The End of the Illusion: America Finally Learns Its Limits

As America pulls back from Afghanistan, new books argue for humility and restraint in our foreign policy. By Jacob Heilbrunn.

One of the most famous essays ever penned about American foreign policy is the British political scientist D.W. Brogan’s “The Illusion of Omnipotence.” It appeared in 1953 in Harper’s. Brogan’s thesis was that Americans, particularly on the right, clung to conspiracy theories to explain setbacks abroad, whether it was the rise of communist power in Asia or the Soviet Union’s explosion of an atomic bomb. He defined it as “the illusion that any situation which distresses or endangers the United States can only exist because some Americans have been fools or knaves.” How much easier to ascribe the prowess of foreign adversaries to traitors at home rather than to accept that American power is, more or less, limited.

Yet as President Obama is the most recent Democratic leader to discover, the flap over Benghazi is the latest illustration of the extent to which the GOP has become habituated to descrying knavery in the highest councils of government. Rather than soberly analyzing what went wrong in Benghazi, a flurry of Republicans, starting with then–presidential candidate Mitt Romney, acted as though a new Yalta had taken place in the Obama administration, with a contemporary Alger Hiss presumably lurking in the State Department or National Security Council. Despite the GOP’s reflexive denunciations of Obama as an appeaser, however, he has steered a moderate course and successfully sought to reorient American foreign policy away from the braggadocio—the manifest illusions, to use Brogan’s term—of the Bush years.

Now comes Richard Haass to urge American to take it one step further in Foreign Policy Begins at Home. Haass acknowledges in his introduction that there is something is a little ironic about the chairman of the Council Foreign Relations, an organization devoted to disseminating information and studies about other countries and international relations, urging his brethren to reconsider the recent emphasis on foreign affairs and focus on rebuilding America. The country, he says, “must recognize the limits to its influence.” He adds, “For the past two decades, American foreign policy, consumed with remaking large parts of the greater Middle East, has quite simply overreached.”

Instead of preoccupying itself with foreign affairs, America must rebuild at home. Its roads, bridges, transit, rail, aviation, power grid, and other parts of its infrastructure barely receive passing grades from civil engineers. It might be tempting to call this Rand Paulism lite, but Haass wants to accomplish what the Paulites do not, which is to reinvest in government rather than simply further slash taxes. But in soft-pedaling foreign policy at a moment when Syria is embroiled in a civil war and when Republicans such as John “We are all Georgians now” McCain, who has apparently never seen a fight that he doesn’t think America should fight, are calling for bombing campaigns by the U.S. Air Force, is Haass preaching an attenuated form of isolationism, a world in which white-haired gentlemen sit back and sip brandy while the rest of the world erupts in flames?

No. Rather, Haass, who was an aide to George H.W. Bush, is really engaging in a prolonged argument with his own political party to finally shun crusading neoconservatism and return to its traditional establishment roots. Haass is an adherent of the realist school of foreign policy, which is to say that he believes that American power is not unlimited, that Washington must carefully distinguish between primary and peripheral issues, and that it must always focus on what is truly in its national interests rather than embarking upon moralistic, Wilsonian crusades to remake the world.

The origins of this battle really go back to the Nixon-Kissinger years, when the neocons and what Sam Tanenhaus has called the “revanchist” right began to attack the Nixon administration for allegedly practicing appeasement toward the Kremlin. The contention was that a sellout was taking place led by, of all people, Richard Nixon, who originally exposed Alger Hiss. The assault was twofold: the neocons argued that realism was tantamount to immorality, and that Nixon and Kissinger were woefully neglecting the importance of human rights in treating with the Soviet Union. Kissinger, by contrast, argued that détente would do more to open up the Soviet Union than counterproductive bluff and bombast about human rights that would only stiffen the Kremlin’s spine.

Over the decades this argument has never really been settled, at least within the GOP. How should America deal with Iran—by seeking a diplomatic resolution or by attacking it? Is it wise to try to talk with North Korea? Should Israel really try to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or is might the only proper response? And so on.

