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Critiquing America’s Brain-Dead Foreign Policy 'Debate'


Stephen Walt

Yesterday, Harvard’s Steve Walt posted an amusingly sharp piece on what’s wrong with America’s so-called foreign policy “debate.”  Steve’s piece, titled “Take 2 Ambien and Call Me When It’s Over:  I’d Rather Spoon My Own Eye Out Than Sit Through This Year’s Think-Tank-a-Palooza,” see here, appears on his blog at Foreign Policy; we also highlight key excerpts below. 

The piece includes a nice reference to us; more importantly, it aptly encapsulates the brain-dead quality of most mainstream discussion in the United States about America’s role in and engagement with the wider world and dares to suggest what a more serious discussion would look like.

Steve opens by noting the widespread and mounting dissatisfaction with U.S. foreign policy:
“Nobody seems to be happy with U.S. foreign policy these days.  It’s not hard to see why.  Relations with Russia are frosty and could get worse.  China is throwing sharp elbows and looking for opportunities to shift the status quo in Asia.  The NSA is out of control.  Afghanistan and Iraq were failures.  Libya is a mess, Syria is worse, and Secretary of State John Kerry’s quixotic effort at Middle East peacemaking was a farce.  Al Qaeda keeps spreading and morphing no matter how many leaders our drones and Special Forces kill.  With criticism mounting, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his basic approach at West Point and hardly anyone came away feeling any better.  And now we are having a pointless squabble over repatriated POW Bowe Bergdahl.

With nearly everyone—from Afghanistan War veterans to former envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to former Ambassador Robert Ford to MoveOn.org—upset about how things are going, it’s time for our premier foreign-policy institutions to step up with some outside-the-box thinking on how the United States could do better.  Surely well-informed experts can offer fresh thinking on how the United States can deal with a world that seems to spin more out of control each month.”
But, of course, that’s not what America’s premier foreign-policy institutions do—at least not deliberately.  On this point, Steve reviews the programs for three annual conferences “on the state of the world and America’s role in it,” convened by three prominent think tanks—the Council on Foreign Relations, the Center for a New American Security, and the “once-iconoclastic” New America Foundation. 

And after reviewing the three conference programs, Steve writes:
...my first impulse is to yawn.  Instead of a diverse array of speakers offering fresh ideas, or a clash of divergent world-views and policy prescriptions, the programs for all these events are heavily populated by the usual suspects:  prominent foreign-policy practitioners, policy wonks, and public figures whose views are already familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention to the travails of U.S. foreign policy.
[Note—representative speakers at the conferences include John MCCain, featured speakers at the conferences include John McCain, Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright, Nick Burns, Robert Zoellick, Steve Hadley, and Dennis Ross.]

Steve acknowledges that “it’s easy to understand why conference organizers stick with familiar faces.”  Nevertheless, he writes, “given the widespread dissatisfaction with the state of U.S. foreign policy, is this really the best we can do?  Wouldn’t it be more interesting, and more importantly, moreuseful for these organizations to cast the net more widely, and include people whose ideas on foreign policy were serious, well-informed, yet outside the current consensus?”

Steve follows up this challenge with some concrete suggestions for participants at conferences on American foreign policy that aimed to be truly useful:
How about inviting a serious critic of American over-commitment to speak at one of these internationalist gatherings?  What about Andrew Bacevich from Boston University or Barry Posen from MIT?  Both have impeccable credentials and Posen has a new book out on U.S. grand strategy that deserves wide exposure.  If you wanted to generate some interest and edify the audience, put Posen on a panel with Robert Kagan, who recently defended the neoconservatives’ failed approach to U.S. grand strategy in The New Republic and let them debate the issue of U.S. military engagement at length.  Ohio State Professor John Mueller has written some terrific books and articles challenging the alarmist tendencies in the U.S. foreign policy establishment, and he’s an entertaining speaker as well.  If you’re looking for a different perspective on terrorism, for example, send him an invitation.

Similarly, it’s hard to think of anyone who has had more impact on debates about U.S. national security policy in the past year than Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald, or Laura Poitras.  Even if you disagree completely with their views, all three have shown themselves to be knowledgeable and thoughtful critics of our overly energetic surveillance regime.  So where’s the panel discussion on secrecy and national security policy, pitting Greenwald against a representative from the intelligence community like Michael Hayden, Mike Morell, or Paul Pillar…

Instead of playing it safe, I wish organizations like these had the imagination and courage to be bold.  By all means keep some of the current insiders, but bring in Rashid Khalidi and Chas Freeman on the Middle East, Flynt and Hillary Leverett on U.S. policy toward Iran and Syria, Stephen Cohen on Ukraine, and Robert Kaplan and Australian Hugh White on Sino-American relations.  I’m not saying that these people are necessarily right; my point is that an audience interested in being challenged and educated should hear a wider range of views than they typically get at these meetings.  Pair them up with other people who are inclined to challenge the conventional wisdom and let a hundred flowers bloom; the resulting exchanges would edify the audience and the speakers might even learn something from each other.

If American foreign policy were going swimmingly, it would be easy to shrug off my proposal and say ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.’  But that’s hardly the case:  we’ve had twenty-plus years of foreign policy fiascoes, yet we continue to turn to the architects and supporters of these failures for advice on what to do next.  This makes no sense; we need to rethink how we do business.

One of the strengths of U.S. democracy is supposed to be its openness to fresh ideas, and to arguments that challenge deeply embedded beliefs…Since the end of the Cold War, however, establishment thinking about foreign policy has been defined by an alliance of liberal hawks and even more hawkish neoconservatives, with disappointing results for sure.  There’s no time like the present for a more wide-open discussion.
We couldn’t agree more with Steve’s assessment of the urgent need for “more wide-open discussion.”  We tend to think that a significant and growing part of the American public is ready for it.  Unfortunately, it seems that America’s political class is lagging well behind the curve.

Reprinted with permission from Going to Tehran.
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