The Lies We Tell Ourselves

Six grand illusions of America's foreign policy.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Life is full of illusions. We all need them to survive: Hard work and honesty really do guarantee success, we tell ourselves; I really am indispensable at work. But illusions seem particularly abundant in politics, policy, and governments’ behavior — where they do more harm than good.

On the domestic side, illusions keep turning up like weeds in a flower garden. Hardcore Democrats and Republicans believe that their respective parties have all the answers to what ails America, Tea Partiers yearn to recreate an America that is no longer practical or possible, GOP ideologues hype a fiscal fix that can somehow avoid both tax increases and entitlement reform, and Barack Obama’s supporters and detractors respectively think he’s either one of the greatest American presidents or the latest manifestation of Satan’s finger on Earth.

Idealized conceptions of reality have long characterized American foreign policy, too. Here is a collection of my favorites, which have marked Democratic and Republican administrations alike.

"American foreign policy must be principled and consistent."

It’s not and rarely is. We have upheld our principles in the past, and we will do so again in the future. But the world is just too complicated, the need for flexibility is too imperative, and American interests are too diverse ever to imagine doing so all the time. Even consistently supporting a set of general principles — freedom and democracy, say — is a bridge too far. We support an Arab Spring in Egypt (at least in the beginning), but not in strategically located countries like Bahrain; we intervene in Libya and overthrow the evil Muammar al-Qaddafi, but won’t intervene in Syria to get rid of the equally evil Bashar al-Assad. We can talk to jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan who have the blood of Americans on their hands — but we’d never consider engaging with Hamas or Hezbollah.

Contradictions and hypocrisy are part of the job description of every great power — and many smaller ones too. We can try to iron out the bumps, but holding out hope for consistency and principle? Give me a break. I’d be happy if every Democratic and Republican administration would mean what they say, say what they mean, and think carefully about the consequences of America’s actions before they acted.

"The key question for U.S. action is: ‘Can we do it?’"

There are bigger questions to ask. Too many times we act because we can, without thinking through the consequences or the objectives of what we’re doing. We embark on massive nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and try to make peace between the Israelis and Palestinians. Because hey, why not? We’re America, and we need to fix things.

But capacity is hardly the only variable, particularly when military force is involved. There are at least three other central questions that need to be debated before we launch ourselves into any endeavor — political or military. What are we doing it for? Should we be doing it? And what will it cost?

These questions are the holy trinity of foreign policy. Answering them won’t guarantee success, but we have a better chance of reducing the odds of failure if we ask them. For a country now emerging from its two longest — and arguably among its most profitless — wars, they are now more imperative than ever.

"Trying and failing is better than not trying at all."

Not necessarily. The notion — to quote both former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State John Kerry — that there’s nothing wrong with being caught trying really is in need of some serious work. The old college try is precisely that — it’s appropriate for the Michigan Wolverines (Go Blue), but it’s not a substitute for the foreign policy of the world’s greatest power.

Failure has costs. So does inaction, to be sure. The two have to be constantly weighed against one another, and a balance has to be found. There is no way to guarantee success — but if you’re basing your approach on a wing and a prayer (see: the Iraq war, the 2000 Camp David peace summit, the Geneva peace talks on Syria), you’re headed for trouble. Even the Camp David and Geneva talks might have been OK if we had some sort of plan B. But we didn’t, and left the kind of vacuum that leads folks to believe (correctly) that we don’t know what we’re doing.

"Domestic politics and foreign policy should never mix."

Sure they do, and they must. Diplomats are generally purists on this subject: They hate domestic politics, and many also can’t stand Congress. They view politics as a dirty affair compromising the nation’s true interests, which only the foreign-policy elite can understand.

This is ridiculous. Domestic politics matters even in authoritarian societies — who are we kidding to think it doesn’t matter in a democracy, particular one in which power is diffused? In a democracy, a sustainable foreign policy depends on a sustainable domestic consensus. And that consensus is in turn shaped by many factors in our system — public opinion, interest groups, lobbies, and the media.

It’s a competition, really — and it’s in the very nature of our system. Get over it. Whining about domestic lobbies (see: AIPAC) makes little sense, as does blasting presidents when they turn to domestic politics because they have other priorities other than Middle East peace. Indeed, strong and willful presidents pursuing smart policies can hold their own — even trump domestic pressures.

"It’s the 21st century: Doesn’t the rest of the world get it?"

No they don’t. And it’s perfectly understandable why. When Kerry talks about Russian President Vladimir Putin behaving in a 21st century world as if he were still living in the 19th century, I wonder if we really get it. America may not pay attention to history and geography, but other nations are bound by them.

9/11 notwithstanding, we are detached from the cruelties of the world in a way no other great power has ever been. We may ascribe to the notion that all countries have a stake in one another’s success in this newly globalized world, and that concerns over political identity, survival, national honor, and dignity are relics of some long-forgotten world when dinosaurs walked the Earth. But just ask the Iranians, the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Israelis, the Turks, or the Chinese whether they’ve gotten over the past and feel as secure and upbeat as we do in this supposedly reformed world.

I think the world is actually getting better and that the present has been informed positively by the lessons of history. But that doesn’t mean the transition is complete or that the past doesn’t cast a long shadow over the behavior of other nations or leaders.

"American exceptionalism is dead."

No it’s not. It’s just not for export. Travellers to the United States in the 19th century, from  Alexis de Tocqueville to Lord Bryce, reported the obvious: America was different from Europe. It is unique, really — and that’s still true today.

Three elements define American exceptionalism: The detachment and physical security that two oceans and weak neighbors provide, our physical size and abundance of resources, and a political system based on the idea that individuals really do matter and that they can advance by virtue of their merit. No other democracy in the world today could have elected a man of color and made him the most powerful leader in the world. The Brits couldn’t elect a man of color to lead them; nor could the French, the Australians, or the Israelis.

None of this makes us morally superior, nor the keepers of g
ood governance. But it can position us well to be a force for good in the world. What we need to understand is that our exceptionalism is idiosyncratic: It cannot be shipped abroad as a model for others to follow. We get ourselves into trouble when we lecture the rest of the world about how they should try to be like us and follow what has worked for us. The best we can do is to use our power to help create an environment in which countries are free to make their own choices consistent with their values, history, and geography. And as we now see with Ukraine and Syria, that’s easier said than done.

* * *

I’m under no illusion that we’re going to give up our illusions anytime soon. Most of these flow from the most basic of conditions — who we are, or at least who we think we are, and our own conception of America. These kinds of things don’t change easily, or sometimes at all. We’re preternaturally optimistic, hypocritically principled, convinced we’re morally superior, incredibly judgmental, and at times quite pragmatic. This mix can make us insufferable, endearing — and quite influential, too. Indeed, when we articulate a clear foreign-policy objective, get the means and ends right, are risk-ready, and don’t allow our aims to exceed our capacity, we can actually accomplish quite a bit (see: Jimmy Carter’s mediation for an Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, or Bush 41’s Iraq war).

But who are we kidding? Those are the exceptions not the rule. Most of the time, we’re flapping around and just trying to get by — caught up in a world that’s largely beyond our capacity to control. We may wish it weren’t so, but I think many of us are secretly relieved that our days of trying to save the world are over — at least for a while.

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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