The Five Myths of American Foreign Policy

The Five Myths of American Foreign Policy

Let us begin by thanking Roger Alford and his colleagues here at Opinio Juris for hosting this conversation about America Between the Wars, as well as Ken Anderson and Matt Waxman, who so kindly agreed to help keep the discussion lively! Since the book was published a month ago we’ve been doing a lot of events and talks, but we really welcome this opportunity to have an in-depth discussion with such a fine group.

Our book tells the story of the struggle to define America’s role in the world between two pivotal dates, which for us serve as bookends to what we describe as the modern interwar years: the day the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989 (or 11/9), and the day of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which will forever be known as 9/11. In the course of our research for this book, we talked to as many people as we could who had a role in the events of these years – a diverse group from Colin Powell and Newt Gingrich to Madeline Albright and Robert Rubin to Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader – and our narrative very much reflects the insights and stories that we gleaned from these revealing conversations.

In writing about America from 11/9 to 9/11, we tried to do several things. This book is an intellectual history of the debates between liberals and conservatives (and among factions inside both the political right and left) about the world after the Cold War and America’s role in it. It is also diplomatic history, in that it is a narrative of the major events and key turning points in American foreign policy during these years. And finally, and perhaps most importantly for our readers during an election-year summer, it is a political history of how the politics of national security played out during these years, as liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, responded to the end of the Cold War and tried to reshape themselves to face the new global landscape. It is impossible to understand this era without seeing the interweaving of the ideas, events, and politics, which we argue very much shaped the history of the past eight years and continues to shape the foreign policy choices McCain and Obama will argue about in the months ahead.

As a way to get things rolling, and hopefully to provoke some debate, we’d like to offer five myths that we believe our story shatters.

Myth 1: When it comes to America’s role in the world, 9/11 changed everything.

Reality: Describing the events of 9/11, President Bush asserted, “All of this was brought upon us in a single day, and night fell on a different world.” With these words, he reinforced a general perception that global politics had changed irrevocably on September 11, 2001. It was a day we will always remember and honor, but the president was articulating an emotional truth – not an analytical one. Just as history did not end in 1989, it did not begin on 9/11.

The tragedy of 9/11 and its aftermath had its origins twelve years earlier, when the world shifted in ways that were incomprehensible at the time. On 11/9 the Berlin Wall fell, and the Cold War was effectively over. That year, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, and the former superpower battleground was left unattended until Bill Clinton bombed Al Qaeda training camps there in August 1998 in retaliation for the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. As we show in the book, by 1998, the Clinton administration believed it was “at war” with Osama bin Laden and his followers, and Clinton told George W. Bush after the 2000 election was decided, “One of the great regrets of my presidency is that I didn’t get him [bin Laden] for you, because I tried.” Of course, conservatives at the time were hardly focused on the threat from Islamic extremism.

But it wasn’t just terrorism. Other national security problems we face today – including failed states and civil wars, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Iran, Iraq, and North Korea – all arose in the years after the collapse of communism.

Myth 2: Our problems began with George W. Bush, and will end when he leaves.

Reality: There is more continuity between Bill Clinton and George W. Bush than partisans on both sides care to admit: Clinton feared Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction and tried to bring about regime change in Iraq. Bush is now pursuing Clinton-type policies on Iran, North Korea and the Middle East Peace Process. Both bypassed the UN to take military action, and both saw America as “indispensable.” There was continuity from George H.W. Bush to Clinton to George W. Bush – and there will be probably be a surprising degree of continuity after January 2009 regardless of who wins.

Myth 3: Democrats are incompetent at protecting America’s national security.

Reality: While that’s been the conventional wisdom conservatives have peddled for decades, especially at election time, we show that by the end of 2001, the charge rang pretty hollow. When Clinton left office, he had used military force in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Balkans, transformed NATO, and brought China into the World Trade Organization. Democrats used to get defensive when Republicans asserted they knew better how to conduct national security, but those days are over. Just look at how Obama is taking the fight to McCain on national security issues.

In fact, the shoe is on the other foot. Republicans are facing their own “best and the brightest” moment. Just as leading national security Democrats were tarnished by Vietnam, so are many leading Republicans today in the wake of the George Bush presidency. When the George W. Bush team came into office in 2001, many in the press and among the foreign policy elite believed that individuals such as Colin Powell, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz represented the “A-team” in American foreign policy after the seeming confusion of the Clinton years. But that was both a misreading of the latter years in the Clinton presidency and unwarranted optimism about the Bush team.

Myth 4: There is a strong Republican consensus about America’s role in the world.

Reality: Since the end of the Cold War nearly 20 years ago, conservatives have been deeply divided about America’s global role. Traditional pragmatists such as George H.W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft hoped that America could lead through institutions like the United Nations. Isolationist Patrick Buchanan ran on the old George McGovern slogan, “Come Home, America” in 1992 and nearly won the New Hampshire primary against a sitting president. Many neo-conservatives believed with the end of the Cold War that America no longer needed a global mission, and the neo-conservative movement appeared dead by the mid-1990s. And on Capitol Hill, the “Contract Republicans” who swept to power in the 1994 elections combined neo-isolationism with strong nationalism and anti-Clintonism to focus their attention on missile defense, the rise of China, and UN bashing.

The aftermath of 9/11 created an illusion that conservatives were unified behind the “war on terror” as they had been against communism during the Cold War. But now we are seeing Republicans splitting into familiar factions, with neoconservatives, traditional realists, and neo-isolationists facing off against one another. This presents huge challenges for John McCain, whether as a candidate or, if he wins, as president.

Myth 5: America needs a simple foreign policy doctrine like “containment.”

Reality: For twenty years people have been trying to come up with a replacement for the Cold War’s “containment” policy. We tell the story of how Clinton himself was obsessed with coming up with a theory of the case, but was ultimately unsuccessful. George W. Bush thought he had found the new defining concept after 9/11 with the “war on terror.”

But that concept has lost its luster – most senior military leaders don like the phrase, and even Colin Powell told us in an interview that the “war on terror” is a “bad phrase…it’s a criminal problem.” So we argue that the quest for defining a simple concept to guide American foreign policy is fruitless, overrated and even dangerous in the complex world of the 21st century. As the book recounts, in 1994, the Clinton team asked 90-year old George Kennan to come down from Princeton so they could get his advice on replacing the doctrine that he had articulated so successfully in 1947. The former diplomat’s sage counsel: “forget about the bumper sticker; try to come up with a thoughtful paragraph or two.”

Well, there’s some food for thought. We look forward to your responses to this or any other aspect of the book. And again, thanks so much for having us here.

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John C. Dehn

I wonder whether “Myth 2” reflects a “continuity” between the two presidents or merely a lack of creativity or flexibility in U.S. policy. I suspect the latter.