Monday, December 31, 2007

Hammers And Nails

Ever since I read this Matthew Yglesias post about America's fixation on political personalities -- in this case Benazir Bhutto -- in determining its foreign policy, the following phrase has been buzzing around in my head: History might be determined by leaders, but policy is determined by interests. Of course, notwithstanding her checkered past and her uncertain democratic bona fides as a leader, Benazir Bhutto did, in fact, represent the best bet for American interests in Pakistan. In fact, according to some analysts, her vocal support for a hardline against Islamic extremists and openness to American military operations in the Pakistan-Afghan border area were more likely to get her elected in Washington than in Islamabad.

But the related question, which Steve Clemons raised here (see the Brzezinski quote), is what role America should play in the internal politics of other countries. The question itself has only limited application. Obviously, when France or England (or Portugal for that matter) choose their head of state, America doesn't exert its influence one way or the other. We wait for the electoral outcome and adapt to the winner. If it's someone we're comfortable with, so much the better. If not, we make due.

But then there's a whole slew of countries where America feels it has both the capacity and the obligation to intervene. The former, as demonstrated by events in Pakistan, is debatable. The latter is a legacy of the Cold War, where American interests were calculated in the context of a US-Soviet zero-sum game. The immediate consequence of 9/11 was to provide a needed replacement for the Cold War logic of American intervention, putting an end to America's brief flirtation with the idea of a post-American global order, where the "reluctant policeman" would somehow enforce the world's interests as opposed to its own. The world that emerged on September 12, 2001 had suddenly been re-polarized along the paranoid/hysterical neocon faultline of "us vs. them".

Over the past six years, our efforts to force the world's multi-polar pegs into bi-polar holes have led to a string of strategic miscalculations. At the same time that we've abandoned efforts to re-construct and solidify failed states, we've interfered with, undermined or overthrown functioning, if abhorrent, ones. Now it's time to apply more intelligence and restraint to our foreign policy. We still have regional interests around the globe, and we should still advance them forcefully. But we need to begin with the assumption that we can determine neither the leadership nor the policy priorities of the countries we're dealing with. There are just too many moving pieces and the necessary logic to organize them all into a coherent whole is too complex.

As the old saw would have it, when all you've got is a hammer, everything starts looking like a nail. It's perhaps understandable that the trauma and shock of 9/11 caused America, in looking at all the varied tools in its kit, to see only hammers. Somewhere in there, there's an old forgotten jigsaw that we could probably use right about now. But it might even be too limiting to think of our foreign policy as a toolbox. What we need today is more a maestro's baton.

Posted by Judah in:  Foreign Policy   

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