Foreign Policy Assessment: Popping The Hood

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Foreign Policy Assessment: Popping The Hood
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Foreign Policy Assessment: With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks upon us, politicians and pundits are reflecting on the legacy of American foreign policy. Here’s what both sides are saying. To have stories like this and more delivered directly to your inbox, be sure to sign up for our newsletter.

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As we approach the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, it’s been nearly impossible to keep up with the deluge of Afghanistan-related headlines over the past few weeks. Kabul fell so quickly that most Americans found themselves wondering, “What the hell just happened?” What were we missing? What went wrong?” Amid thousands of words published on the subject in less than a month, one line from Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass stands out. In a New York Times story by Mark Landler it’s reported that Haass said, “The foreign policy establishment did get it wrong in Iraq, where the US overreached. We got it wrong in Libya, we got it wrong in Vietnam. But over the last 75 years, the foreign policy establishment has gotten most things right.” Heading into what’s meant to be a reflective weekend about America’s intentions abroad and our relations with other nations, we’ve chosen to pop the hood on this quote. Is Haass right? Here’s what both sides are saying:

On The Right

Right-leaning commentators and outlets believe America’s foreign policy establishment elites need to be held accountable after decades spent misleading the public. They believe an independent audit is necessary to avoid repeating the same mistakes.

“A Reckoning for US Foreign Policy Elites is Long Overdue” Andrew Doran, The National Interest: “Where did the United States go wrong? Much has been written and much more will be written, but a few general trends emerge. First, the enemy, ‘terror,’ was an abstraction, and it’s impossible to wage war on an abstraction. Second, we didn’t understand the nature of Afghanistan—or of Iraq, or Syria, or Libya. America was successful at rebuilding post-tribal, modern societies like Germany and Japan, but not premodern societies. … Third, we possessed neither concrete objectives, nor a coherent strategy, nor a definite timeline. … Perhaps above all, there was a misplaced confidence in the tools of the state and of statecraft. As many have noted, America is itself in need of nation-building and is in no position to lecture others. … The reckoning for US foreign policy elites—politicians, policymakers, generals, diplomats, think tanks that had access and influence—is long overdue. It’s time for a painstaking inquiry into what went wrong to ensure that it doesn’t happen again in the era of great power competition. … The present humiliation should be borne by foreign policy elites, the generals, the best and the brightest, not by the American people—and especially not by those who served, though they doubtless feel it more viscerally than the hawkish elites who counseled war.”

“Our military has been lying to us for 20 years” Tucker Carlson, Fox News: “No matter how bad it got in Afghanistan, the Pentagon and its spokesmen repeatedly told us they were making incredible progress. … So if you’re wondering why Americans are so confused that Kabul fell in an afternoon and the Taliban controlled the country we occupied for 20 years, maybe it’s because they thought we were making progress. … Lying to the rest of us about what is actually happening with our troops with our money in our name in a foreign country has been the philosophy of this nation’s military establishment for the last twenty years, and it’s also the philosophy of every high-ranking official in the Biden administration. Project the illusion of progress, even when it’s clear we’re failing. … Meanwhile, while we’ve been leading with our diplomacy, we’ve given billions of dollars of American military equipment to the Taliban. So now, we’re arming the Taliban and marooning our own citizens in Afghanistan. Who could possibly have seen that coming?”

“The Army Needs to Understand the Afghanistan Disaster” Frank Sobchak and Matthew Zais, Wall Street Journal: “This disastrous outcome deserves an honest reckoning. … The House Armed Services Committee recently approved a commission, but an inquiry done by lawmakers will fall prey to partisanship.” Keep reading.

On The Left

Left-leaning commentators hold mixed opinions. The first author below thinks we shouldn’t be so hard on those who have guided our foreign policy over the past half-century. Others are a bit more cynical and even believe we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes.

