Intervention: A Problem of Means?

Panglossading through reality, the New York Times recently offered the sort of thoughtless sunny picture of the Obama administration’s security policy that lulls children to sleep but leaves adults restlessly wakeful. In a front-page story on December 1, "A Handpicked Team for a Foreign Policy Shift" by David Sanger, the Times reported that the new administration’s key national security policy appointees were selected in large part because they have embraced a sweeping shift of resources in the national security arena.

The shift, which would come partly out of the military’s huge budget, would create a greatly expanded corps of diplomats and aid workers that, in the vision of the coming Obama administration, would be engaged in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states.

Whether they can make the change…"will be the great foreign policy experiment of the Obama presidency," one of his senior advisors said recently.

In the best Christmas spirit of my old friend Mr. Scrooge, I will spoil the story by spilling the ending up front. The "great foreign policy experiment" will fail.

It will fail for two reasons, one practical and one theoretical. The practical reason is that, no matter how much money you give them, our State Department and other civilian agencies cannot produce a product.

Over the years, I have heard one ambassador after another say, "I had to turn to the military because they are the only people who can get anything done." If you give the U.S. military an order, something usually happens. It may happen late, clumsily, and expensively, but still, something happens.

In contrast, with State and other agencies, most of the time nothing happens. That is true even when budgets are ample. Why? Because the internal culture of our civilian agencies is so rigid, bureaucratic, risk-averse and rule-bound that they cannot act.

Often, the people at the working level are quite talented. They want to do the assigned job. But the internal focus of their agency is so strong they cannot, at least without risking their careers. A single broken rule or bent regulation, undotted i or uncrossed t, and they quickly learn to follow the regs and forget about the product. So nothing happens.

The Obama administration may wish this were not the case. Worse, it may pretend it is not the case, and learn only by failure. But if it is serious about its "one great foreign policy experiment," it must start be reforming the internal culture of the State department and all related agencies. That is a long-term and difficult undertaking. As to wishes, well, if wishes were horses, we would all get rich collecting golden road apples.

The second reason the great experiment will fail is that it represents a failure in strategic theory. In effect, it says that the Bush administration’s debacle was a result of not of mistaken ends, only of mistaken means.

America will start to endeavor to govern the world, "preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states." We will insert ourselves everywhere, exporting "democracy" and "human rights," aka Brave New World. We will re-make other societies in our own image, whether they want us to or not (no one does). This time, it will work, because instead of Marines, we will storm the beaches with brave State Department lads, armored with blue suits and armed with briefing papers and bottles of sherry.

In fact, our offensive grand strategy is itself the root of our failures. We cannot remake societies in our own image, regardless of the means employed. Attempts to do so are doomed to failure, and so long as we insist on undertaking them, we are doomed to imperial overreach, with its inevitable consequences of decay and decline.

Some so-called "conservatives" may object to the Obama administration’s great experiment because it will take money away from the Pentagon. That merely shows the right’s usual instinct for the capillaries. We would take half the defense budget, pile it in heaps, set it in fire and roast marshmallows over it and gain no less from it than we do now. The real issue is whether America’s grand strategy should be offensive or defensive. From President Washington to Senator Robert A. Taft, conservatives knew it should be the latter. That should be the critique conservatives offer, and it is one to which the Obama administration should pay thoughtful attention.

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Author: William S. Lind

William Lind is director of the Center for Cultural Conservatism at the Free Congress Foundation. He is a former congressional aide and the author of many books and articles on military strategy and war.