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The Beltway Foreign-Policy ‘Blob’ Strikes Back

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,” [1]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

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.

32 Comments (Open | Close)

32 Comments To "The Beltway Foreign-Policy ‘Blob’ Strikes Back"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On May 26, 2017 @ 2:10 am

“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.”

I keep thinking that this global government is years and years and years away. But it’s very clear that this towards ruling the world under one roof is on full speed ahead no matter what. But unlike the author, I am not sure it nonsense in the way that one considers nonsense. It will enter into the dialogue of the wealthy for consideration to the overall agenda.

My housemate is in tears, literally by what’s going on with the Pres.. She’s dismayed by the attacks, constant, never ending, devious, out of proportions, downright sinister and dark commentary.

There’s this sense that everything the “establishment” hears is taken with a kind of bland disinterest. As one might listen to a child who the listener, merely pants on the head and moves one. Their eyes are set on something else. The media is almost trans-like in their discussions. As though, if we just sound stable, our contentions will be stable, and make perfect sense. But everything they do, just makes no sense.

Of course advocating what has not worked in twenty years makes no sense. Worse is to blame the last executive, who by and large went with the agenda he was handed. No doubt they are angered by his failure to invade Syria and Libya, mostly Syria.

I insist that after 9/11 the country needed a breather. A near complete stop to assess, who we are, and what the heck we should be doing. Which in my view is far less than we are doing now.

Sure its nuts. Unless you are their game pan. But I suspect that you nonsense soup, is just a primer for the main course. An international organization for leadership. I have no idea why you weren’t lulled into complacency.

but I do believe that we are years and years and years and years away . . . and then some more years.

The alternative based on the performance so far is to destructive to consider.

#2 Comment By m7 On May 26, 2017 @ 3:21 am

Having just gone through the aforementioned report published by the Brooking Institute I too found it sophomoric. These “foreign policy experts” produced a report that reads like it came out of a Poly Science 201 group project. That is a concern because this level of “strategic thinking” has proliferated in government senior management positions. Hence, our leadership is, one may argue, becoming more frivolous in their actions. Is it no wonder why Washington has help keep the Near East in a quagmire for the last 17 years? Apparently, this group sees it as growth industry. But history informs us that eventually something gives and it isn’t always pretty.

I spend 30+ years with the Defense Department and starting in about the late 90s I saw more and more government civilians and military officers getting promoted with this sort of mindset. (Or at least acquiesced to it.) I could never be sure if they really believed in this type of strategic thinking or they were just pursuing a better salary. For many of us who did question such thinking, at least in private, we were still obligated to “Get with the Program.”

Fortunately, the Brooking Institute is not the only think tank within this nation. Preferably more mature and sensible minds will prevail. If not, I fear we as a nation will continue to inconspicuously degenerate.

I guess as long as most of us have our power, water and sewage systems still operating we can still get a decent night’s sleep. Remember, when Emperor Romulus Augustus was unceremoniously disposed in 475 most of the Roman citizenry got up the next morning and went about their daily business. There is nothing new under the sun.

#3 Comment By Luther6 On May 26, 2017 @ 7:28 am

Nice piece but Bacevich doesn’t even mention that Qatar substantially funds Brookings:

[2]

Qatar also gave seed money for many of Syria’s rebel groups, some of which are now self-sufficient — and standing up caliphates.

#4 Comment By Tony Papert On May 26, 2017 @ 8:53 am

Thank you again, Andrew Bacevich.

#5 Comment By Snippet On May 26, 2017 @ 9:55 am

I find nothing to disagree with here, In fact, I
think it is a robust and persuasive argument, but I would like to see an alternative model for American foreign policy put forth.
Something more than, “Stop digging” (which is plenty good advice as far as it goes.).
China, Russia, and, God-forbid conceivably some sort of Islamist empire, could become bona-fide threats to legitimate American interests (really, genuinely legitimate), motivated by far more than blowback against American overreach.
No one serious is suggesting a complete withdrawal from the international stage, but for simplicity’s sake, let’s posit that we do that, and then find ourselves in a world as dangerous as ever.
What is the realistic (not “realist”) model for American foreign policy that acknowledges our unique position as high profile symbol of free market democracy?

