The election of Donald Trump as president last year represented, among many other things, a rebuke to the foreign-policy establishment. After a quarter-century of giving “America über Alles” a try, voters opted for a candidate who promised to put “America First.”
That establishment—which Obama administration staffer Ben Rhodes memorably referred to as the “Blob”—now offers a rebuttal of sorts. The rebuttal comes in the form of a report issued by the august Brookings Institution. Bearing the title Building “Situations of Strength,” the document is at once pretentious, proudly nonpartisan, and utterly vacuous. Yet in its way, it is also instructive. Here in a glossy 66-page publication is compelling evidence of the terminal decline now afflicting an establishment whose leading lights fancy themselves as the designated heirs of George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. To see just how brain dead the Blob has become, Building “Situations of Strength”—hereinafter referred to Building Situations, or simply BS—is an essential text.
Conferring the Washington equivalent of a nihil obstat, Brookings President Strobe Talbott introduces the report, which, in his estimation, “provides a deep dive” and “pulls no punches,” while offering “in-depth analysis” and proposing an “innovative, bipartisan approach” to U.S. foreign policy. Better still, according to Talbott, Building Situations draws on the “immense intellectual capital” available at Brookings and similar institutions nearby.
Yet strip away the clichés and the self-regard and you end up with this: an exercise in avoiding critical engagement with recent U.S. policy failures, offered by a group of like-minded insiders intent on propping up the status quo.
The authors of the report, ten in number, make for a diverse group, at least as Washington defines diversity. Within their ranks are Republicans and Democrats, men and women, Jews and Gentiles. All possess impressive credentials, acquired over the course of years spent rotating in and out of government, in and out of the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, and in and out of network news green rooms. They are, in short, sound and eminently respectable, Talbott offering his personal assurance that “all come from the internationalist school.”
In this context, “internationalist” functions as a code word. It excludes anyone who when discussing U.S. policy employs terms like militarism or imperialism. It excludes anyone associated, however remotely, with a principled opposition to war, not to mention anyone finding fault with Washington’s marked propensity for armed intervention abroad. Notably, in this instance, it also excludes anyone who has actually experienced war at firsthand while serving in the armed forces.
BS purports to outline a grand strategy promising “prolonged peace, an open and prosperous global economy, and capable democratic partners.” For the first two decades after the Cold War, the authors testify, this utopia looked to be right around the corner. Other nations had “acquiesced to American global leadership.” By all appearances, “the world was converging on a single model of international order,” with peace, prosperity, and democracy beckoning. So at least it appeared from vantage points inside the Beltway.
Unfortunately, “five years ago”—that is, during the presidency of Barack Obama—conditions took a “sharp turn for the worse.” As to why this sudden change occurred, the authors are less than clear. The Great Recession of 2008 played a role. So too did suspicions that the benefits of globalization might not be all that they are cracked up to be. Overall, however, the BSers appear to believe that the real problem was that Washington wavered in its willingness to lead.
In any event, as a direct result, the United States today finds itself facing four simultaneous crises: 1) the sudden reemergence of great power competition; 2) “chaos in the Middle East;” 3) the proliferation of “increasingly disruptive” technologies; and 4) “Western dissatisfaction” that has “sapped the appetite” for U.S.-led activism.
As depicted in BS, problem number one takes priority over all the rest, as Russia and China seek to carve out spheres of influence and thereby challenge the “principle that all states get to decide their foreign relations free from military pressure or coercion.” The authors of Building Situations do not admit to the possibility that the United States presides over several spheres of influence. Nor do they reflect on whether and how the United States has relied on military pressure and coercion to police regions it seeks to dominate. Put simply, Russian and Chinese coercion is reprehensible. Coercion undertaken by the United States is leadership.
Turning to problem number two—“highly infectious and spreading disorder” in the Middle East—the BSers struggle to explain why forceful U.S. leadership applied over a considerable period of time at great cost has not produced the intended results. The “collapse of the U.S.-led regional order in the Middle East … has deep roots,” they write. Yet those deep roots remain unexplored and unexplained. Instead, the authors focus on the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, which they implicitly endorse. Saddam Hussein “threatened the existing regional order,” so he had to go. Rather than transforming Iraq into a “functioning pro-American democracy” that would serve as a “catalyst for democratic change in the region,” however, U.S. occupation “exacerbated pre-existing trends, including by opening Iraq to Iranian domination and by fueling violent Islamist extremism.”
