David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

A fresh approach to looking at foreign threats

The chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees stated last weekend that the world was getting more unsafe. A few days later, the Pew Research Center reported that 52 percent of Americans think the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally,” the highest such total in the nearly 50-year history of that query. Taken together, these two items symbolize a serious emerging national problem.

The crackup ahead lies in the mismatch between the challenges facing America and the public’s willingness to support activist foreign policy to deal with them. Simply put: There is a splintering of the traditional consensus for global engagement at the very time that some big new problems are emerging.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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The traditional American response to such puzzles has been to form a bipartisan commission. A model is the pathbreaking 2006 Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by James A. Baker III, a former secretary of state; and Rep. Lee Hamilton, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana. Giants serving with them included Sandra Day O’Connor, a retired Supreme Court justice; and Vernon Jordan, a banker, civil rights leader and counselor to presidents. For advice, they turned to such luminaries as Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, all brilliant former national security advisers.

All are part of the traditional foreign policy establishment that still commands the high ground intellectually but does not reflect the restless, frustrated mood of the American public. The old consensus is broken and needs to be reinvented and refreshed.

What should a modern-day commission be worrying about? Rep. Mike Rogers and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the chairs of the House and Senate intelligence committees, respectively, said last Sunday on CNN that the world is not safer today than a few years ago. They were referring to the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Syria, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere. These are not two-bit al-Qaeda franchises anymore; the State Department received an intelligence report recently that 5,500 foreign fighters are operating with al-Qaeda’s affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. How should the United States combat this threat? Sorry, no consensus on that.

Al-Qaeda is even putting down roots in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, according to Gen. Mohammed Farid el-Tohamy, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service. How can the United States help Egypt, its most important ally in the Arab world, defeat Islamic terrorism at the same time as it moves to restore civilian government and a measure of democracy? No consensus on that one, either.

And there’s the huge foreign-policy challenge of Iran’s nuclear program. President Obama has made a bold interim deal with Iran. But to complete the agreement, and ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is truly peaceful, Obama will need strong support from Congress and the public. Right now, it’s hard to imagine that he will get it. The public doesn’t want war, but it doesn’t seem to like entangling diplomacy much, either.

A modest proposal is that Obama should convene a younger group of American leaders: strategists, technologists, professors. It would be a learning exercise — to understand how the country should deal with the problems of the next 10 years without making the mistakes of the past 10. What has America learned from its struggles with Islamic extremism? What lessons do we take from our painful expeditionary wars? How can Americans too young to remember the Iranian revolution of 1979 engage that country, but also set clear limits on its behavior?

Happily, a new generation of thinkers could form the bipartisan group I’m imagining. If you don’t know their names yet, you should: Marc Lynch of George Washington University, known to his online fans as “Abu Aardvark”; David Kilcullen, one of the architects of counterinsurgency success in Iraq and author of “Out of the Mountains,” an iconoclastic new book on future urban conflicts; Michèle Flournoy, a clear-eyed former undersecretary of defense; and Jared Cohen and Alec Ross, two technological wizards who advised the State Department under Hillary Clinton and are now with Google and Johns Hopkins University, respectively. I’d add the administration’s own Salman Ahmed , Tony Blinken , Ben Rhodes , Wendy Sherman and Jake Sullivan .

What encourages me is that the same American public that wants the United States to mind its own business internationally also registers a two-thirds majority in favor of greater U.S. involvement in the global economy, according to the Pew poll. Young respondents were even more internationalist on this issue than their elders.

This is a connected generation that can address problems in new ways — but it needs to get started.

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