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The unmaking of U.S. foreign policy


Who really cares about foreign policy? In Washington, whatever happens in Iraq is treated as secondary to the outcome of the elections in November. Or so I've just said.

Save the word "Iraq," there is nothing new about this lament. In 1984, veteran Democratic foreign policy hands I.M. (Mac) Destler, Leslie Gelb, and Anthony Lake surveyed two decades' worth of policy wreckage in a book they pungently titled Our Own Worst Enemy: The Unmaking of American Foreign Policy. Its continuing relevance almost seems to demand a revised and updated edition.

The three wrote, in the book's introduction:

...The political bodies of Presidents and Secretaries of State are strewn all over the place. Ronald Reagan's four immediate predecessors all were felled, and foreign policy played a major role. Each, save Richard M. Nixon in 1972, faced a serious renomination challenge in the primaries, and each challenge exposed deep ideological cleavages on foreign affairs. And at Cabinet level and below, the foreign-policy stage has come to resemble the final gory scene of Hamlet, played in gray flannel and pinstripes.

Why do we act this way? The heart of the problem, it seems to us, is this:

For two decades, the making of American foreign policy has been growing far more political--or more precisely, far more partisan and ideological. The White House has succumbed, as former Secretary of State Alexander Haig recently put it, to "the impulse to view the presidency as a public relations opportunity and to regard Government as a campaign for reelection." And in less exalted locations, we Americans--politicians and experts alike--have been spending more time, energy and passion in fighting ourselves than we have in trying, as a nation, to understand and deal with a rapidly changing world.
Reprising his "attack dog" role on behalf of Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfeld, Newt Gingrich rips into Secretary of State Colin Powell. Democratic foreign policy experts advising different presidential candidates shout at each other in the halls of the Brookings Institution. Administration figures, Team Bush political operators, and right-wing ideologues impugn the patriotism of the Democrats. Their Democratic counterparts and far-right rivals slander some of the latter as tools of a foreign power. The end of the Cold War has done nothing to temper the passions that drive the "unmaking" of our foreign policy. Iraq is merely the latest stop on this voyage to nowhere fast.

The particular tragedy of our times is how unnecessary it seems to continue the old savagery. Much of the continuity (indeed, recrudescence) of the old attitudes can be attributed to continuity of personnel. The President himself nurses a variety of grudges against the "other side," many dating back well before his father's Presidency, and seems determined to suppress all independent thinking on foreign policy, for fear it might serve the interests of his adversaries, real or presumed. This "my way or the highway" attitude has a way of filtering down all the way to the bottom of policy circles. (Why do you think this blog is written anonymously?)

Senior appointees also bear the scars of old battles. The previous President Bush, after losing his re-election campaign in 1992, struck an uncharacteristic last blow in the name of partisanship by pardoning the Iran-contra convicts, claiming that Democrats (and, apparently, federal juries) had criminalized legitimate political differences. The current President Bush implicitly endorsed this view by appointing two of the same individuals, John Poindexter and Elliott Abrams, to important government posts. Even the Republican co-chair of the presidentially appointed Iraq intelligence panel, Lawrence Silverman, was tied to the scandal.

Destler, Lake, and Gelb conclude,

Most of all, it is not in the interest of our future Presidents to continue transforming so much of their foreign policy into the world of domestic politics. In the end, every last one of them in the last twenty years has been damaged by the reality and the perception that they were using foreign policy for their own partisan purposes. Only Presidents can lead foreign-policy making. Only they can get issues resolved in ways that endure in the bureaucracy and in the Congress. But they can do this only if they restore the conviction that in matters of foreign policy, they can set aside partisan politics and really represent the national interest. They, together with other American leaders, must return to responsibility. Otherwise, we will continue to be, as we face the world, our own worst enemy.
Wiser words were rarely written. But they won't be heeded by the likes of George W. Bush.


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by Analyst @ 08:17 PM CST [Link]


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Replies: 2 comments

I don't see the basis for the claims you cite by Destler and Gelb, though I can see where infighting has helped bollox up the Iraq fiasco.

Foreign policy - in the USA as in Great Britain and elsewhere, has ALWAYS been modulated by the exigenicies of politics. It makes sense. If you don't get elected, you can't have a foreign policy. Lincoln's main goal in 1864 was "four more years." Roosevelt would not do anything about concentration camps because he was afraid of losing the elections on the "Jewish War" issue. And how long did the USA delay going to war in 1940 and 1941 because of lowly domestic policy? Remember dear old Wilson and the League of Nations? He tried to ignore domestic politics. A fat lot of good that did.

As for the Presidents not elected because of Foreign Policy failure...

Jimmy Carter's foreign policy didn't fail because it was subservient to domestic policy. It failed because Carter has never understood that the world is much more complicated than Georgia, and that Iranian Ayatollahs are really not the same as Southern Baptists.

Gerald Ford didn't get re-elected not because his foreign policy failed, but because his remarks about foreign policy indicated that he hadn't the foggiest idea what was going on in Eastern Europe.

The making of foreign policy has always been characterized by the sort of bitter infighting that the authors described - between Democrats and Republicans, and between the "striped pants boys" in the State Department and the Executive Branch. Their have always been casualties and fur flying, except perhaps during those administrations where there was a weak executive and no foreign policy challenges: Eisenhower, Coolidge and Harding were ideal Presidents from the standpoint of Destler, Lake, and Gelb. If you don't do much, you don't make many mistakes, unless you call ignoring the rise of Fascism in Italy and failing to help the Hungarian revolution (after inciting it) in 1956 mistakes,

In parting, it is noteworthy that the book in question was written in 1984, while the USA was preparing the greatest foreign policy coup (or biggest piece of dumb luck, or both) of its history - the demise of the USSR.


Posted by Moderator @ 02/22/2004 10:10 PM CST

It is better to have struggles within an administration than to have policy made by people with only one view. Not unlike the values of a balancing of power.

Posted by Susan Freiman @ 02/26/2004 11:13 AM CST

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