Consider the gambit with Russia. The Washington establishment is united in the view that Iran's nuclear program poses the greatest challenge for the new administration. The only outside power that has any significant leverage over Tehran is Russia, which is building its nuclear reactor and supplying it with uranium. Exploring whether Moscow might press the Iranians would be useful, right?
Wrong. The Post reacted by worrying that Obama might be capitulating to Russian power. His sin was to point out in a letter to the Russian president that if Moscow were to help in blunting the threat of missile attacks from Tehran, the United States would not feel as pressed to position missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic -- logical since those defenses were meant to protect against Iranian missiles. It's also a good trade because right now the technology for an effective missile shield against Iran is, in the words of one expert cited by the Financial
Times's Gideon Rachman, "a system that won't work, against a threat that doesn't exist, paid for with money that we don't have."
The problem with American foreign policy goes beyond George Bush. It includes a Washington establishment that has gotten comfortable with the exercise of American hegemony and treats compromise as treason and negotiations as appeasement. Other countries can have no legitimate interests of their own. The only way to deal with them is by issuing a series of maximalist demands. This is not foreign policy; it's imperial policy. And it isn't likely to work in today's world.
Zakaria gives the Obama administration credit for making an effort to disengage from the excesses of the Bush administration (which essentially bought into the idea of an imperial foreign policy) but I think it's fair to say that what's changed with the election of Obama is not so much our foreign policy goals, but rather the means by which we hope to achieve them. And lately I find myself wondering if that's as much change as we are in need of.
Consider for example Afghanistan. Any long-time reader of this blog knows that we have been calling for a more robust military, diplomatic and humanitarian effort in Afghanistan for years. We have slowly watched the Taliban crawl back into power as both years and lives were wasted in Iraq, but we have now finally arrived at the moment where it appears the focus of our counter-terrorism efforts will be aimed squarely where the greatest danger lies. I would venture to guess that most liberals (indeed most Americans) feel that we should boost our efforts in Afghanistan, sending more troops and making whatever diplomatic overtures are necessary to both allies and enemies alike. But there is also a sustantial minority of liberals who are opposed to a stronger military effort, as they believe such an effort will prove insufficient to counter the Taliban. And who's to say they're wrong? I'm certainly not willing to guarantee that sending more troops and more money to Afghanistan will entirely (or even substantially) defeat the Taliban. The Soviets, who didn't have to travle halfway around the world to supply their troops and were much less squeemish about the damage they inflicted on Afghanistans, met a humiliating defeat. Of course, admitting that a victory of any kind in Afghanistan, even one as limited as some kind of power-sharing arrangement with more "moderate" elements of the Taliban, may be impossible, requires one to ponder some uncomfortable questions about the limits of American power overall. And this is where the core question about the nature of our foreign policy begins to arise.
No one seems to question whether any of our foreign policy goals are appropriate, or even possible to achieve. The only real question seems to be how we should go about achieving them. In the matter of the Iranian nuclear bomb, neither the administration nor the Washington establishment (as Zakaria explains) questions whether we should be making so robust and effort to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. The only issue is how we go about it (how much cooperation should we be willing to secure from Russia, for example.) In the Middle East, few question whether we should be a participant in the Palestinian peace process. The only question seems to be whether we should abandon a long-standing, unquestioning support for Israel's national security policies. In Pakistan, the consensus seems to be forming that it is our job to stave off the collapse of the Pakistani state, so as to prevent the rise of the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies in that state as well as Afghanistan.
The question that so rarely goes asked, in considering all of these issues, is whether we have the power to actually achieve any of these goals. If Iran wants the bomb, can we really stop them, even if we were to engage in the use of force in an attempt to do so? If Hamas and Israel refuse to be coaxed to the table to negotiate a permanent solution to their conflict, do we have the power to coerce them? If the Pakistani government collapses, and Pakistan devolves into various warring militias, do we have the power to make the country whole again?
You can see what I'm getting at here. Foreign policy goals are useful, but has it come time to consider whether our goals are within our power to achieve? I'll admit that I've been chewing this question over ever since I read Edward Luttwak's column in Harper's arguing for disengagement from the Middle East. Luttwak's argument has made me quite aware that it is intellectually insupportable to indulge in arguments about what we ought to be doing, without considering what we're capable of doing.
Don't get me wrong. Whatever alternative to our present foreign policy I'm imagining, it's not a return to isolationism. It's simply that an argument can be made that we're trying to do too much, with too little, and that we must alter our goals and our expectations accordingly.
But what got me started in this vein, goes back to what Zakaria has to say about the Washington establishment. Surely we can blame them for their eager embrace of an arrogant foreign policy, but it seems to me that the rest of us are also all too willing to accept the conventional wisdom about our foreign policy goals, and that the only thing we deride the Washington establishment for is a difference in tactics. Is it time yet for all of us to do some reconsidering about our nation's place in the world, and what we are capable of? One would think that our misadventure in Iraq would have taught us not only humility, but the actual limits of power. It seems though that we were rescued from our own foolishness by some measure of luck and resolve on the part of our military, and I find myself wondering if we'll be learning in Afghanistan the hard lessons we've thus far deferred.
UPDATE: Now, this is what I'm talking about:
The American people now have a new president who seems to have grasped the seriousness of the financial crisis, but the purpose of his foreign policy is still in doubt. The new uncertain administration seems still to live in the fantasy world of 1945 to 1973, when Americans had rising expectations and American industrial prosperity probably peaked. Today most Americans must live in a world of lowered expectations.
The immediate need of the Obama administration is to drop the ideology of the "war on terrorism." The future task of the Obama team is not only to withdraw American troops from Iraq, but also from Afghanistan. Mostly through cooperation with EU's major powers the US can maintain a few sea bases around the greater Middle East region. The nation cannot afford to use its military machine to maintain "the land of rising expectations" and “the American way of life” that Franklin Roosevelt had bequeathed to the American people by the victories of 1945.
Don't cheat though. Read the whole thing to see how historian Dr. Richard Whealey arrives at this conclusion.