#6 Comment By p3cop On May 26, 2017 @ 10:02 am

On the ground in Baghdad in the middle aughts, we learned very quickly that Democracy is not a virus and it can’t be “caught”. American intervention will not change tribal cultures that have been warring for centuries. It is a fool’s hope and only fools believe it. Iraq and Afghanistan will not be democratic or stable in our lifetimes. We should pack it all up and bring our soldiers home. Or send every one of these people who wrote the report over there to fight themselves.

#7 Comment By Slugger On May 26, 2017 @ 10:53 am

Is it actually possible to favorably influence events in far away places via military action? In my lifetime a war in Korea turned out in a desultory ceasefire, a war in Vietnam was a shameful defeat, and the wars in Iraq/Syria look like a slow motion disaster with deaths, refugees, and crazier than usual radicals as the outcome. Certainly we need the military to defend us, but as an instrument for statecraft we need better means.

#8 Comment By john On May 26, 2017 @ 10:55 am

I always thought there was something a little bit wrong with out method of “democratization” i.e be democratic or I will shoot you.

Funny it seems people don’t like being invaded by a foreign power no matter how benign the intention.

#9 Comment By Glenn D Rennels On May 26, 2017 @ 11:26 am

This article is superb.

I cannot get enough of Bacevich’s writing. Last month I discovered “The American Conservative” because I was looking online for anything written by Andrew Bacevich. Now I read the this journal every day!

#10 Comment By Jon S On May 26, 2017 @ 11:54 am

Beautifully written Mr. Bacevich. Thank you. Why can’t the US lead the world to peace by example?

#11 Comment By Skeptic On May 26, 2017 @ 12:36 pm

The report says we must “prevent the spread of disorder” from the Middle East into neighboring regions.

Does the report even hint we should stop creating that disorder in the first place? For example, in places like Libya?

Journalist Neil Clark wrote two days ago that “The question we need to be asking is: who turned Libya — which as recently as July 2010 was being lauded in the British press as one of the top six cruise ship holiday destinations — into a ‘Daesh stronghold’ — and a training ground for terrorists like Abedi?” Abedi being, of course, the jihadi who just massacred a crowd of mostly teenage girls and their moms in Manchester.

Obviously it will not have raised such a question. Honesty is not how one makes a career in a place like Brookings. Bacevich gets it exactly right.

#12 Comment By dave skerry On May 26, 2017 @ 1:02 pm

right on!!! Now if u could just come down a speck from your ivory tower and try to reach the common thinking man ( yes, there are some of us left) maybe u can help this country to be good again.

#13 Comment By Conewago On May 26, 2017 @ 1:04 pm

A much appreciated takedown.

#14 Comment By amhixson On May 26, 2017 @ 3:19 pm

Col. Bacevich,

Through your writings here at American Conservative, you’ve articulated quite well what you’re against. What are you for?

Were the U.S. to scale back its international presence as you want, what do you think would happen? What would fill the vacuum? What do you think the world order would look like? What do you think it should look like?

Moreover, what do you think U.S. foreign policy should be?

To establish my priors: I agree with some of your criticisms of U.S. foreign and defense policy, and I disagree with others. That said, I am skeptical in the extreme that a geopolitical order without U.S. hegemony will be any better or safer than the status quo.

#15 Comment By Skeptic On May 26, 2017 @ 5:06 pm

OMG. I just figured it out.The solution to our foreign policy dilemma.

Look, instead of creating chaos throughout the Middle East (at great expense) and then (also at great expense) working to prevent the spill-over of that chaos into the rest of the world, why not do the following: In the Nevada Desert, dig out an exact replica of the Grand Canyon, and then fill it in. Repeat as needed. Somewhat senseless, to be sure. But it will do the world lots less harm than the more of the same approach endorsed by Brookings.

