Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Think Again, Again: GOP Foreign Policy Soul Searching

Over at Foreign Policy, Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute has a "Think Again" piece trying to both reassure and direct today's GOP toward some sort of foreign policy coherence. Pletka encourages the GOP to return to being "the bedrock of U.S. defense."  There are a myriad of things in the post I could quibble with, not the least of which is the preceding quote, but let's I'm going to pick just a few to focus on.

1) Foreign Policy Doctrine is dramatically overrated
Sure we've had a lot of doctrines. Some were rested in the divine, some helped safeguard our nascent revolution, some were about containment, and some were about putting a fist on the scale. Pletka clearly pines for the Reagan Doctrine and speaks glowingly of how "Reagan stirred the pot and worked with like-minded allies to oust communist dictators." Nevermind some of those "dictators" were duly elected. They were on the wrong team.

The example of Iran-Contra and Reagan's Latin American misadventures highlight the problem of doctrine. A doctrine can be a box, limiting options, the scale of a response, and neglecting the contours of a specific conflict. Perhaps I'm wishy washy but all the studying of the world I've done suggests the actors are too complex to be reduced to a simple doctrine and when we've tried, we've ended up doing things that seem, well, un-American.

2) Moral Imperatives are in the eye of the beholder
Pletka takes a lot of time talking about the distinction between Republicans and Democrats and how that difference centers around values and a feeling of a moral imperative. She says:
In the simplest terms, values are what divide us from them and them from us. There are those who believe that American values form a moral imperative for U.S. power in the world -- that because U.S. democracy is among the world's most durable and just, the United States has an obligation (not merely the occasional inclination) to help others attain the benefits of a free society. That is what Republicans have stood for abroad and the distinction they must now again draw with their Democratic counterparts.
I've a lot to take issue with. First off, is it a settled questioned that our democracy is the "most durable and just?" Haven't there been countless pieces on how broken our political system is? Aren't there a bevy of laws on offer in no small number of the states designed to disenfranchise as they chase after a voter fraud problem that doesn't exist? Isn't the durability of a democracy threatened with the distinction between the two parties foreign policies is rooted in the argument that one has "values" and the other does not? Doesn't a "moral imperative" sound a lot like a crusade? And where does waterboarding fall under American values?

I think it's fair to say all Americans would like the peoples of the world to enjoy our many freedoms and live in similar prosperity to what we have achieved, but let's not forget our own pyramid is unfinished. Let's not wrap those hopes in "American Exceptionalism" to the disregard of British Exceptionalism or Japanese Exceptionalism. I'm not prepared equate exceptional with superior. Pletka is and wants the GOP to do the same.

3) The Soviet Union =/= Al Qaeda (and AQIP =/= AQIM)
As is the want of many listless Republicans, Pletka waxes nostalgic for the Reagan years and a foreign policy rooted in opposition to a known enemy, the evil empire. Pletka suggests 
[A] new Republican foreign policy recommitted to the idea that where the United States is able to identify a strategic and moral imperative -- as in the fight against the Soviet Union or the battle against Islamic extremism -- it is in America's interests to use its power to help shape a safer world.
This is a dangerous comparison. The fight against the Soviet Union and the fight against terrorists who wrap themselves in Islamic rhetoric are incredibly different and require incredibly different solutions. Also, this leads back to the challenges created by something like a doctrine and being motivated by a moral imperative. Imagine a Truman Doctrine for Islamic extremism. What would it look like? Would we undermine any Islamist government? Be prepared to invade? If our motivation is a moral imperative that sounds a lot like a crusade to save heathen masses, are we really improving our safety or just fomenting more hate? It is simpler to stand in opposition to an ideology embodied by a country. There is symmetry there, but we lack similar symmetry in our fight against terrorists who are as Islamic as the KKK is Christian (West Wing shout out).

And that lack of symmetry leads to a sidebar rant. Al Qaeda is not a uniform entity. It is a series of disparate franchises with a myriad of motivations and leaders. Every article like this that speaks simply of an Al Qaeda threat does us a disservice by perpetuating the misconception that the organization is monolithic and dramatically overstates the ability of any specific franchise to pose an existential threat to the United States.

4) Money Doesn't Equal Effectiveness
One final note on this, since I had an argument with my mother about this over the holidays. Pletka makes the comment repeatedly that the GOP should advocate for a well funded defense and get rid of the notion of cutting the defense budget. It's certainly been a winning strategy in the past, but it's not grounded in reality or the requirements to fight the threats we face today.

Pletka is actually dismissive of the amount and percentage of GDP the US spends on defense. She notes:
The truth is the United States spends remarkably little on defense. The Pentagon's budget now represents about 4 percent of GDP, close to the lowest proportion in modern history. It is eminently affordable. Yet the country is on track to cut more than $1 trillion in military spending over the next decade. The lion's share of spending is not on operations or weapons systems, as some believe; nearly 50 percent of spending goes to veterans' benefits and uniformed and civilian personnel. So what can be cut? A better question is: What would America like to stop doing?
Now the 4% number is closer to 5% according to Wikipedia and the World Bank, but let's move past the conversation of the percentage of GDP, even if that 4.7% equals 41% of the world's spending on defense. My issue is thinking money equals effectiveness. Our national security threats have changed. We are technologically ahead of any and all our closest competitors and the Chinese boogeyman sitting just in the background of the entire post is only spending 2% of its GDP on defense. That's not the spending habits of a global power looking to have military parity to the U.S. It is ham handed to suggest and try to sell to the American people that our safety is entirely related to the amount of money we spend on defense. It's also bad policy.

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The bottom line: Pletka offers some ideas that would sound appealing on the stump, but they aren't good policy. They aren't ideas that move our country forward, rather they're designed to get the GOP some foreign policy points while doing nothing to help our national security. Perhaps that was the point of the exercise for Pletka, but I'd hoped for more distinction and less window dressing.

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