The BSers describe the outcome as ironic—good intentions inexplicably gone awry. They direct no hint of criticism at those who concocted or endorsed this cockamamie scheme, which, of course, includes some among their own number.
The guy who really screwed things up, in their view, is Barack Obama. By withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq at the end of 2011, Obama “exacerbated conditions that facilitated the takeover of the Sunni provinces of Iraq by ISIS.” Worse still, when Syrians mounted an effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, Obama’s “consistent reluctance to take steps to address the burgeoning crisis” both “opened the door” to Russian and Iranian meddling and led to “a devastating civil war that still rages today.” That “the Middle East is now an open and gaping wound in world politics” is, therefore, a direct result of Obama’s timidity and inaction. So too, by extension, is the existence of ISIS, which “now poses a severe and direct threat to the United States.”
Throw in the ambiguous effects of technology-driven globalization and the surge of populism throughout much of the West and you have a situation calling for “a new U.S. strategy,” one that BSers promise will result in the “renovation and reinvigoration of the international order.”
What exactly is that strategy? Wade through the slough of platitudes and you eventually get to this: Stay the course. Allow perhaps for just a tad of fine tuning, but under no circumstances entertain the possibility that the basic premises informing U.S. policy are wrongheaded, obsolete, or the very essence of the problem.
Like the preacher who assures his congregation that “Jesus is Lord,” BSers insist that “No other nation or actor is capable of replacing the United States as leader of the international order.” As with the preacher, this comes down to a matter of faith—although it’s worth noting that, as with the preacher, convictions mesh nicely with personal self-interest.
So Building Situations urges the United States to “adopt an uncompromising position on any issue or dispute in which a rival power uses force, or the threat of force … to undermine, coerce, or invade its neighbors.” So the United States should “block and deter Russian aggression” and prevent China from “establishing control over a sphere of influence in the western part of the Western Pacific.” In the Middle East, the United States should “restore stability in the region, through increasing engagement with our traditional friends and allies.”
In explaining how the U.S. might translate these worthy goals into actual policy, the BSers retreat into page after page of studied blandness. When venturing anything remotely concrete, they affirm the priorities and habits that produced the mess that their strategy purports to rectify. So in the Middle East, for example, Building Situations calls on President Trump to
- “maintain the free flow of oil” to U.S. allies in Europe and Asia;
- “ensure the security and well-being” of Israel and various Arab autocracies;
- persist in waging war on terrorism;
- thwart Iran’s “hegemonic ambitions;” and
- “prevent the spread of disorder” from the Middle East into neighboring regions.
To sum up: The United States should stick to a game plan that shows no signs of producing success. Moreover, it should do so despite the fact that, as the BSers note, in “the United States is no longer dependent on Middle Eastern oil,” and despite their claim that present-day Arab leaders “all view Israel as a highly capable partner in the common cause of combatting terrorism, Islamist extremism, and Iranian hegemonic ambitions.” By extension, with Arab leaders no longer interested in promoting Palestinian statehood, “the old bromide of distancing the United States from Israel to curry favor with the Arabs is no longer relevant”—a conclusion that, in effect, greenlights the further expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories.
But if the United States doesn’t need the oil and if Israelis and Arabs are making common cause against a common foe, what U.S. interests are at stake in the Middle East? The question is one that the BSers don’t ask and certainly don’t answer. Presumably, the exercise of leadership is an end in itself.
What the BSers ignore, overlook, or downplay is as revealing as what they choose to highlight. Here is a partial list of subjects that don’t qualify for serious attention: the configuration and positioning of U.S. military forces around the world; the size of the Pentagon budget relative to allies and adversaries (although BSers lament what they refer to as the “self-inflicted wound of a trillion dollars in defense budget cuts”); the cost of recent American wars; the ever-increasing size of the national debt; the utility of nuclear weapons; the influence of the military-industrial complex on the formulation of U.S. policy; the strategic implications of climate change (dismissed with a hand wave); the actual exportability of values that Americans have recently discovered and insist should be universal; the consequences of NATO expansion; prospects for ending the war in Afghanistan.
A so-called grand strategy that ignores or slights such matters does not constitute a “deep dive.” It does not offer “in-depth analysis.” Indeed, their exclusion testifies to a quality that permeates Building “Situations of Strength.” That quality is dishonesty.
Ultimately, BS is an exercise in evasion. It is indeed BS. As such, it deserves to be ignored—and will be. The gullible saps who funded it should demand their money back.
Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.