#16 Comment By Walter McDougall On May 26, 2017 @ 8:05 pm

Brilliant and controlled, as one would expect from a former officer.

#17 Comment By Aaron On May 26, 2017 @ 9:44 pm

the best analysis of the failed US hegemonic foreign policy is by David Calleo: The Unipolar Folly. Some of his students have also written excellent analyses of US policy which oppose the prevailing hegemonic instinct.

#18 Comment By Jim Cross On May 27, 2017 @ 9:07 am

Wow, why isn’t Andrew Bacevich our president. What a cool country the USA would be!

#19 Comment By Antiwar7 On May 27, 2017 @ 11:18 am

One might add to the list of relevant points overlooked by the BS team:
– a review of the research by Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, showing that suicide bombings are driven by occupations, and how that affects ongoing US occupations of Afghanistan, parts of Iraq, Somalia, entries into Syria, etc.
– the general tendency of those receiving force to attempt to fight back, and how that affects the cost-effectiveness and security implications of frequently resorting to force.

#20 Comment By Vitaly On May 27, 2017 @ 11:24 am

Chairman Chinese Communist Party Mao called the US a paper tiger and he had a point. His point was simple. It is much better to risk horrible end rather than live under endless horror. Being in his his early life deeply influenced by Age of Reason especially by such core works as Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations and Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws, Mao was sure that pragmatist Americans will be the first to blink. His rational was right then 60 years ago when when American superiority in wealth, industrial prowess and military destruction power was not in doubts. The same rational is most certainly applicable nowadays when American superiority is fast fading memory.
World utmost capital provider has turned into world utmost debtor. Industrial might was spread around globe in pursuit of penny wise personal interests. Military superiority of the US nowadays is simply result of accounting scheme to calculate how how many times the US nuclear arsenal may obliterate country of choice, made by politicians. However, every time politicians made the wrong decision number of countries, which can obliterate the US at least one time is growing in geometrical progression. North Korea is only the latest example how the reverse of policy of Bill Clinton by under-overestimated George W has turned North Korea into role model for future object of American reckless politics.
The remedy for current world Crises is self-evident and needs no details.

#21 Comment By gordon reed On May 27, 2017 @ 12:34 pm

Another incisive article by Mr. Bacevich. It is unfortunate that his point of view is excluded from the mainstream media.

#22 Comment By James Ard On May 27, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

The best piece I’ve read all month. The only thing missing is a dig at that jerk Max Boot.

#23 Comment By dave On May 28, 2017 @ 7:16 am

What I got was that the international order equals the United States being able to act unilaterally. In the analysis of Syria, as an example, the problem identified is not the intervention of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, it was the intervention of the Russians leading to a situation where they had to be treated as more of an equal a partner in the crisis. That limits our ability to act unilaterally.

But in my opinion the problem in Syria is that there is a civil war. And there is no international anything capable of responding to the civil war or the subsequent refugee crisis. The inescapable conclusion is that in fact there has been a failure to create any of the international governance and cooperative structures that could provide a meaningful response to a civil war. Or non-state terrorists. Or regional conflicts.

I assume one point of the creation of some international order is that the system is able to respond to civil ethno-sectarian conflicts and to regional conflicts – that is, the international order has some resiliency and that management of the conflict can be delegated to regional councils or whatever it is. I think it’s that ability to delegate, to develop competency at all levels that determines the success of a leader and her organization. When the leader has to be involved in every single operational decision, I believe there are really only two possible outcomes – the first is a limit to the size of scope of the organization, the other is a chaotic dissolution.

#24 Comment By Peter Jones On May 28, 2017 @ 8:22 am

Great piece by Bacevich (once again.) Captures the intellectual and (by implication) moral bankruptcy of our “think tanks.”

Always amusing to see Brookings described as “liberal” by our equally bankrupt media when in fact the DC think tanks have one basic default setting: war-mongering and global chaos generation.

#25 Comment By Ivy IR Prof On May 28, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

Our “internationalists” spend an awful lot of time thinking about how to spend American money, squander American foreign policy focus, and waste American lives.

