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When 'America Forward' sounds anything but in Washington

Sadly, the name of the game seems to be nostalgia, not critical reflection, in today's foreign policy discussions.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The House Foreign Affairs Committee held its first hearing of the 117th Congress on Wednesday, and early indications are that the legislature will be committed to the same overarching foreign policy goal as President Biden — summed up by the refrain “America is back.” 

The hearing, titled “America Forward: Restoring Diplomacy and Development in a Fracturing World,” was heavy on nostalgia for the pre-Trump, bipartisan days of American leadership on the world stage, and notably lacking in reflection or accounting for what brought on Trump’s “America First” policy to begin with and whether a return to the status quo ante is really what is best for the country or the world.

While there were some glimmers of hope in a few of the questions and testimony, including Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-NY) stressing the importance of ending “forever wars” in his opening statement, the hearing as a whole suggested that the members of this influential committee crave a return to “normal” above all else. 

Sure, President Trump did pursue policies that were particularly harmful — such as withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, vetoing legislation that would have stopped American involvement in the war in Yemen, and depleting the State Department — and reversing those moves will have a decidedly positive impact. But it seemed that blanket opposition to the former president’s approach made it too easy for committee members and witnesses to avoid critical reflection or to confront important questions about the future of America’s role in the world.

Here are three takeaways:

Restoring “American Leadership” is the top priority

While members of the committee and the experts they questioned noted that a return to normal would not be enough, there was a near universal agreement that the United States and the world was better off for American leadership. While the Trump presidency offered a chance to open the door to a more honest discussion about the consequences of the American led “international order,” it appears that perhaps the opposite might be true. The haphazard and at times harmful strategy of the past four years has instead led to a desire to strengthen the fundamental beliefs that have driven American foreign policy for the better part of the last century. 

For the members of this hearing, the primary shortcoming of the last administration was not the rapid increase in militarization of American foreign policy, the support for the Saudi war in Yemen, or the confrontational approach towards China, but rather the perceived abandonment of its seat at the head of the table. The legislators and panelists mostly lamented the loss of the pre-Trump bipartisan foreign policy consensus without any accounting for what made “America First” rhetoric appealing or the potential downsides of American primacy. 

Going through the history of the U.S. role in the world, former Ambassador Ryan Crocker argued that after World War II, international institutions were “created through U.S. thinking and implemented with U.S leadership (...) there were some bad mistakes, like Vietnam or Iraq, yet  for seven-and-a-half decades we exerted global leadership and avoided global conflict.” Though, in his opinion, American leadership slipped as the Obama and Trump presidencies focused inward, Crocker said he was pleased to hear the renewed focus on reclaiming the leadership mantle, hoping that “we do so, and that we do so urgently.”

The only substantial challenges to this belief came from Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) who called “American leadership, as described today” an idea that “places American interests behind the interests of almost any other nation” and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) who questioned the mindset that led to interventions in Libya and Afghanistan, two societies that are still feeling the effects of those interventions 10 and 20 years after the fact, respectively.

The same talking points on Afghanistan, two decades later

The debate over whether President Biden should adhere to the May 1 withdrawal deadline has been picking up in recent weeks, and it was one of the few specific substantive questions that was addressed during the hearing. Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, offered a passionate defense for remaining there “as long it takes” until we see “the result we want” without specifying exactly what that result would be. When faced with mild questioning from Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-NJ), Crocker dismissed concerns about indefinite commitment to Afghanistan as the public and members of Congress being “tired.” 

As Daniel Larison recently wrote, “nothing alarms hawks in the foreign policy establishment more than the prospect of an end to U.S. involvement in a foreign war,” and Crocker went back to several of the same arguments that have been used to defend the U.S. presence in Afghanistan for years, calling the mission vital to American values, interests, and national security. While noting that he did not understand what part of this mission the American people considered “endless,” Crocker implicitly acknowledged a vital point: That it will be difficult, if not impossible, to meet the necessary conditions for withdrawal. 

That proponents of keeping troops in Afghanistan continue to stress the need for “strategic patience” and that even two decades after arriving, warn of an exit being “rushed” or “reckless,” is proof that at this point, following the timeline for withdrawal is the best option. 

We must rebuild the State Department

One encouraging sign from the hearing was the belief in the importance of rebuilding the State Department and reorienting American foreign policy towards diplomacy. State suffered greatly during the last presidency, and President Biden has made it clear that reinvesting in diplomats is a priority for his administration. The witnesses at the hearing all spoke of the imperative of not only strengthening, but also modernizing the State Department.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the Director of Policy Planning at State under Hillary Clinton, suggested a new global service that would permit early, mid, and late career professionals who are not career diplomats to partake in ten-year long tours serving the department. This would permit for increased diversity, in terms of both demographics and thought, in important positions within the American foreign policy apparatus. Slaughter also emphasized the need for Congress to play a role in enacting these changes. In order to reshape U.S. statecraft, Congress must reassert its authority, not only in terms of empowering the State Department, but also when it comes to the power of the purse and declaring war. 

As many of the speakers during the hearing admitted, the world has changed over the last four years. But few were willing to question whether the United States should change its relationship with the rest of the world. Instead of learning the lessons of the past few years and rethinking the concept of American leadership, the committee and members and expert witnesses chose to try to move on by arguing for a return to the pre-Trump status quo.  

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