Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Leslie Gelb: Necessity, Choice, and Common Sense

Leslie H. Gelb's new essay in Foreign Affairs is rather odd.

Entitled, "
Necessity, Choice, and Common Sense: A Policy for a Bewildering World," Gelb pretty much rejects every major assertion of U.S. power in the last 50 years as driven by "the demons of ideology, politics, and arrogance." Even G.H.W. Bush's State Department is taken down as giving Saddam Hussein the green light to invade Kuwait in 1990 (Amabassodor April Glaspie's remark that "We have no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts"). It's hard to take his attacks seriously from a credibility standpoint. Just three years ago Gelb - along with then Senator Joseph Biden - was calling for the dismemberment of Iraq, during the high point of American difficulties there, which most likely would have exacerbated the alreading deadly violence, turning the country into the Middle East's version of the Yugoslavian slaughterhouse of the 1990s.

At the
Foreign Affairs piece, Gelb also harsly criticizes each of the major foreign policy orientations on the scene today: realism, neoliberal institutionalism, and neoconservatism (and a couple of others). The repudiation of realism is particulary strange coming from Gelb, who himself is generally a "realist insider" and his policy proposals here and elsewhere represent classical realist foreign policy thinking (with a narrow material focus on what's in the national interest).

Here's the passage:

The core problem is not American democracy or American ideals or American power. It is Americans themselves. In part, leading Democrats and Republicans mishandle the politics of U.S. foreign policy. Most Democrats adhere to fundamental liberal beliefs about the value of negotiations and cooperation with other states. At the same time, however, they calculate that this will sound too soft to mainstream Americans. As a result, they seem to be torn between their beliefs and their politics, and they create the impression that they were for something before they were against it and against it before they were for it. Democrats convey uncertainty about what they will do; the public senses this and then loses confidence in how they will manage national security.

By contrast, the Republicans exude nothing but conviction about the virtues of being aggressive, standing up to any possible adversary, and painting the world in simple black and white. They are forever proclaiming that they will never allow the United States to be pushed around in the world. And although Republicans have little regard for careful formulations of problems and difficulties, and the public senses this as well, mainstream Americans appear to like the Republicans' conviction. Thus, the American public has more confidence in the GOP than in the Democratic Party when it comes to international affairs.

In part, the moderates are reluctant to fight for the reasonable portrayal of problems and what can be done about them. The moderates know that good policy requires an open and honest review of the facts. They know that the effective use of power requires being able to push a range of buttons until some are found to work. Yet they do not fight for choice.

Most foreign policy experts are pushing for a new grand strategy to replace the old strategy of containment. They are disposed toward big ideas and toward wedging all the pieces of a problem snugly together into one big, neat theory. They are not enamored of loose ends or unintended consequences, which call their expertise into question. To their credit, most contribute valuable perspective and insights, although not without drawbacks.

The neoconservatives rightly remind Americans that irredeemable and irreconcilable evil is out there. But then they paint almost all foreign opponents (and some domestic ones as well) with a similar brush. They see past enemies, such as China and Russia, as future enemies as well. And they portray the United States' allies, particularly the European ones, as mostly worthless: lacking any military power and averse to the use of force.

The reality is that the neoconservatives will never be happy unless they are promoting some form of ideological warfare. Some of them argue that instead of the old ideological clash between democracy and communism, there is a new one: between democracy and autocracy - the United States versus China and Russia. But the leaders of China and Russia are not going around the world proselytizing for their forms of government today the way their communist predecessors did. Rather, Moscow is playing its old power games by trying to muscle its neighbors, but this time mostly with economic rather than military power. At this point, China's leaders are interested almost solely in protecting themselves from domestic threats. The only preaching being done by these two autocracies is against the United States' "unilateralism," and they do this to give themselves some elbowroom for pursuing their own limited global concerns. If there is anything approaching an ideological battle in the world today, it is between what other states perceive as U.S. unilateralism and their own new sense of entitlement.

