The Irony of American Strategy: Putting the Middle East in Proper Perspective
By Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Reviewed by Michael W. Cotter, former U.S. Ambassador to Turkmenistan & Publisher of American Diplomacy
Richard Haass has been one of the most insightful and thoughtful commentators on foreign policy and global issues for many years. He is also one of the most prolific. We reviewed his most recent book, Foreign Policy Begins at Home, in these pages in June, and his op-ed pieces have appeared in several prominent newspapers in recent weeks. This essay, in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs, is a concise tour d’horizon of the global challenges facing the U.S.
The title aptly describes the article’s focus. Haass begins by recalling the origin of the Iraq war, pointing out that it had nothing to do with terrorism or WMD. His explanation is that the war was “...to signal to the world that even after 9/11, the United States was not, in Richard Nixon's words, a ‘pitiful, helpless giant.’” That’s a bit disingenuous, although he does add that the war’s proponents believed Iraq would emerge as a thriving democracy. If Iraq was a war of choice, Afghanistan, in Haass’s view, began as a war of necessity although by 2009 he believes it had begun morphing into a war of choice as well. He relates the Obama administration’s effort to extend a drawdown from both conflicts into a broader military distancing from the Middle East, citing the preference for “leading from behind” in its response to the early Arab Spring manifestations.
In sync with the administration’s “rebalance” toward Asia, Haass then analyzes the rationale for doing so, concluding that it has been largely correct albeit with an overemphasis on the military aspect. Later on, he extends the rebalancing idea to the need to focus on other issues such as negotiating a transatlantic free trade agreement and renegotiating NAFTA, as well as rebalancing U.S. domestic and foreign obligations to “restore the foundations of American economic power so that it will once again have the resources to act freely and lead in the world, so that it can compete, so that it can discourage threats from emerging and contend with them if need be, so that it is less vulnerable to international developments it cannot control, and so that it can set an example others will want to emulate.”
In between those excursions beyond the Middle East he returns to an analysis of the challenges the U.S. faces in the region today, particularly the conflict in Syria and the ongoing confrontation with Iran.
All of this is well and good. Haass’s description of the dilemmas and challenges facing U.S. foreign policy are right on the mark. Where his analysis falters is in its recommendations for policies to resolve the former and meet the latter. There he essentially serves up pablum: more focus on diplomacy (to what end is left unclear); distancing ourselves here, while remaining engaged in some undefined way there; hoping a political process and negotiations would lead to a peaceful settlement of the Israel-Palestine problem; defending China’s neighbors while reassuring China that their interests don’t conflict with its own; and so on.
Readers should find this essay realistic, yet unsettling. Haass’s inability to come up with much beyond anodyne policy recommendations accurately reflects the impossible task facing today’s policy makers as they attempt to identify manageable solutions to the myriad problems an increasingly fractured American polity faces in dealing with an equally increasingly complicated world.