“In defense of the much-maligned foreign policy establishment” Max Boot, Washington Post: “Only by studying what went wrong in the past can we avoid making the same mistakes in the future. (Instead, we’ll probably make different mistakes.) But I worry about attacks that go too far and focus only on the establishment’s failures while ignoring its more numerous successes. That can only empower populists such as former president Donald Trump whose track record is far worse than the establishment’s. (His mishandling of COVID-19 may have caused 160,000 unnecessary deaths — more than the number of Americans killed in all of our post-1945 wars combined.) … The establishment is vilified for a 20-year commitment to Afghanistan that unraveled in a few days. But the events of August show precisely why presidents of both parties stayed in Afghanistan. … Yes, there were disastrous miscalculations in Iraq and Afghanistan and in the war on terror (e.g., the use of torture). But 20 years later, there hasn’t been another terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 — something few would have predicted on Sept. 12, 2001. … It’s easy to fault the establishment when you know how the story turned out. … Even if they made the wrong calls, how do we know that other decisions would have worked out any better?”

“America’s confrontational foreign policy failed. It should pursue a cooperative global policy.” Jeffrey Sachs, Boston Globe: “During the past 60 years, the United States has suffered a series of failed wars in Indochina, Central America, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Each of these wars produced mayhem and suffering, followed by an American retreat. While the American right wing has always argued that success needed just one more surge or bombing spree, the truth has been simpler and sadder. Ours have been wars of hatred, not logic, and doomed to fail — at a mind-boggling human and financial cost. … It is uncertain whether America will change its relentless aggressive foreign policy for our own good, and the world’s. Our nation has been at war for centuries. Our repeated failures have led the political right to double down, calling with increasing fervor for more weapons, and further escalation with China, Iran, Russia, and other alleged foes. Yes, we have pulled out of Afghanistan — 42 years too late — and that is good. But will the United States adopt a new foreign policy based on peace and problem-solving? That’s the real question.”

“The US foreign policy blob will win in the end” Janan Ganesh, Financial Times: “For the fourth or fifth time in my life, America is said to be on the verge of something called ‘isolationism’. The record, by contrast, tells us to expect another show of force in some remote trouble spot or other by mid-decade.” Keep reading.

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As it relates to Afghanistan, Americans tend to back Biden’s decision to leave the country, but they fault his execution. A Pew Research Center poll found that 54 percent of Americans say it was the right decision to pull troops from Afghanistan, while 42 percent believe it was the wrong decision. However, just 27 percent rate Biden’s handling of the situation as “excellent” or “good,” while 29 percent rate it “only fair” and 42 percent deem it “poor.” Another poll from ABC News/Ipsos found similar results: just 38 percent of Americans approve of Biden’s handling of Afghanistan, while 59 percent disapprove.

Flag This: “Foreign policy mattered little to voters in the 2020 and 2018 contests,” Sahil Kapur writes for NBC News. “A Gallup tracking poll found that in July 2021, just 1 percent cited foreign policy as their top issue, while wars and Middle East conflicts didn’t rate.”

Flag Poll: Foreign Policy Assessment

On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the most excellent, how do you rate the United States’ foreign policy conduct over the past 60 years? Comment below to share your thoughts.

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6 days ago

I would give foreign policy a 3 and this is not a Democrat/Republican thing at all. It’s a disaster how we do things in other countries. The actions taken by our government employees in the name of US interest is shocking. We pay our emplyees way too much just for being there and what they are doing helps mostly no one. Take a look at any embassy in a third world country and look at what they are doing. It will shock you to find where they spend their money and what they say they are accomplishing. If you have a chance to visit a US embassy overseas do it, ask questions, look at how the employees treat people, ask about their programs and how much they spend on them annually. You will walk away scratching your head.

6 days ago

Concur with a 3. Along with our military is the State Department and they have spent our tax money in very inappropriate ways. It’s shocking how we prop up foreign governments but very little of the aide ever reaches the people of their respective country.

6 days ago

American foreign policy is nothing more than making defense contractors wealthy. Listen to the Lindsay Grams, using the “they hate the way we live” argument, the same agreement for 20 years, that’s not the way it works, what part of that stupid claim do you think the taliban uses? “Those infidels have drive through donuts! Then they take those donuts home and eat then while watching tv!” Maybe they hate our 40+ work weeks, or maybe it’s the god damn tesla drivers! Lets go murder Americans, we hate the way they live! The politicians want to keep their donors happy, and by saying donors I mean their bribers happy. Large campaign donations are bribes, exon owns Joe Manchin, he is corrupt and so is his daughter. We need to get money out of politics!