Indeed, as Brookings defines it, “internationalism” is the exact opposite of what it sounds like.

A truly internationalist policy would foster the formation of alliances in which regional partners with the most at stake took the lead in spending, and, when necessary, in fighting and dying. And that means all regions, not just the grossly overrated Middle East, which seems to suck all the air out of attempts to formulate a sane, balanced American foreign policy, not to mention any wise and effective grand strategy.

#26 Comment By Cynthia McLean On May 28, 2017 @ 1:51 pm

For the most part, this BS worldview is bi-partisan and the bottom line is profit for the defense industry. Clinton and the DNC vary little from Trump and the RNC. It’s for that reason I voted last November for “None of the Above.” I do believe that the US has become the world’s Rogue Nation based on Might makes Right, and I weep.

#27 Comment By Taras77 On May 28, 2017 @ 4:38 pm

A remarkable article by a very important author!

He is precisely on point with the “vacuous” analysis, if that is what it is to be; it really simply regurgitates the same tired cliches about leadership, exceptionalism, blah, blah.

Agree, the MIC should demand its money back.

#28 Comment By Jessica On May 28, 2017 @ 6:47 pm

“The gullible saps who funded it should demand their money back.”
It is fascinating how often someone, for example the author of this well-written piece, convincingly argues that some aspect of our governing structure, political or corporate, is fundamentally ill-intentioned, but then mysteriously falls back on the notion that incompetence has anything to do with it.
Surely the demonstrates just how difficult it is even for those who know better to completely grasp that we are dealing will people whose goals are inimical to us, not with incompetence. (Although of course, in the execution of those inimical goals, incompetence does also occur, particularly incompetence that is tolerated out of solidarity with fellow-inimicals.

#29 Comment By Adriana I Pena On May 29, 2017 @ 1:10 am

I recall the comment I made during the Iraq war (or rather its aftermath) when Sunni and Shiah were at each other’s throats.

That if the US wanted to get caught in wars of religion, they should go to Northern Ireland. The climate is nicer, the food is familiar, the natives speak English, and the neighbors are well behaved. Much better than Iraq.

As for bringing democracy to those countries, I recommend an old book “Why Democracies Fail” by Norman L. Stamps in which he tells that the democracies set up after World War I before long had become dictatorships, fascist or otherwise, and explain the weaknesses of those democracies taht led to their collapse.

#30 Comment By Helen Marshall On May 29, 2017 @ 12:31 pm

Strobe Talbott, it should be noted, while Deputy SecState for Bill Clinton, put Victoria Nuland on her path to power, ending with her orchestration of the overthrow of the elected government in Ukraine (from the post as Assistant Secretary for European Affairs to which she was installed by Hillary Clinton). Twenty-five years of this “internationalist” leadership (might we also note the expansion of NATO under Bill Clinton, despite promises made as the USSR collapsed) has left the world in pretty sad shape.

#31 Comment By Kurt Gayle On May 30, 2017 @ 8:05 am

Anytime that Robert Kagan’s name appears on a report – this time it’s on the “BS” report – we know we’re walking in deep doo-doo that’s getting deeper!

In 1997 neocon Kagan co-founded (with fellow neocon William Kristol) the interventionist neocon think tank Project for the New American Century. (Remember the infamous PNAC rogue’s gallery of bad foreign policy actors and bad foreign policy recommendations?)

Kagan advised John McCain during his presidential campaign and in 2016 – always hungry for a new war – Kagan supported the Hillary Hawk.

Robert Kagan never saw a Middle East war that he wasn’t in favor of fighting — with other Americans’ sons and daughters, of course.

Robert Kagan is married to Victoria “f—k the EU” Nuland.

#32 Comment By Dan Phillips On June 6, 2017 @ 2:54 pm

What is the point of producing a report on foreign policy where all the contributors “come from the internationalist school?” Don’t we know, for the most part, what it is going to say before it is even written? This is the problem with the current state of our foreign policy debate.