How to Craft a Better US Foreign Policy
Part I. Understanding the Illusion of Control: The Escalation/De-Escalation disaster we are seeing now.
Note—once again I went into a little more detail on a subject than I was expecting—though would love to hear what you think of this. I started this post aiming to write a two part series motivated by the fact that that US foreign/strategic policy since 2000 is arguably the worst in US history. This is a general criticism of both parties—which have squandered the period of US dominance, when the US could have played a very important role in shaping the world more effectively and positively. Instead, the US has wasted this rare historic opportunity, and now the period of US dominance is ending (and it is). So this essay was going to cover why US foreign/strategic policy was so catastrophic overall during the last 23 years, and then next week I was going to cover what I think should motivate US policy going forward. However, being the wordy and nerdy sod that I am, as I started writing about one element of why US policy was so flawed (the overestimation of what the US can achieve with its power) I ended up writing so much that this one point filled the whole post. Basically the failure of the present administration to understand issues like escalation/de-escalation, have caused chaos in both Ukraine and the Middle East. Anyway, hope you find it interesting..
One of the benefits of being a historian of foreign and security policy, as opposed to say a theorist, is that you become more and more aware over time of the profound weaknesses, inconsistencies and (though I apologize for the colorful language) bullshit in the way policy is both made and implemented. From a distance foreign/strategic policy often seems to be crafted by wise, educated people (we are always told how wise and educated they are) who have clear visions of the goals that they want to achieve and try to marshal national resources coherently accordingly. Thet can differ in ideas, but they are usually seen, as the leaders were at the Paris Peace, as representing different outlooks which are rational (at least in an internal logic)
Its a comforting idea, but it is a myth. The more you look deeply into the making of foreign policy, even for the most powerful superpower, the more chaotic, erratic and downright amateurish it can be.
Now, some of you might guess partly from where this is motivated. The US National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, recently published a piece in Foreign Affairs that was so flawed that it had to be re-written as soon as the ink has dried.1 The original section of the article about the Middle East was so wrong-headed and contained claims about the region and how US policy was acting within in, that were shown to be disastrously mistaken. Basically Sullivan was claiming how US policy under Biden (which was supposedly disciplined and well thought out) was intentionally (no accident) helping de-escalate tensions in the region. Here are the parts that stand out.
With respect to the Middle East more generally, the president inherited a region that was highly pressurized. The war in Yemen was escalating, and U.S. troops were under regular attack in Iraq and Syria. In September 2020, two months before the U.S. presidential election, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatened to shut down the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, having already shuttered the U.S. consulate in Basra. Shortly thereafter, the embassy suffered the largest rocket attack on the capital’s Green Zone in over a decade. Such attacks, at least for now, have largely stopped. In October, the war in Yemen, a driver of regional instability and immense human suffering, marked its 18th month of a truce, thanks to persistent and principled U.S. diplomacy. Indeed, although the Middle East remains beset with perennial challenges, the region is quieter than it has been for decades.
The progress is fragile, to be sure. But it is also not an accident. At a meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, last year, the president set forth his policy for the Middle East in an address to the leaders of members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Iraq, and Jordan. His approach returns discipline to U.S. policy. It emphasizes deterring aggression, de-escalating conflicts, and integrating the region through joint infrastructure projects and new partnerships, including between Israel and its Arab neighbors. And it is bearing fruit. At the G-20 summit in September, for example, the president announced a groundbreaking effort to create a new economic corridor that connects India to Europe through the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. New partnerships such as this can help make the region a place of connection rather than chaos.
This disciplined approach frees up resources for other global priorities, reduces the risk of new Middle Eastern conflicts, and ensures that U.S. interests are protected on a far more sustainable basis. Challenges remain. The Israeli-Palestinian situation is tense, particularly in the West Bank, but in the face of serious frictions, we have de-escalated crises in Gaza and restored direct diplomacy between the parties after years of its absence.
“we have de-escalated crises in Gaza…”
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