It’s All About Politics

The making of American foreign policy

by , January 15, 2014

Ron Fournier wants to get politics out of foreign policy decision-making:

"This paragraph from a New York Times story on proposed new sanctions for Iran sent a chill down my spine:

"’Behind these positions is a potent mix of political calculations in a midterm election year. Pro-Israel groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, have lobbied Congress to ratchet up the pressure on Iran, and many lawmakers are convinced that Tehran is bluffing in its threat to walk away from the talks.’

"I’m ambivalent about the debate over Iran: President Obama is pursuing an agreement with Tehran to suspend its nuclear program (sounds good), while many lawmakers don’t believe Iran can’t be trusted to comply with any diplomatic accord (makes sense). But I don’t want U.S. foreign policy swayed by lobbyists and politics."

This naturally appeared in the National Journal, one of those wonky periodicals that none but the most wonkish amongst us pay attention to, let alone read: the reason I’m highlighting it is because Fournier’s complaint illustrates a widely-held misconception about the making of American foreign policy – or, indeed, any nation’s foreign policy. According to this Boy Scout version of how it works – or, rather, how it should work – US officials confer with a gaggle of "experts," determine what is in the "national interest" on the merits, and then proceed to implement the policy. In short, the policy is determined objectively, without reference to vulgar political considerations.

Of course, this is not the way policy is made, and – contra Fournier – there is no nation on earth, including the "democracies," that has ever conducted its foreign policy in this manner.

To begin with, let’s look at just who is making the policy: is it a team of "experts" who stand above the fray, academics and diplomats whose knowledge of the realities on the ground gives them the credentials to formulate a rational course of action (or inaction)? No way: policy is made by elected officials sensitive to the political winds, whichever way they’re blowing. Yes, it’s true the diplomatic and intelligence communities have input: but as we saw in the run up to the Iraq war, their conclusions can be massaged, manipulated, and outright ignored by politicians who have their own agenda. Dick Cheney and Scooter Libby peering over the shoulders of analysts at Langley is just one recent example.

Even in cases where politicians don’t have strong convictions one way or the other, the first item on their agenda is reelection. They want to stay in office, or, perhaps, they aspire to a higher office: in any case, regardless of their actual views, our policy-makers are always looking over their shoulders at lobbyists and constituents before they commit themselves to any particular course.

In short, given the nature of the State, the idea that we’re going to take politics – not to mention lobbyists! – out of foreign policy decision-making is a fantasy that cannot come true.

This is true for dictatorships as well as democracies for the simple reason that authoritarian regimes have their own peculiar politics: within the context of one-party or one-man rule there are always contending factions and interest groups, albeit with less visibility than in democratic countries. More importantly, the population must still give a certain amount of consent at least to the extent that they refrain from engaging in open rebellion.

Furthermore, the triumph of politics in the foreign policy realm is exacerbated in our own case by the special circumstances surrounding America’s position in the world. Unmatched in military might, and the strategic linchpin of a vast array of regional alliances, the US faces no equivalent power on the international scene. Washington has plenty of adversaries – but no rivals. President Barack Obama commands the most powerful military machine the world has ever known, and it’s no wonder that a veritable army of foreign lobbyists and domestic special interests clamor to be heard when it comes time to decide if, when, and how to use it.

This clamor arises from abroad as well as at home, with the former more often than not drowning out the latter: as far as the 57 or so US senators who’ve signed on as sponsors of the "Iran Nuclear Free Weapon Act" are concerned, the protests of a Netanyahu or a King Abdullah carry more weight than the lamentations of war-weary Americans. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Illinois), the most outlandish if not the most vocal opponent of the Geneva negotiations, declared outright that US intelligence on Iran’s nuclear program is not to be believed – because the Israelis say so.

As the cold war ended, and America awoke one day to find itself the last member of the Superpower Club, Bill Kristol and Robert Kagan co-authored a neoconservative foreign policy manifesto for the new era: entitled "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," the piece prescribed the achievement of "benevolent global hegemony" as America’s number one objective. Which was somewhat redundant, because by the time their call to arms saw print what was presented as advocacy was already fact.

The cold war era was marked by a conflict of the two superpowers: after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet implosion, it was just a matter of simple arithmetic. US "global hegemony" had been achieved at least six years before the Kristol-Kagan missive saw print.

America’s military prowess exercises a unique dominance. The only near precedent is the British empire, which our political class loves to mimic, but the difference – a big one – is that the warlords of London always had powerful enemies. In contrast, there is no viable challenger to US military supremacy.

The result is that our unparalleled power has drawn suitors from all over the world. Their voices are louder and more insistent than the natives, and they gather ‘round the Emperor’s feet, bowing and scraping and arguing their case. They knock on congressional doors, which are always open to them: Washington is awash in a multitude of foreign interests with lots of money to spend.

A global empire is not a proper country – at least, not in the traditional sense of a nation. It is a multinational phenomenon by definition, and, in the American case, an empire of a new type: one whose rulers not only have global ambitions but global military capabilities on a scale unprecedented in human history.

As if in anticipation of its Manifest Destiny, official Washington is already organized around the ghostly outline of an emerging World State, with departments and agencies attending to every region under the sun. What other military on earth is divided into various commands which divide up the entire world between them? The Pentagon has a European command, an African command, a Middle Eastern command, etc., with our Commander-in-chief presiding over it all as the veritable Lord of the Earth.

The responsibilities of such a lofty position transcend national boundaries, and in receiving his various supplicants and listening to their arguments, the Lord of the Earth must grant equal weight to all. American opinion is no longer privileged. It’s world opinion that counts.

Yet it’s not the whole world, but only the most influential and/or wealthy voices that are heard above the din, which is why every ambitious American client state is possessed of a lobby with considerable clout. In the case of the Iran sanctions issue, two of the more powerful lobbies in Washington are behind the effort to move the Menendez-Kirk bill, the Saudis and the Israelis. The latter have a considerable domestic lobby in Christian fundamentalists, primarily in the deep South, who have theological motives for their relentless activism on behalf of a foreign government. AIPAC, the biggest and most well-known segment of the pro-Israel lobby, is a Washington powerhouse which has nonetheless seen its legendary power waning. The sanctions bill is as much about renewing their reputation as a winner as it is about the issue itself.

Fournier’s piece is entitled: “What’s Driving Some Democrats to Defy Obama on Iran?" The answer is given above, but there’s a broader and more definitive answer. When so much power is concentrated in one place, government by lobbyists is the inevitable result, and that applies to foreign as well as domestic policy. It’s crony capitalism at home and crony interventionism abroad: favors are bought and sold, alliances – and fortunes – are made. Welcome to the court of the Lord of the Earth.

Yet the intrusion of politics into the rarified realm of world affairs isn’t always a bad thing: remember what happened when the President announced we were going to bomb Syria? It wasn’t politics as usual when the congressional phone lines lit up with the voices of protest, but it was politics just the same: grassroots politics of a spontaneous viral variety made possible by the new technology.

Keep politics out of foreign policy? Not as long as governments rule the earth.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.

I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).

You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.

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