In his deft and wise book, Haass tackles such questions front and center. One of his main points is that the resources that America has expended in recent years in Afghanistan have been squandered—“what the United States will have to show for more than a decade of sacrifice and investment in Afghanistan will be minimal.” Haass is critical of Obama for deciding to triple American troop levels in 2009, but this was a prelude to a withdrawal, though neocons will argue that if America only stayed the course, then Afghanistan might still be transformed. Haass’s view of the Middle East—a region that he specialized in as an enthusiastic advocate of an Arab-Israeli peace process while serving in the Reagan and Bush administrations—more generally may be summed up in his succinct chapter title: “The Middle East Morass.” His gloominess is palpable. He suggests that the era of peacemaking in the region between leaders is over and will in the future have to be “supported by the masses and by elected politicians loyal to parties and populations heavily influenced by religion.” The problem, of course, is that democracy can itself become an impediment to peace. It was the free elections in the Gaza strip, fatefully promoted by Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, that catapulted Hamas to power in 2006 and resulted in the defenestration of the more moderate Fatah movement.

Many of Haass’s points are underscored by David Rohde, a former reporter for The New York Times and the author of several previous books, in his exemplary Beyond War. Rohde, who was kidnapped and held hostage for seven months in Pakistan by Islamic militants and staged a daring escape, mixes anecdotes, character sketches, and analysis to produce a pungent account. Like Haass, he emphasizes the distinct boundaries of America’s ability to reshape foreign societies about which it often knows little. He goes beyond Haass to focus on the immense profits that accrued to American contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan. The outsourcing and militarization of foreign affairs, he writes, has boomeranged. Instead of helping to promote growth and democracy in Afghanistan, America has only bred further enmity toward itself. Rohde believes that, like a limb that has been allowed to atrophy, Washington has paid far too little attention to diplomatic efforts and to agencies such as USAID.

Not everything that Rohde has to say is, of course, new. But he says it well and often adds fresh details that help illuminate events in countries like Afghanistan. He recounts, for example, the existence of a small town in the Helmland province that the Afghans called “Little America.” There several dozen families from places like Montana, Wisconsin, and California lived in “suburban tract homes with backyard barbecues.” But it was mostly a mirage. Rohde headed to the town with a 72-year-old American aid worked named Charles Grader, who was the last American to run the Kabul office of USAID before the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. But progress turned out to be iffy—USAID was overwhelmed by the scale of the problems and “a shell of its cold war self.” Its staff had shrunk from 17,000 during the Vietnam War to 3,000 by 2004. Six years after the fall of the Taliban, Rohde reports, the Helmand province enjoyed the dubious distinction of producing “more heroin than any country on earth, including Mexico, Colombia, and Burma.”

Rohde is similarly skeptical about the Obama administration’s embrace of the drones program to wipe out the remnants of al Qaeda and other militant groupings in Pakistan. He says that Pakistan today is more unstable than it was when Obama entered office. Drones, he writes, “are no substitute for the difficult civilian effort of helping local moderates stabilize Pakistan and marginalize militants. Missile strikes that kill members of al-Qaeda and its affiliates do not strengthen, curb corruption, or improve government services.” This is not a namby-pamby counsel of defeat, as the Dick Cheney’s of the world would argue, but a realistic assessment of the path Washington should adopt.

Rohde makes a number of suggestions for improving America’s image and record in its dealing abroad that are sensible and therefore unlikely to ever be adopted. He notes that the only arena where “the United States has demonstrated a willingness to meet international challenges with adequate resources has been the military.” He suggests that State Department should receive greater resources; that USAID be reconstituted and focus on smaller, more long-term initiatives; and that more should be done to facilitate education and exchange programs.

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Still, it seems clear that the debate that both Haass and Rohde would like to see about the direction of American foreign policy is, in fact, emerging. It isn’t just that Rand Paul and others are challenging neocon orthodoxy in the GOP. It is also that establishment figures such as Thomas Pickering, who recently headed a report urging greater diplomatic efforts with Iran as opposed to concentrating on sanctions, are trying to upend what has been conventional wisdom. And as his domestic program is stymied by a refractory Congress, Obama may discover that the one area where he truly has an independent hand and can alter and reshape policy is in foreign affairs. Already in his readiness to concede that America may not have a patent on exceptionalism he has begun to dispense with the bogus notion of American omnipotence. It would be no small irony if Obama ends up in his second term as a foreign-policy president.