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Sunday, March 20, 2011
 

Defining Our Interests

As Western forces rain down fire on the forces of Moammar Gadhafi, the Arab League has already come out with criticism of an intervention they virtually demanded just days ago.

There are two problems here. One is external -- the nations of the Middle East have for some time been playing a nasty double game which consists of letting the U.S. take the heat for problems they do not find politically expedient to solve on their own.

The other is internal -- the United States has for some time been playing a nasty double game in which it allows domestic political tides, the temperature of media coverage and simple, cynical expediency to dictate the direction of our foreign policy.

Both of these problems have been around for years, and the internal problem has been exacerbated by both Republican and Democratic administrations. The problem is that our foreign policy is almost always an ad hoc affair, cobbled together on the fly based on sometimes wildly inconsistent reasoning.

There are countless examples, such as our decades of support for Mubarak's police state based on the expediency of Egypt's strategic position, which we only abandoned when the torture and brutality came out of the closet; the invasion of Iraq based on constantly shifting rationales, nearly all of which could be applied to any number of other countries; our failure to define realistic goals and benchmarks in Afghanistan; our schizophrenic public stance toward Pakistan; and now our decisive action against Libya compared to relatively subdued public posturing on concurrent crackdowns by nominal U.S. allies Yemen and Bahrain.

While the brutality in Libya far outstrips what we've seen in other Middle Eastern countries roiled by protest, it's not surprising that our military action this week looks like score-settling to some in the Middle East. After Saddam Hussein, Gadhafi has been a thorn in the side of the United States for longer than anyone.

The reason that such imprecations about U.S. policy thrive is that we don't have consistent standards for our foreign policy decisions. For more than a decade, our interventions in the Arab and Muslim worlds have been driven more by politics and media optics than by principle.

It's been like this at least since Bosnia, when the media narrative about the war finally prompted a belated U.S. intervention. In 2008, I interviewed Charles Kupchan, director for European affairs at the National Security Council during the 1990s, who said the Clinton administration only acted in Bosnia when the "political calculation" became too painful to bear. I couldn't help but think of this statement when watching the Obama administration grope toward a position on the revolution in Egypt and subsequently try to reconcile that position with events in Libya.

Politicians in the Arab and Muslim world have their own reasons for sowing suspicion about American intentions abroad, and those reasons are often petty, expedient and political.

The problem is that we have no coherent response when they speak out against us, because we have no coherent doctrine that guides our foreign interventions. A consistent doctrine would also help undercut Al Qaeda and its affiliated movements, whose primary recruiting pitch exploits the ambiguity of our intentions in the world.

We have to stop predicating our involvement in world affairs on gut feelings and political calculations emanating from the White House. We must clearly define our national interest and the boundaries of what we are prepared to do in its service.

We don't have to be hidebound to this new doctrine. The world is an unpredictable place, now more than ever. We can make exceptions if we have to. But if the doctrine exists, then U.S. leaders who want to make exceptions will be forced to explain why in concrete terms. If we behave inconsistently, it will have to be accounted for.

A new U.S. foreign policy doctrine could take any number of forms. In an ideal world, it would be pragmatic enough to survive a change of party in Washington. But even small steps toward defining our national interest and the calculus that drives our interventions abroad will go a long way.

Every time a new crisis erupts, the media, the American people and the leaders of other nations are left wondering in the dark about how the United States will respond. If we want to exert leadership on the global stage, we should do so as a rational actor who lends stability to international affairs, rather than as a lightly dozing giant who only adds to volatility and uncertainty.

The new doctrine could be hawkish or dovish. It could be interventionist or isolationist. The problem is that we have never clearly articulated the arguments for either approach in a robust public debate that looks further than the top story of the hour. That debate is a necessary next step, but I fear that no one on either side of the political spectrum is interested in taking part.

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