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For some, the thought of having a foreign policy that is not centered on military intervention or projection of power is seen as a foreign policy that is not serious about securing US interests abroad. The most recent event that is looked to as an example of this sentiment is the current kabuki dance with Iran over its nuclear program. The thought of not standing up to and confronting the Islamist regime in Tehran is seen as a dangerous pose taken by those who are not interested in US security. Not favoring sanctions on Iran, as opposed to seeing where negotiations with them will lead, is seen as fool hearty by people who were, just a few years ago, saying that favoring sanctions on Iran as opposed to some form of force was a “conundrum.” The real conundrum regarding Iran is how being against some form of intervention equates to being for a less secure United States. In broader terms, why do people view foreign policy in zero sum terms?
The answer is, primarily, because many people fail to take into account the full spectrum of events that go into making decisions of state. This spectrum includes everything from military capability to the mood of the population (granted if the state is a liberal democracy such as the US). Taking into account the broad spectrum of what must go into constructing foreign policy is the first step to understanding that it need not be a zero sum game. Striking out on a diplomatic route with a counterpart does not mean that the diplomatic route is the only one that will be taken as long as the counterpart exists. Often, the counterpart will be there for longer than any one administration and, therefore, a different route is likely somewhere in the future. Conversely, the military route does not have to be the only one taken, although, increasingly, it seems to be that is the case on various levels. Understanding and utilizing the strengths and weaknesses of the US at any given time is the key to any competent leader’s understanding of what avenue to take regarding foreign policy.
The current state of the US is not necessarily a rosy one. There are a multitude of adverse conditions being placed on the US that have a direct impact on the efficacy of interventionist foreign policy goals. Going back to the example of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, these conditions have virtually removed the option of military force by the US unless that force is exhibited through a large and powerful coalition. Where would such a coalition come from? Europe, who is just as mired in adverse conditions as the US is? The Middle East, where the largest military outside of Israel happens to be Iran’s? China? Russia? There is no military option for those who seek to deprive Iran of a nuclear program. The adverse conditions facing the US are, in some respects, obvious. Others are not so. First, the obvious ones.
The national debt, which is sitting at nearly 75 percent of GDP according to the CBO, is the most glaring obstacle to an interventionist foreign policy. Intervention requires large sums of money and currently that is something that is not tenable for the US. Just in military terms alone the monetary costs of even small interventions can run into the tens of billions of dollars and an operation against Iran, in order to be effective, will require something much more than limited strikes.
The not-so-obvious condition is lack of will among the people. In free societies, governments cannot just engage in long sustained wars because eventually public opinion turns against the engagement. This is the foundation for the old saying that democracies do not go to war with each other. However, in the 21st century that saying can be expanded to say “democracies do not go to war with anybody for any reason.” Many would say that this is definitely not the case, but consider the current situation of the US in the Middle East. Since 2001, the US has been involved with military engagements in either Afghanistan or Iraq, and the combined casualties from those two wars equals the total number of deaths from Vietnam during approximately the same length of time. And yet the backlash from those two operations have created a massive anti-war mood in the American people, for whatever reason. A poll conducted by CNN on 30 December 2013 shows support for the Afghanistan operation at a mere 17 percent.
This is not to say that going into Afghanistan was not the smart thing to do. It most certainly was. To be more bold, going into Iraq was a smart thing to do as well. But deciding to conduct military operations in those two countries is only part of the story when it comes to the long game of foreign policy. How were these two operations botched if the initial plan was so right? What have these two operations wrought after a total of almost 13 years in the Middle East and abroad? Why did it take so long for Afghanistan’s popularity to diminish to the level of Iraq’s? These are the questions that every leader should keep in mind when deciding affairs of state because they get to the root of the current state of diplomatic decline of the US globally.
The US has turned inward seeking to understand its domestic problems economically and part of the answers conjured up by the people has to do with US intervention in the Middle East. Of the $17 trillion debt that frightens many of us, $4 trillion of it went to the operations in Afghanistan and Iraq and to what end? If Conservatives are going to have any credibility in shrinking the size of the welfare state for wasteful spending, then it will be incumbent upon them to take a closer look at the wasteful spending by the Department of Defense. This was why many Tea Party officials in the House did not really get bothered by the sequester cuts to the DoD. A smarter, realist foreign policy in this new century is going to have to take into account the public mood and its ability to be manipulated by the media, for better or for worse. Smaller footprints in foreign lands will be less enticing for media outlets to dramatize the carnage that accompanies warfare, and thus become less of an issue for the people. Using military actions in a smarter way costs less and generates less backlash from the people. Not to mention, the sheer illustration of how desperate it looks to chase down AK-47 wielding goat herders with tank columns.
Foreign policy is not a zero sum game. The absence of use of force does not necessitate a defeat in terms of global politics. There are a multitude of mechanisms that can be used by a state to accomplish its goals. The refrain from going to the military option first and quickly is a mentality that is needed right now in Washington, if for no other reason than it is just not fiscally reasonable not to. Playing the long game can give the US time to address the much needed restructuring of its finances at home. These other mechanisms are less expensive than military operations and can open up different ways to accomplish strategic goals. It is important, the next time an elected official mentions sanctions or even negotiations, that they are not pilloried as being against US security. Consider the other alternatives. After all, those might actually be the smart decisions for that time.