What a difference a year makes: U.S. policy orthodoxy in question

How different the U.S. foreign policy scene looks today from a year ago when I began a medical sabbatical. Now I return to find all hell has broken loose!

This is most obviously true in the presidential primaries dominated by insurgent candidates critical of business as usual and intent on pressing policies well outside the mainstream.

Bernie Sanders seems most concerned with insuring that international activism doesn’t get in the way of addressing domestic needs. He has pointed repeatedly to his own opposition to the Iraq invasion as the kind of tough-minded skepticism that should greet any call for fresh overseas adventures. His opposition to trade deals that work against ordinary Americans is another part of an “American First” approach. So potent has been the Sanders’ critique on both intervention and trade that Hillary Clinton, the epitome of establishment thinking on both points, has had to move in the direction of her opponent.

Donald Trump goes Sanders one better. Trump attacks free trade with abandon. He favors scaling back U.S. commitments in Europe and Northeast Asia that date back to the Cold War. He would be happy to raise the immigration drawbridge to judge from his controversial proposals for a wall along the Mexican border and a ban on Muslim arrivals. His strong nativist and populist appeal, wrapped up in his slogan “Make America Great Again,” has had great appeal among segments of the electorate even as it has defied the expectations of learned pundits and horrified policy elites with their longstanding fear of an emotional, ill-informed electorate.

Those now gone from the Republican race made their own contributions to upsetting the apple cart. For example, Ted Cruz suggested nuclear strikes as the best response to the ISIS threat while Rand Paul rekindled the old “fortress America” position once influential in the Republican Party but distinctly out of favor for decades in orthodox policy circles.

The election has thus put a lot in play, much of it fundamental to the country’s identity and its relationship to the broader world. The free trade ideals of the neo-liberals have lost their glow, the interventionism championed by the neo-conservatives is distinctly out of season; the financial institutions associated with the brave mew global order are in distinctly bad odor; globalization more broadly has come into deeper question than ever in a country ill equipped (or at least disinclined) to deal with its adverse effects; and a multi-cultural conception of the nation is under attack spearheaded by an older generation of whites who first rallied behind the Tea Party and now back Trump.

Perhaps most striking of all is the way President Obama has rounded on the policy establishment (to include the Pentagon, the State Department, the array of Washington think tanks, and even some on his own national security advisers). In his view (nicely articulated in Jeffrey Goldberg’s article in The Atlantic last month), they are entranced by “power projection” as the foundation of U.S. leadership, prone to favor “tough” military solutions, overly fixated on credibility, and disinclined to think through the likely consequences of their favored courses of action. In particular, the president’s refusal to get drawn into the Syrian civil wars set him at odds (as he put it) with “the overwhelming weight of conventional wisdom and the machinery of our national-security apparatus.” This included heavy weights within his own administration such as Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Leon Panetta, Samantha Power, and Susan Rice not to mention Republican hawks Lindsay Graham and John McCain.

The preoccupation of these worthies with the loss of American credibility and their faith in U.S. military power collide with Obama’s instinctive caution, captured in his mantra: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

The pattern of caution is evident not only in Obama’s refusal to take on the mess in Syria but also in his resistance to becoming more deeply engaged in the Middle East and North Africa, a region that he is convinced the United States cannot fix. He has no patience with the soaring vision of countries transformed under the American aegis. Caution is also evident in his avoidance of confrontation with other powers on matters not central to U.S. interests and in his acceptance of constraints on U.S. policy. This has led him to pursue what some would dismiss as “weak” diplomacy and led to some notable successes including deals with Iran, an opening to Cuba, and the creation of an alliance bulwark against China. Finally, Obama’s caution is evident in his cool attitude toward longtime American allies–notably the Saudis, the Israelis, the British, and the French–who fail to carry their weight (the free riders) and who try to manipulate Washington into making unwise commitments. In all these ways the president has proven himself self consciously at odds with attitudes that have long prevailed within the policy community.

The policy discontents given voice over the past year may well mark an inflection point. But the crystal ball is not so clear on where we go from here. Toward some new consensus that will soon give U.S. policy consistency and direction? Or is the disarray likely to prove prolonged? Might the warfare over fundamentals turn into a long term affair, absorbing energy and attention for many years just as it took many years for the critiques of policy to reach critical mass? Developments over the past year leave no doubt that change is afoot and that watching it play out should be endlessly absorbing.