Three Bad Habits the DC Foreign Policy Elite Must Drop in the New Year

The beginning of a new year can be a cathartic experience. Sure, there are celebrations with friends, the uncorking of champagne bottles, and those obnoxious eyeglasses with the sparkly colors on the frames. But Americans also tend to look at the coming year as a fresh start and an opportunity to engage in some self-improvement. With New Year’s resolutions in hand, we try our very best to actually commit to the promises we make to ourselves, whether it’s eating better, connecting with old friends, or cutting down on social media usage.

If we fail to live up to our resolutions, the impact is typically limited. Not so, however, with the men and women who run the U.S. foreign policy machinery. If the policymakers make a bad call, the entire country suffers. Indeed, if there is any crop of Americans who could use a dose of introspection as we bid the decade farewell, it’s the decision-makers, policy analysts, and pundits who make up the U.S. foreign policy establishment writ-large. So as we prepare for 2020, here is a short list of New Year’s resolutions (in no particular order) that the all-powerful policy elite should keep in their coat pockets:

Resolution #1: Drop the “I-word”

If you happen to be one of those readers who scrolls through the opinion pages of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Politico, or any other mainstream publication, chances are that you have come across the word “isolationist or “isolationism” at some point. If you’re a regular reader of the commentariat, it’s highly likely that you have scanned over the word at least once a week. Headlines like “US isolationism leaves Middle East on edge as new decade dawns” or “Donald Trump’s isolationism is a gift to America’s enemies,” are commonplace, sound frightening, and fuel a popular narrative that the United States is withdrawing from the planet, pulling up the drawbridge to insulate itself, and ceding influence to the Vladimir Putins and Xi Jinpings of the world. It’s as if Americans have traveled in time to the 1920s, where overseas engagement was generally viewed with wary eyes.

The only problem: none of it is true. In fact, it’s deliberately misleading. Hawkish policy elites and editorialists use the term to smear anyone proposing anything short of U.S. primacy and military “solutions” to global challenges. Moreover, one quick glance at the world today is all one needs to bust the “America is turning isolationist” myth 

At present, nearly 200,000 U.S. service members are deployed around the world. Washington is conducting counterterrorism operations across multiple continents in countries as far apart as Niger and the Philippines. Around 12,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan, a full 18 years after the first U.S. paratroopers and special operations forces descended into that conflict-wracked nation with a mission to obliterate the al-Qaida terrorist network. Just a few days ago, the U.S. Air Force conducted strikes on five Kata’ib Hizbollah bases in Iraq and Syria in retaliation for a rocket attack on a Tikrit base that killed a U.S. contractor and wounded four U.S. service members. And despite all of the innuendo about Washington disengaging from the Middle East and Moscow planting the Russian flag in Arab capitals from Damascus to Tripoli, between 60,000-70,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in the region. Just two months ago, President Trump ordered the deployment of an additional 3,000 troops to Saudi Arabia. Since May, the number of U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf has risen by 14,000. If any of this is remotely isolationist, then the term itself has lost all meaning.

The foreign policy discourse in Washington, D.C. is all too often stuck in a labyrinth of stale ideas. Groupthink is a moral hazard but part of daily life. Lazy buzzwords and simplistic talking points substitute substantive debate. Using the “I-word” as a dishonest trope to shut down the conversation only further poisons the discourse.

Resolution #2: Kick the Sanctions Addiction

The Beltway is a toxic heap of polarization and politicization, but the one thing everybody in the capital can agree on is to sanction anything and anyone that doesn’t strictly adhere to what we want.  Sanctions have something for everyone:For the executive branch, slapping a travel ban, an asset freeze, or a blockage order is a quick and seemingly relatively painless way to send a message to a weapons proliferator, human rights abuser, or other bad actor that there are consequences for negative behavior. For lawmakers, sending  comprehensive  sanctions legislation to the president’s desk is a way to demonstrate to constituents that Congress is actually doing something about a problem.  

The sanctions lever, however, has been pulled so frequently that the joystick is starting to loosen out of its socket. Hardly a week goes by when the Treasury or State Department doesn’t issue a press release announcing another designation. Sanctions have become a crutch to be deployed in an ever-wider array of circumstances, typically when policymakers are unable to come up with a better option.  

This perhaps wouldn’t be a problem if all of this financial pressure was having the desired impact. But success is increasingly the exception rather than the rule. Indeed, as Washington’s sanctions regimes become more extraterritorial, friends, partners, and foes alike are openly exploring how to mitigate their effects by finding loopholes in the U.S.-dominated global financial system. European allies like France and Germany are growing exacerbated with the indiscriminate nature of U.S. sanctions; the latest action against the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is just the most recent example. And as Washington’s demands get ever more unrealistic, the target country gets ever more uncompromising. There are even severe health risks involved — just ask the Iranian cancer patient who finds herself cut off from the medicine she needs because the bank responsible for processing the payments is terrified of doing any business in Iran.

The U.S. foreign policy elite is running the risk of misunderstanding what economic sanctions are about. Punishment, not a realistic change in behavior, is now the objective.  

Resolution #3: Stop Asking for the Moon

It turns out that U.S. diplomacy isn’t very diplomatic. As the world’s leading superpower with friendly neighbors to its north and south, the most capable military on the planet, and the largest Gross Domestic Product to boot, the United States remains self-obsessed with its own power. Unfortunately, this self-obsession has led to self-delusion at the negotiating table, where U.S. leaders often overestimate the extent of their power and underestimate the will of the other side. We don’t really negotiate as much as we demand compliance or surrender from the other party. If Iran wants sanctions relief, it must first fulfill our unrealistic 12-point wish list as articulated by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. If North Korea wants to rejoin the international community as a full member, it must first sign away its nuclear deterrent. And if Venezuela hopes to get out from under Washington’s embargo, its criminal and illegitimate president first needs to vacate the presidential living quarters and move on.

Yet very rarely does the party at the opposite end of the table give in so easily. Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela may be third and fourth-rate powers compared to the United States, but all three countries still have a sense of pride, nationalism, and a focused understanding of what is and is not acceptable in any hypothetical deal. Somewhere along the way, U.S. officials have forgotten one of the golden rules of statecraft: you need to give a little to get a little. Nothing is going to be handed to us on a silver platter; if we hope to receive concessions, we should be prepared to offer our own as well. Simply pounding our fists on the table, screaming at the top of our lungs, and threatening to increase the unilateral pressure rarely leads to positive outcomes. In fact, as Iran’s increasing non-compliance with the nuclear agreement over the last year illustrates, an all-stick, no-carrots approach just produces more resistance from the opposing side.

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This New Year, U.S. foreign policy elites have a big choice to make. They can either continue to live in their own alternative universe and pretend everything is fine. Or they can come to terms with the errors of their ways and make the decision to change like the rest of us.  

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