We were stunned, frankly, by the extent of agreement on goals and major policy objectives. The report, at a slim 22 pages, does not cover all topics, but what it does cover suggests that Obama may be an aberration, a failed experiment that departed from key principles of U.S. foreign policy. Republicans should be greatly relieved that Democrats (James Steinberg, Michele Flournoy, James Rubin [no relation] etc.) who signed on and may pop up in a Hillary Clinton administration sound more like the administration’s GOP critics than they do Obama. In fact, a Democrat on the committee made clear that the president’s appalling refusal to act forcefully with regard to Ukraine and Syria served as a wake-up call to the responsible Democratic foreign policy community.
For example, Republicans and Democrats both agreed:
1. The post-WWII world order has paid enormous benefits for the United States but is now endangered. (“The past 70 years have seen an unprecedented growth in global prosperity, lifting billions out of poverty. Democratic government, once rare, has spread to over 100 nations. Above all, for 70 years there have been no cataclysmic wars among great powers of the kind that devastated Europe and Asia in the first half of the 20th century.”)
2. Without a strong U.S. presence in the world — without “Extending American Power” as the report is entitled — that order and our security and prosperity will collapse under the weight of “powerful and ambitious authoritarian governments like Russia and China, radical Islamic terrorist movements, long-term shifts in the global economy, the rise of non-state actors, the challenges of cyberspace, and changes in our physical environment.”
3. There is no one but the United States to carry out that role. (“The best way to ensure the longevity of a rules based international system favorable to U.S. interests is not to retreat behind two oceans, lower American standards, or raise the tolerance level for risk. The proper course is to extend American power and U.S. leadership in Asia, Europe, and the Greater Middle East – regions where threats to the international order are greatest and where either new approaches or more consistent application of time-honored approaches are most urgently needed.”) Even that conclusion is a departure from the instinct for retrenchment we have seen from this president.
4. We cannot do defense on the cheap. “An urgent first step is to significantly increase U.S. national security and defense spending and eliminate the budgetary straitjacket of the Budget Control Act. A second and related step is to formulate policies that take advantage of the substantial military, economic, and diplomatic power Washington has available but has been reluctant to deploy in recent years.”
5. In Asia, China is on offense so “the United States should do more to leverage its dramatic advantage in allies and regional security relationships. In that regard, a new diplomatic strategy of coordinating Asia policies with long-standing U.S. allies in Europe should be instituted. Such an approach plays to U.S. strengths and will add to perceptions of U.S. power.” This also includes passage of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. What has been missing, the authors say is the will “to respond to the new and unprecedented challenge from a rising increasingly assertive China.”
6. In Europe, the group urges enhanced coordination in defeating the Islamic State and providing “Ukrainian armed forces with the training and equipment necessary to resist Russian-backed forces and Russian forces operating on Ukrainian territory” as well as economic assistance. They argue that “to deter Russian efforts to destabilize these nations, it is necessary to build upon the European Reassurance Initiative and establish a more robust U.S. force presence in appropriate central and eastern Europe countries.”
7. Getting past the blame casting on the Middle East, there is agreement that we must deny the Islamic State a free haven. To accomplish that “the international effort against ISIS is scaled up substantially. The United States should be prepared to lead such an effort, the aim of which should be to uproot ISIS from its sanctuary. The anti-ISIS alliance should have a global strategy that synchronizes military, intelligence, law enforcement, financial, and diplomatic operations. It should involve other major powers from around the world, and as many local and regional forces on the ground as possible.”
8. In Syria, they likewise concur that, contrary to the president’s appalling expression of pride in his handiwork the situation is abysmal:
“The crisis in Syria, which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of lives, is now spilling over that country’s borders in a dramatic way, destabilizing neighboring countries in the Middle East and threatening the security and stability of Europe. The massive flows of refugees, measured in the millions, will become even more unmanageable if a political solution to the civil war ravaging Syria is not found sometime soon. Any such political solution must include the departure of Bashar al-Assad (but not necessarily all members of the ruling regime), since it is Assad’s brutal repression of Syria’s majority Sunni population that has created both the massive exodus and the increase in support for jihadist groups like ISIS. . . . [I]n light of this grim reality, the United States, together with France and other allies, must employ the necessary military power, including an appropriately designed no-fly zone, to create a safe space in which Syrians can relocate without fear of being killed by Assad’s forces and where moderate opposition militias can arm, train, and organize.”
9. The report does not relitigate the Iran deal, but it does make clear it is critical that we depart from the passivity and serial concessions that followed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. (“Past disagreements notwithstanding, the wisest course is to adopt a hard-nosed enforcement strategy to ensure the maximum benefit possible from the agreement and to minimize any shortcomings. Such a strategy should combine rigorous enforcement of the nuclear accord with stronger efforts to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities throughout the region, from its support to terrorist groups like Hezbollah to its efforts to sow instability in the Sunni Arab states.”)
10. The report’s authors, like the House, favors tamping down on the hyper-centralization of foreign policy power in the White House. And in a rebuke to isolationists on both sides of the aisle they argue, “There has been a recurrent tendency among Americans, including American political leaders and policymakers, to believe that the end of a crisis or a war or the solution of some international problem ought to bring an end to the need for extensive engagement by the United States. On the contrary, the task of preserving a world order is both difficult and never-ending. Success, when it comes, is rarely permanent but must be reinforced and built upon. Failures will be frequent, but the right response is not to retreat. Instead, we should learn, retool, and prepare to do a better job with the next challenge. To engage in foreign policymaking is to learn to exercise humility.”
All of this seems like a universe away from the presidential race and congressional battles that have become hyper-politicized and, frankly, dumbed-down as both sides substitute urban myth for facts and a nostalgia for the 1930s (“America First,” says Trump) in place of a realistic approach to the 21st century. If the voters should pick Trump or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) none of the sober assessments and reasoned proposals will be relevant.
If, however, the Democrats in this group are representative of the foreign policy thinking of Clinton or if a third candidate reflecting the Republicans’ thinking decides to run, then there is reason for optimism. The public has not heard a constant and consistent argument for strong U.S. leadership from the White House so the next president will need to devote time and effort to educating the public. (A few early policy successes will help bring around a public that views extended wars in the Middle East as losing propositions.)
Out of the foreign policy rubble the Obama team leaves behind, a truly bipartisan, measured and competent foreign policy may emerge. There will be differences, certainly, on everything from climate change initiatives to human rights to the precise level of defense spending, but, if nothing else, living through the Obama foreign policy debacles has forged common concerns and mutual respect in the foreign policy world. We will need that help to right U.S. foreign policy before further disaster ensues.