperated, a very senior State Department official once exploded: Congress doesn’t know shit from Shinola about U.S. foreign policy. That might be true. But the notion that the State Department has all the answers is ludicrous too. I no more want the executive branch having an entirely free hand in foreign policy than I’d like to see Congress do it.

And nothing offends me more than those who don’t understand the screwed-up system disrespecting it. A very influential Saudi once told me that in his view, Congress was the Little Knesset; and more European and Arab diplomats than I care to count just assume that the White House is Israeli-occupied territory. The Arabs only wish the pro-Arab community in America were as influential as the pro-Israeli one.

And in a hot argument about Syria the other day, a former State Department official pronounced that he didn’t give a damn what the American people wanted; the president needed to lead and intervene militarily. So let me get this straight: What the public wants or doesn’t shouldn’t matter? Really? I dare say that had there been a draft in the United States in 2003, it might not have invaded Iraq — and it certainly wouldn’t have stayed for a decade.

The president’s voice is the most important one on foreign policy, both as a practical matter and as a consequence of the powers laid out in the U.S. Constitution. But he doesn’t and shouldn’t have a free hand. In America’s democratic polity, he presides over a cacophonous, competitive system in which various elements fight to make their case or constrain his.

And politics — both those that pertain to the election of presidents and to their other domestic priorities — aren’t some evil conspiracy hatched in a dark room. They are the natural, inevitable currency in which business is done in both domestic and foreign policy.

Smart presidents who are skillful, willful, and lucky, particularly when it comes to the Middle East, can find a way to get stuff done, overcome domestic lobbies, manage their domestic politics, and further the national interest in the process (see Richard Nixon and Bush 41). Others aren’t so lucky because they screw up either their foreign policy (Bush 43) or their politics (Jimmy Carter). Obama is getting hammered by the liberal interventionists and the conservative hawks because of his risk-aversion in the Middle East. But he’s betting that a second-term domestic legacy — immigration reform, economic recovery, action on climate change, maybe another run at gun control — is more in step with what Americans want than risky wagers abroad.

But, like Newton’s law of universal gravitation, no president escapes the political rules that govern the American system. Domestic politics are as old, inevitable, and American as apple pie or ice cream melting on a hot Fourth of July. What goes up must come down. And sometimes, the best an American president can do is to make sure the apple doesn’t hit him on the head.

Aaron David Miller, a distinguished fellow at the Wilson Center, served as a State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in Republican and Democratic administrations. He is the author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Twitter: @aarondmiller2

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