America is Shackling Its Foreign Policy with Partisanship
The most capable weapons in the world cannot make up for cheap shots.
It used to be that politics stopped at the water’s edge. No more. Instead of paying a political price for siding with America’s adversaries, partisans solidify their political base and feed their own echo chamber. As a result, the capacity of the United States to “win” in any foreign policy encounter has diminished substantially.
Foreign policy and particularly the use of force is in large part a game of perceptions. America is as powerful as other nations and groups believe it is. These days, adversaries of the United States do not even have to write their own talking points: the opposition party does that for them. That is how America is removing the mantle of “superpower” from its own shoulders.
In the timeless classic On War, Carl von Clausewitz argues that “war is politics by other means.” On War is studied in all U.S. military schools. It argues forcefully that foreign policy and military activities are not taken for their own sake, but solely for the achievement of political objectives.
Another military philosopher whose ideas have survived centuries of scrutiny is Sun Tzu. Sun Tzu was a military theorist thousands of years ago in China. The chief message of Sun Tzu is that wars are waged and battles fought against the minds of the adversaries: if (and only if) the opposing general believes he is defeated, then he will be defeated. The actual number of troops or even military dominance has little to do with victory; it is the perception by the participants of relative power after the event.
By the time-tested principles of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu, the only victory that matters is achieving political objectives. Achieving political objectives in a free society requires unity more than military or diplomatic power. Unity does not mean agreeing with everything, but it does mean shared desire for success. There is a big difference between criticism in the context of healthy democratic debate and partisan hysteria that takes the opposite stand of every foreign policy issue. There have been diplomatic and military failures in American history that deserve criticism. Certainly Administrations are accountable for blunders when they are self-inflicted based on lack of judgment or poor administration and execution.
Contrast that with spinning every major and minor event, act of God, and action as a failure and weakness irrespective of the physical reality. Or, of blowing setbacks completely out of proportion and contorting the narrative with misinformation. Or, of screaming “bloody murder” even when policy adjustments are taken in response to criticism. In the latter cases, the ability to successfully conduct foreign policy is simply taken from the President to the detriment of the Nation. The outcome of this disparity of military power with perceived national power is that the United States is wasting its massive military expenditures if military success cannot be translated to achieving political objectives.
The sad irony is that militarily, the United States is unchallengeable. The oft-cited statistic is that the United States spends as much on military power than the next 10 countries combined. Depending on the methods for counting, the U.S. actually spends as much as the rest of the world combined. Perhaps we should: we are the indispensable nation with interests in every region. The reality is that the United States military possesses orders of magnitude more employable military power than the rest of the world combined. How? Because the U.S. military budget is spent all on one military, whereas every other country must pay for its own administration. Employable, global capabilities take concentration of capital that simply do not exist outside the U.S. military.
A few days ago a diplomatic agreement was been reached between six major nations and the Islamic Republic of Iran to temporarily halt Iran’s progress on nuclear technology. Like any international agreement among sovereign states, success will depend on faithful execution and adherence to verification procedures. Iran has been a malevolent player in the Middle East for decades now; their list of evil policies fomenting terrorism and violence is long. Many Americans have died in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan as a result of Iranian malfeasance. Iran holds permanent geographic advantage in the Arabian (aka “Persian”) Gulf where large portions of the world’s energy supplies are transported. The alternative to diplomatic agreement is continuing the path toward a costly and tragic war.
Iran’s recent election of a more moderate President seem to have led to a policy shift; evidently years of sanctions have softened the Supreme Leader and prepared him to come seeking accommodations. For modest sanctions relief and a statement of fact (that Iran has the right as a sovereign nation to conduct peaceful nuclear research), Iran is willing to submit their nuclear program to international oversight and degrade it from being weapons-capable. By many measures, this can be judged a tremendous diplomatic success, albeit not a guarantee until Iran complies. The world is ceding very little to Iran, however, and if Iran wants more relief they must comply to start building confidence.
However, for the sake of partisanship, the deal has been vilified as capitulation even before it is executed much less the ink is dry. Opposition media is more concerned with how Iran sells the deal to their population than the actual terms of the agreement. Opposing Congress members have reflexively taken the opposite stance and threaten to undercut the agreement with new sanctions. Comparisons to Munich and framing the deal as “capitulation” substitute for substantive comments on the opportunities and risks of the terms. Is it that political opponents fear the deal will work, war can be averted, Israel will be better secured, and the President will get credit? I actually saw a front screen story today that cites Jon Voight (the actor and father of Angelina Jolie) as a credible source that the agreement was a “rotten deal.” The saddest part is that a united front would make the agreement a stronger one, make it more likely that Iran will find it in their interest to comply with their part. A common hope for diplomatic success would make success more likely.
The United States cannot achieve success in foreign policy unless we are united for success over our common opponents. To our detriment, politics no longer stops at the water’s edge. Taking our opponents’ side helps our opponents. All the effective aircraft carriers in the world (literally) cannot make up for cheap shots in Washington DC.
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