The realists, comfortable with power, rightly remind Washington to focus on the United States' vital interests rather than take on all the world's problems. But they are often too impressed by power per se. Many of them were too eager to embrace Saddam, for all his sins and unpredictability, as a counterweight to Iran. Many now are eager to excuse the rough behavior of China and Russia as merely what big dictatorial nations do. And they have not paid much attention to how to use U.S. power with failed or failing states or to address new transnational issues, such as the environment. The realists continue to chafe at the value of values and the U.S. president's need to espouse them to sustain his foreign policy at home. Their realism is sometimes actually not realistic enough, and when it is not, the realists overlook both policy choices and policy areas that call for the application of power.

The liberal internationalists still exist today as an important element within the Democratic Party. Their most impressive contribution has been to keep reminding Washington of the need to cooperate with allies and negotiate with adversaries in almost all instances. But since the Vietnam War, they have been calling for new international institutions without being specific or practical about them, and they have been drifting toward softer and more unrealistic definitions of power. Formulating a strategy is difficult for them because it is mainly a call for more negotiations and more multilateral diplomacy and less reliance on military power and force. To complicate matters further, when they come under great political pressure, many of them appear to abandon these principles and become war hawks themselves, as happened when the decision to invade Iraq was being debated.

Interestingly, some of the liberal Democrats have joined with the neoconservatives to form a new group that advocates a concert of democracies, or some kind of institutional alliance to consolidate like-minded democracies. That sounds like a helpful project, and it might even be one, if its advocates would demonstrate how they propose to corral the world's hundred or more democracies. Besides, they make little room in their concert for China and Russia, which are not democracies but matter more than, say, Botswana, Costa Rica, Peru, or Mauritius when it comes to diplomatic coalitions and power.

Then, of course, there are the globalizers, who, to their credit, bear witness to the new centrality of economics, which the national-security-oriented foreign policy clan traditionally ignores - out of ignorance. But the globalizers still tend to overplay their hand by suggesting that economics will bring peace and democracy. Notoriously, they scant diplomatic and military choices.
As you can see, Gelb's got most everyone in the crosshairs of his analysis.

Gelb's final recommendation is for partisans to simply abandon their ideologies and to come together: "that pragmatists, realists, and moderates unite and fight for their country."

Reading this piece you'd think partisanship was not only something new, but it was taken to extraordinary lengths during the G.W. Bush years. This then caused a near-inevitable decline in American preponderance, which only "common sense" will cure.

The truth is that politics and ideology are twins, and that current trends toward hyperpartisanship will continue indefinitely. Rather than reach for a new paradigm eschewing ideology, the current administration should continue to stabilize Iraq and to further prioritize America's mission in Afghanistan. In the background is the economy. As the market continues to shake out toxic assets, and as businesses begin to invest in infrastructure, inventories, and human capital, the U.S. will come roaring back once again to lead another cycle of international prosperity. Talk of U.S. decline - already foolish - will look simply ignorant at that time.

Perhaps Gelb will be retired by then, no longer calling for the partition of countries where the U.S. has committed itself to security and democratization.


Kenneth Davenport said...

Donald --

I remember Gelb from my undergrad days when I studied Vietnam; his made his name by writing a book entitled "Vietnam: The System Worked", which essentially wrote off U.S. Vietnam policy as the product of a political system that "worked" but nonetheless resulted in failure. I'm sure you are familiar with it. Anyhow, Gelb is just another former NY Times correspondent, Harvard-type who served in the Carter Administration, to boot. He's got an axe to grind; I don't pay any more attention to him than I do Mearsheimer, Walt and the other left-wingers in the academy.

My two cents...

AmPowerBlog said...

Just an interesting piece, Ken, mostly for it's incoherence...

Thanks for commenting.

Jordan said...

Many of these so-called realists are isolationists who pipe up after the war happens. Gleb seems like one of them, as Joe Biden was a realist for all of six seconds.

As you said, "politics and ideology are twins" and that, in fact, works a lot better than assuming whatever we do is wrong and finding ways to get our butts out of the fire.

I can't believe reasoned minds can't wrap their heads around the idea that stable allies are better than Balkanized allies.

M. Koncar said...

The article certainly had flaws. Nonetheless, I enjoyed Gelb's article, and thought he he made many valuable points. I was, however, more interested in the succint description of the causes of America's decline: our human capital and physical capital neglected and under-invested in, and politics and policy less driven by what works than what's ideologically pure as defined by party "bases." Unfortunately, the political will is not there to address these problems constructively because as a whole we are too uninformed, unengaged, selfish and ignorant to care.