BookReviews

Nation building begins at home

A timely realist repudiation of neo-conservatives and liberal hawks

Reviewed by Jacob Heilbrunn

Should America take a breather from foreign conflict? Should it pull up the international relations equivalent of a lawn chair, light up a cigarette, crack open a six-pack, and watch placidly as other nations vie for influence and various ethnicities quarrel with each other? Something like this view has been gathering a smidgen of force in America over the past few years. Now that President Barack Obama has successfully extricated the United States from Iraq and is moving to disentangle it from Afghanistan, sentiment in favour of new intervention among the American public seems to be experiencing a pronounced diminution.

Yet even as mission fatigue has set in among the public, it remains a remarkable fact that the very intellectual elite that championed American entry into Iraq is now condemning Obama for failing to move more vigorously to chasten and even oust Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. As Professor David Bromwich, one of America’s leading intellectuals, incisively noted in the New York Review of Books in an essay titled “Stay Out of Syria!”, a chorus of critics is exhorting Obama to take military action, ranging from former New York Times editor Bill Keller to the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins.

Nor is the lust for military adventure confined to the liberal hawks. The neoconservatives, too, are seeking to avenge the ghosts of Iraq, most prominently Senator John McCain. About McCain, Bromwich says, “It is no satire but simple truth to say that he cannot have enough wars.” To be sure, no one appears to be in favour of “boots on the ground”, but it would be fair to describe the mood among many intellectual backers of Iraq as unrepentant. If one were inclined to speculate, it might even be possible that the neocons see the current upheaval as vindication of their initial claim that an invasion of Iraq would have a domino effect in the Middle East. The only problem, of course, is that the dominoes set in motion may not be democratic but rather Islamist ones. In considering the neoconservative penchant for ordering reality to its own terms, Cicero’s rebuke to Casca in Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar comes forcibly to mind:

Indeed, it is a strange-disposed time;
But men may construe things after their fashion,
Clean from the purpose of the things themselves.

One charter member of the foreign policy establishment, however, who sees thing as they are rather than construing them to his own preconceptions is taking a different line from the liberal hawks and neocons. That fellow is none other than Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. For much of its history the council has been dedicated to the proposition that America needs to become more, not less, involved abroad. Its mandate has, in other words, been internationalist. So it is a tad unusual to find the head of the council declaring that America should become something of a couch potato when it comes to international relations. But that, more or less, is what Haass is saying, combined with the caveat that it should seize the opportunity to puts its much-neglected domestic house in order.

In his important new book Foreign Policy Begins At Home, Haass offers a blueprint for a revitalised America. His most fundamental message is that it is not the outside world that poses the greatest threat to America. On the contrary, it is internal American debility that can fatally sap the sinews of power that have made it the most powerful country in the world since the end of the Second World War. This is not to say that Haass deprecates the challenges posed by Iran, North Korea, or a tumultuous Middle East. But foreign policy consists of making choices. America has failed to choose since the end of the Cold War.

Instead, it has plunged into massive deficits, partly incurred as a consequence of its bloated military budget and seemingly endless conflicts abroad since the September 11 attacks. It has squandered the fiscal surplus it enjoyed when Bill Clinton exited office. It has, above all, laboured under what the political scientist D.W. Brogan, in a memorable essay in Harper’s that should be required for any aspiring American diplomat, called the illusion of omnipotence. Brogan’s point was that Americans, particularly on the right, labour under the fantasy that events abroad could, again and again, be decisively influenced by America. If they go awry, the impulse is to blame domestic traitors rather than acknowledge the limits of American power.

Haass himself has felt the sting of ostracism from the more boisterous elements of the Republican Party. A valued adviser to George H.W. Bush, he belongs firmly in the realist rather than the neocon camp. Once George W. Bush came to power in 2000, however, Haass was not included in the inner circle but shunted off to run the Policy Planning Staff in the State Department. It is a pity that his counsel was not heeded more closely, because he might have helped avoid the Iraq debacle. Instead, Haass went into what was once called in the former Soviet Union a state of internal exile.

It would be an exaggeration to say that Haass’s voice now commands authority in the Republican Party. But the ideas and precepts that he advocates are no longer completely foreign to the GOP. Rather, they are starting to be reconsidered. It was the Republican Party, after all, that for many decades was the home of realism. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and George H.W. Bush were, in one form or another, realists who viewed crusades for democracy abroad with a degree of skepticism. So did their advisers. Henry Kissinger, Alexander Haig, James Baker, Robert McFarlane, and Brent Scowcroft were all advocates of a cautious and pragmatic approach to other countries. Haass fits firmly into that school and he has dedicated his book to Scowcroft, who was his boss during the George H.W. Bush administration, when he served on the National Security Council as a staff member overseeing the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia.

