The Futures of American Foreign Policy

NOTE: An improved version of this piece should appear at on Monday.

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius gets it again. He may not get much, but he is beginning to understand the limits of American state power and the wisdom of its elites. In a piece that verges on the silly in some places, he concludes his Friday essay, “The Politics of Murder,” with the following:

The idea that America is going to save the Arab world from itself is seductive, but it’s wrong. We have watched in Iraq an excruciating demonstration of our inability to stop the killers. We aren’t tough enough for it or smart enough — and in the end it isn’t our problem. The hard work of building a new Middle East will be done by the Arabs, or it won’t happen. What would be unforgivable would be to assume that, in this part of the world, the rule of law is inherently impossible.

As a friend wrote me today, the faster this idea catches on, the sooner the United States government will pull the plug on the Iraq venture and the quicker American soldiers (and Marines, and sailors, and airmen) will be withdrawn.

Even if this idea catches on, the fight is not over. For as much I would like to see an honest conversation about future U.S. foreign policy include isolationism, it won’t. At least not yet. Instead, the conversation will boil down to whether the invasion and occupation of Iraq (and, eventually, Afghanistan) failed because Rumsfeld and the entire Bush administration were incompetant and mismanaged it or because remaking those parts of the Muslim world (or any other part of the world) was never achievable to begin with.

This is not mere hairsplitting. The former question suggests that under the right leadership, the invasion was actually doable, that the goals of democratizing Iraq and Afghanistan through force was not just a good idea, but something force could have actually accomplished if done right. The latter claims exactly what it says — many things could have been accomplished through the use of force, but a substantial remake of Iraqi politics, and thus creating a shining beacon along the Tigris and Euphrates to inspire the entire Islamic world as to the benefits of social democracy was not any of them.

I fully expect some Democrats — especially “serious” ones — and some Republicans to take the first stance, and thus focus on Team Bush’s alleged incompetance. (They are incompetant, but that is mainly because they are stupid and deluded themselves into believing the Middle East could be remade, and remade on the cheap as part of a show of forcel, and not because they are bad managers of war — even though they are that too.) The American policy elite, the New York-Washington think tank axis which centers around the Council on Foreign Relations, will probably take some version of this stance as well. And the reason for this is simple — those who craft the country’s interventionist foreign policy want to save American state power and global influence. They fear a world run by someone other than Americans. Or they fear a world in which the United States is something less than a first-among-equals. They hope that with better management, the international power, prestige and authority held by the United States government to influence or even determine world events will return to what it was in the Clinton and Bush Il Sung regimes, in which Washington led the “global community” but did not quite dictate to it. First-among-equals sums it up, I believe.

But there are some — and maybe Ignatius is one of them — who have concluded, or will eventually conclude, that better management will not return Washington to the status quo ante of 1999, that the loss of power, prestige and influence that has marked the six years of the Bush Jong Il regime is permanent and cannot be regained. They won’t necessarily argue for isolationism, but will, instead, argue for a truer international order. The U.S. will not necessarily be a “first-among-equals” in this system, at least not in all things and not all the time.

This will be the fight, at least for the next few years. Because I believe that hard power is finite, costly and difficult to actually deploy, and is becoming increasingly moreso, I believe the latter argument will eventually prove itself to be the better argument (and better understanding of the world as it actually is). But I suspect few real policy makers will want to embrace a real decline of American power — both hard and soft.

As I understand it, state power, at least at this point in history, works more on the basis of consent and cooperation rather than coerscion. (I actually believe this is a general rule of state power in all times and in all places, and it means that all governments rule with some type of consent from at least some plurality of the people they rule over, including dictatorships and tyrannies — there is an internal legitimacy to nearly all indigenous tyrannies that makes them acceptable. If there is an outcry about this theory, I develop it later in more depth…) Drawing on some of the ideas of William Lind and Martin van Creveld, right now, hard state power is costly to deploy and gets very little in return on the investment. Non-state groups, such as Al-Qaeda, Hizbullah, Hamas, and others, get far more bang for their warmaking buck than do states, and thus are much more effective at it. Every dollar the U.S. spends on warmaking buys less — a lot less — than every dollar a non-state actor spends of warmaking.