Susan R Swanson
6 days ago

I’m 64, raised on patriotism, religious, and family values. As I graduated high school we were leaving Vietnam, we came in 2nd place (at best) in that war.
While I’m all for helping the underdog, rescuing those in need, etc, there comes a time when we need to care for our own first. That time has long past.
We send money (tons of it) to other countries while our roads and bridges fall into ruin. Our veterans suffer while we roll out the carpet for illegal immigrants who seem to have no desire to give back, or help out by becoming self-sufficient. It infuriates me that my tax dollars give outstanding Healthcare to illegals while I, and other seniors, struggle to get lousy insurance.
Seeing how fast things deteriorated in the Middle East is precisely why it is overdue for us to MYOB. 20 years, thousands of lives, millions of dollars later things are status quo. And we gave them the means to fight harder and better, and apparently we left millions in cash – smells fishy to me.
Imagine if we drew back, circled the wagons, and took care of home turf.
Silly, conservative me…

Reply to  Susan R Swanson
6 days ago

Your comment about seniors struck me as quite sensible. We throw trillions elsewhere and admit thousands of non-citizens promising most with guaranteed monetary life support for life here in the US but tell our seniors where to go… in a sickening song and dance that we can’t afford Social Security. The house of cards will fall some day and on those who do this to their own. Karma.

6 days ago

I concur that 3 is about right. We waste resources thinking our way is the best way. If third world countries want democracy they need to fight for it, just like we did. We can’t keep committing resources that we need domestically to fight someone else’s battles.

Thomas Bender
6 days ago

I believe a 5 is the appropriate grade. My thinking is that the successes or failures are linked to the geographic region involved. For example, Middle East…very low. Europe not so bad and Asia a mixed bag (excluding Viet Nam which was awful). But for the resources we as a nation put into this effort, a 5 is nothing to be proud of!

6 days ago

Asking most of us to rate our foreign policy 1-10 is really asking us to rate what the news is telling us – which too often is extremely skewed and exaggerated in any direction possible. To rate our foreign policy we need to consider its impact on ourselves as well, our economy and our well-being.. in addition to the “nation building” drum-beat exemplified in your examples of the left. My idea of foreign policy is that the majority of it has to do with economics and less with war. I had to laugh though when the WashPost fellow brings up the hated orange man and COVID as an example of failure to lead. Yet their boy Fauci who led the charge to develop that killer virus is the new saint, a liar and a manipulator and a science man with the blood of thousands of deaths on his conscience if he has one. If we consider the development of the virus by the world powers in concert with Red China for GOF as part of the discussion then yes.. it was a blatant failure that resulted in the deaths of millions of people of the world and it rates a -1. Since Pres Biden stands firm in throwing his hat into the Fauci regime and not doing a true investigation, he also holds a -1. Trump reversed the Obama stay on GOF and he too earns a -1. So reparations are due by ALL countries who worked on this including Canada, the UK and others as well as the US and Red China in payment to all of us who have suffered.

Lara Haggerty
6 days ago

I give it a 2. I grew up hearing about the horrors of Vietnam and have watched my government repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again my entire adult life. I can understand why so many in the world dislike us. We can’t take care of our own but we keep trying to tell others what to do. What good things could we have done with all the wasted lives and money decade after decade? We will sadly never know. It always seems the average human is the one who pays dearly while an exclusive elite becomes even wealthier. President Ghani of Afghanistan is just the latest in a long line of corrupt governments our tax dollars have funded and propped up. He had to leave money on the tarmac he ran with so much! I have heard anywhere from 170 to 200 million dollars left the country with him. And what do we get for all of this? Too many dead and maimed (Americans, Afghanis and who knows how many other countries lost people). The pain and struggle of the families of the dead and injuried. Here we are with the “adults” in charge and yet it is the same old sad song. 2021 and the best we can do is an ill planned, poorly executed evacuation which ended with us leaving them weapons and gear that they will either use to terrorize their own people or will sell to like minded or worse groups. My heart and soul weeps for America………