The Coming Foreign Policy Paralysis

Tomorrow is Nov. 4, election day in the United States. Senator Barack Obama is favored to win the presidency, and republicans will endure significant losses in both houses of congress. The war in Iraq has been a prominent theme in the last 3 election cycles, and the shift in party control that occurred two years ago was widely attributed to the unpopularity of the war. Ending the war has been a plank of the democratic party since 2004, and Obama has pledged to begin withdrawing 1-2 brigades per month as soon as he takes office, despite the vastly improved stability there. This constitutes a major policy shift from the Bush administration, and while the long term implications of such a dramatic change in policy have received much discussion, a major side effect that this will have on the domestic political context has not received nearly as much attention.

Though I am concerned about the consequences of a premature evacuation from Iraq, I am more concerned about the lessons that the political parties will take from the experience. The economic situation has displaced Iraq as the main issue in the 2008 election, it cannot be denied that the unpopularity of the war has contributed to the recent electoral losses of the republican party. Putting aside whether or not Iraq was sound policy, there are two layers of lessons that politicians can draw from the war: one is deep and contains knowledge that is difficult to comprehend, the other is shallow and superficial, but can be immediately digested. The teachings contained in the deeper layer are those that policymakers must absorb, for the good of the country: the limits of military power…the imperative for clear political objectives to guide military action, and clear military objectives that will serve the political purpose…the difficulty and importance of irregular war…the need of a continuous and substantive political-military dialogue…the wisdom of deliberately spreading democracy on cultures that are not able to absorb it, etc. The lessons drawn from the Iraq experience will be difficult to isolate and comprehend, and there will be no universal consensus. Nevertheless, every effort must be made to understand them and integrate them into our strategic thinking. It is a process that must be done responsibly, and much like the knowledge from earlier wars, will probably never end.

However, I fear that policymakers will instead draw their lessons from the shallow layer that is much easier to reach and comprehend. And the one thing they learn from here is that to risk war is to risk political office. Thus, fearing electoral defeat, politicians will hesitate to launch military action, even when it is manifestly prudent to do so. War is not always the answer, but it is a legitimate tool of statecraft that is integral to any effective national strategy. To refrain from using it solely on the basis of partisan political concerns will handicap our foreign policy, and could lead to disaster in the long run. Will a future president be willing to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, or will he fear for the political fortunes of his party if the battle goes ill? Will the U.S. honor its military commitment to NATO, if that becomes necessary? Will a newly assertive and nuclear armed Iran be challenged, or will the U.S. cede the Persian Gulf to Tehran out of fear of a military confrontation? The political sensitivity of casualties was a major factor governing the use of the military instrument during the Clinton administration, and after Iraq, the issue is going to return with a vengeance. There is no doubt that the next administration will face a policy crisis over Afghanistan, because they will remember what happened to the republicans in 2006 and 2008.

This is not the type of thinking that is good for the country. The elevation of partisan interests over those of the state has long been a  theme in American politics, but the consequences of doing so in matters of foreign policy could be catastrophic, and not for the reason most people think. Inaction can be just as dangerous as improper or misguided action. A country as powerful as the U.S. cannot afford to hesitate when a decision is necessary. American politicians must be willing to risk their political careers if the interests of the country demand it.

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