Team Bush, however, put all of its faith in hard power — warmaking. It’s the only kind of power movement conservatives and most Republicans either respect or understand (and thus they think it’s the only power anyone else understands too). The problem is, hard power doesn’t work, especially when you are stuck and your opponent cannot be compelled to quit or there is simply no incentive to quit (Israel in the Gaza or southern Lebanon, the U.S. in Iraq). And the Bush Administration’s attachment to hard power is part and parcel of the Conservative kulturkampf, the belief that the specific struggle against bad guys abroad using bombs and sojers is part of a greater cultural struggle against degenerates, liberals, leftists, athiests, Europeans, homosexuals and other non-conformists. Team Bush has lost two struggles — the military struggle for Iraq (and Afghanistan) and the political struggle to lead the world and use force to dictate what its “correct culture” ought to be. Hollywood and Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province are, ridiculously and mysteriously, intertwined.

For all their faults (I don’t like Rockefeller World Empire as articulated by the CFR or any of its minions, affiliates, franchisees and subcontractors), the American policy elite understands , in their guts if no place else, that the Conservative kulturkampf is a no-win proposition because, for the most part, American (and European) values already rule the world. They are triumphant, largely because they are (and have been made to be) so apealling. This is epecially true for the very wealthy and well-connected — the global policy elite, the people who work for and run Rockfeller World Empire — as the places they hang out look that same no matter where in the world they are. M Street in Washington, Tahyliyyah Street in Jeddah (especially toward the Cornische), the Upper East Side of New York City, parts of Amsterdam, Dubai, Mumbai, Tokyo, Rio di Janero, or wherever, all look the same, and are populated by the same people who are at ease managing the world’s global institutions — the IMF, the World Trade Organization, global corporations and so-called non-governmental organizations — and consuming the world’s products. Globalization works, and works very well, for them. It is a world of social democratic values, of managed states, of managed state-capitalist economies, of consmerism with a human and environmental face, it is a world in which one can be at home just about anywhere. And these, not revolutionary Islam or Bolivarianism or whatever, are the values most of the world’s people aspire to.

And this highlights Team Bush’s greatest failure. For not only did it make war on Al-Qaeda, Iraq, the Taliban, and indeed, terrorism wherever it existed, but it more or less made war on the very world community the United States had spent so much time and effort trying to breathe into existence after the Second World War. I would not be surprised if the policy elites, as they consider the efforts they need to make to salvage American power, have concluded that a good internationalist Democrat, a la Al Gore, would be a much better fit given the global effects of alleged American leadership. (What shall I call Hillary Clinton should she be elevated to the presidency?) They let Bush win in 2000 (or rather, they accepted the Bush “victory”) and then supported both the Iraq and Afghanistan operations because they will support anything they see as possibly advancing American power. And I suspect many bought the idea that American hard power would accomplish what many neoconservatives and Republicans believed it would. They were as much invested in it as anyone between Westchester and Alexandria. That it has failed has left them worried (the signs of this worry were clear by the spring of this year) and wondering what will become of them? It isn’t that they’d sell out the United States of America (I’m no nationalist, and don’t really care), but that they would very happily believe that American interests are best served — and American goals most effectively accomplished — by an “international order” that is much more “multilateral” and copperative than the Bush Team’s current disaster.

And while I shed no tears for the “realists” of ages past (who gave us such wonderful and enlightened actions as the 1973 coup in Chile) nor the multi-lateralists of more recent eras (I became a libertarian/anarchist because of the war on Serbia), the wreckage of Bush’s world does spark a perverse and quite unexpected fondness in me for those happier days (sic) of Clintonian “multilaterism.”

The problem is not, however, that some conspiratorial cabal of either CFR men (and gals) on the one hand or a group of deluded and stupid neoconservatives on the other are plotting to hijack the country’s foreign policy. The problem is the very concept of “American national interest” when there clearly is no such thing. No, better, the real problem is the whole existence of foreign policy itself. And as long as people, even well-meaning rightists with isolation in their hearts, argue that the government can somehow articulate a “national interest” abroad, that a government can somehow speak for 300 million people, and then devote resources to furthering that notion, then there will always be something just inviting to be hijacked.