In 2013, I savaged a Richard Haass book in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Haass was so incensed by the negative review, he blasted an e-mail to a mutual friend, dressing down his upstart 20-something critic. Nearly a decade later, as America’s post-9/11 wars worm their way to a pathetic dénouement in Kabul, it seems right to offer up my first American Conservative column as an apology (of sorts) to the Council on Foreign Relations boss.
His book was titled Foreign Policy Begins at Home, a mantra Haass borrowed from the German-American banker James Warburg, whose own 1944 book of the same title had warned that America’s growing global power wouldn’t endure unless Washington attended to the home front. Warburg was no socialist (he was FDR’s personal financial advisor), yet he worried about “runaway capitalism” and called for a measure of “economic democracy” to ameliorate the precarious state of U.S. workers.
Haass updated these themes for the early 21st century. The United States, he argued, had overreached after 9/11 at the expense of the “domestic foundations of its power.” Of course, he was right.
Who could seriously deny that America’s regime-change wars were pointless and excessive, bankrupt in conception and not just in execution? And who could deny the parallel erosion of the domestic hearth during the same years? Who, that is, but a young opinion journalist with a mind self-marinated in the goopy abstractions of interventionism, nurtured by men like Bret Stephens, who on the day he hired me at the Journal told me that his ideal vision of freedom was the 82nd Airborne escorting a Pride parade through the streets of Tehran?
I relished the hatchet job. And Haass made it easy with a text littered with the pet platitudes of the foreign-policy establishment: “History has returned if in fact it ever departed”; “globalization is a defining feature of this era, differentiating it from previous ones”; “China’s rise is one of the defining features of this era”; “all politics is local.” Then, too, some of his policy prescriptions for shoring up the home front ranged from the lame (raising the retirement age) to the foolish (abolishing the Electoral College, supposedly to reduce polarization), though others were perfectly sound (expanding nuclear energy, building roads and bridges).
All this allowed me to sidestep his core contention: To wit, the messy family on the block with the disorderly kids and absentee dad has no business sticking its nose into the affairs of other households and the neighborhood as a whole. Likewise, a nation lacking internal cohesion and justice can’t, and shouldn’t, try to impose its will on faraway lands. (His subtitle, The Case for Putting America’s House in Order, showed a keen awareness of this analogy between the household and the nation or would-be empire.)
Just five years before Foreign Policy Begins at Home appeared, a predatory financier class had successfully socialized the risks associated with its derivatives sorcery, even as millions of Americans lost their homes to foreclosure. That moral and economic catastrophe alone should have been enough to prompt a profound and immediate rethink of America’s imperial ambitions. If this was who we were at home—or rather, if this was what our elites were capable of—what could be expected of their rule abroad? Never mind, we barreled on.
The internal decay has only accelerated since then, and yet the foreign-policy apparatus—liberal and “conservative,” governmental and nonprofit—still publishes annual reports judging other nations on a dozen silly metrics; champions this or that foreign dissident who may or may not be worth championing; issues urgent appeals about “democratic backsliding” in Central Europe and LGBTQ rights in Uzbekistan. More than once in the past few years, I’ve felt an urge to grab these men and women by the well-tailored lapel, shake them and scream, Look around you!
Look at American society. Forget the obvious signs of cultural decadence (not to say insanity). Forget that our athletes and celebrities refuse to honor the flag etched on our troops’ uniforms. Set aside, too, the bizarre fact of a regime that enacts laws referring to mothers as “birthing people.” Just look at the seriously mentally ill and other lost souls sleeping rough on your streets. Ponder the fact that 1 of 5 young people has no friends. Feel some shame at the eyewatering material inequality. Consider the fact that much of the urban underclass is high on weed most of the workday. Visit the vast opioid den beyond the metropole, what used to be called rural America. Stop lecturing the world, and for God’s sake, stop trying to remake other societies in your own image.
This was the impulse to which Haass tried to give serious policy voice back in 2013. It is this healthy impulse, too, that animated the Biden-Trump decision to withdraw from Afghanistan after two decades of failure, of blood and treasure traded for goat dung. The execution was awfully amateurish—but that’s no argument against the strategic call: For doesn’t the very amateurism of our leaders suggest that America has no business leading a place like Afghanistan?
Haass was right in the main, and if anything, he didn’t take his argument nearly far enough. Foreign policy does begin at home.
Sohrab Ahmari is the op-ed editor of the New York Post and a contributing editor of The American Conservative.