But he does state at the outset of his book that it feels somewhat peculiar to be championing for less foreign policy of “the sort the United States has been conducting and greater emphasis on domestic investment and policy reform. For someone such as me, a card-carrying member of the foreign policy establishment for nearly four decades, this borders on heresy.”

Haass has divided his book into three parts. The first focuses on international relations after the end of the Cold War. The second suggests what America should and should not try to accomplish abroad. The third, and most provocative, part seeks to explain the internal challenges that America should tackle, including the budget, energy, education, infrastructure, and immigration. It also argues that America needs to stimulate economic growth by adopting new strategies and that political reform is the prerequisite to realising the country’s potential.

As Haass observes, American power in the abstract does appear to be almost omnipotent. But the cold, hard truth is that translating military power into an actual preponderance of influence is another matter. The mistake that the Obama administration committed in Afghanistan, Haass writes, was to triple force levels in 2009 and to target not simply al Qaeda but also the Taliban. A war of necessity thereby morphed into a war of choice:

Making matters worse were ambitious goals for building a large military and creating police forces loyal to the Afghan state, objectives that mostly ignored the tradition of a weak central government. What the United States will have to show for more than a decade of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan will be minimal.

Given the rampant corruption in Afghanistan, much of which has been actively promoted by the Karzai government, and the tenacity of the Taliban, it would be difficult to disagree. What Haass emphasises is the perduring importance of culture. America cannot simply expect, willy-nilly, to convert tribal societies into Jeffersonian democracies overnight.

At the same time, Haass voices profound doubts about the ability of Europe to assist America in coming decades abroad. His points are not entirely new, but they serve to underscore that the confidence and self-assurance that the West possessed in previous decades may be ebbing away. Europe, he says, “punches far below its weight in the world as a result of its parochialism, its pronounced antimilitary culture, and the unresolved tensions between the pull of nationalism and the commitment to building a collective union.” This can hardly come as a surprise given the weakness of the European economic recovery.

The real question may be whether the European colossus envisioned by the architects of unity will succumb to the fissiparous tendencies that are manifesting themselves in the rise of strongly nationalistic parties across the continent. There is also the question of whether the United Kingdom, which is supposed to hold a referendum on its ties to the European Union, will maintain or sever them. Haass puts it pithily: “If Europeans were serious about being a unified power, they would trade the British and French United Nations Security Council seats for a European one. This is not about to happen.”

For all his caution, Haass does note that there is room for optimism. The principal reason is that great power conflict, the bane of the previous centuries, appears unlikely (though that is also what many thought on the eve of World War I, as Charles Emmerson points out in his vivacious new book 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War). China and Russia, Haass writes, are preoccupied with their own internal problems. So the moment is ripe for America to embark upon building a greater society, one that reduces its national debt and improves its education system, among other things.

Many of Haass’s suggestions are worthy but unlikely to be implemented. He notes, for example, that the “best and brightest of American society are not making teaching a career.” No, they are not. Why would they? The demands are onerous, the financial rewards slender. Haass proposes raising salaries, but at a moment when Republican governors such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker are intent on destroying the teachers’ unions, this seems a very unlikely prospect. Ditto for Haass’s recommendation of raising the federal gasoline tax, which, he says, “would generate much-needed revenue for highway and bridge repair and expansion, reduce consumption of oil, and result in the release of less carbon into the atmosphere.”

Reform does, however, seem possible in the area of immigration, an area where the GOP is desperate to win over Hispanic voters, though a rear-guard of conservatives continues to resist change, characterising it as a form of amnesty that would sell out the American birthright and reward the flouting of the law. Haass indicates that “the immigration problem could soon be one of too few and not too many people coming from south of the border.” If reform is passed, President Obama will claim victory. If it does not, the political consequences for the GOP could be cataclysmic.

Fittingly, it is with the American political system that Haass ends. He points to a number of well-known ills: the gerrymandering of congressional districts that permits Democrats and Republicans to avoid competitive congressional elections, the massive amounts of shadowy money pouring into presidential elections, and the rise of powerful lobbies and special interests who, he observes, have “far greater influence than do majorities whose commitment is limited and whose views are more nuanced”. Haass observes that a third party may win popularity if the political system remains stymied, and that the electoral college should be abolished and replaced with a purely popular vote for presidential elections. This would reduce the sway of so-called “swing” states which often contain few voters but can tip the balance of an election, prompting candidates to devote attention to them that defies their actual national significance.

Whether Haass’s proposals will have a real effect upon American politics is an open question. But his prescriptions are sensible and cogent and deserve a hearing. In arguing that foreign policy begins at home, Haass is offering a primer that will surely attract more attention in the upcoming Republican presidential primary than it would have in the previous one, when the candidates vied with each other to appear as bellicose as possible. This time around the rise of candidates such as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who sees himself as presidential timber, may lend a different cast to the proceedings. Haass, in other words, is not the only Republican who now believes that foreign policy needs to begin at home.