The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and the breaching of our embassy walls in Cairo, Egypt, might have unified our politicians in a common cause similar to the way they came together for the short time right after 9/11. Unfortunately, because this is a presidential election year, this was not the case. Instead, these tragic and terrible incidents have been made into the basis for political fodder and sloganeering by the Republican opposition to President Obama.
On September 12, vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan issued a press release titled “Peace through Strength Works.” In that speech he declared, “If you show weakness, if you show moral equivocation, then foreign policy adventurism among our adversaries will increase.” Presidential candidate Mitt Romney was a little more temperate in his foreign policy comments on 60 Minutes, but still saw the need for using more American “power” in the Middle East. He stated, “This doesn’t mean we send our guns there. This means that we stand up with our economic power, our soft power, our diplomatic power, our principles.”
Strength and power are “hawkish” words — kind of like shock and awe. Words don’t necessarily get you into conflict but the attitudes behind them can. We need only to look at the enormous costs in American blood and treasure in Iraq and Afghanistan to see the consequences of militaristic thinking and major interventions into Middle Eastern nation-states.
We need to understand the limits of American strength and power and our responsibilities as an international citizen and leader and then calibrate our foreign policy and involvement accordingly. With regard to the security of our diplomats and foreign service personnel in embassies and consulates in the Middle East and around the world, we need to recognize that the hard truth is that the best that we can do is to cultivate the “myth of invincibility.” If we want to maintain an “approachable” presence in these locations, it is impossible to harden those sites and make them completely attack-proof. Instead, we want them to appear to be so to those who would consider such actions.
Most importantly, we need to listen and learn from our experts regarding foreign policy, diplomacy and the use of military force. In our opinion, two of the foremost authorities in this regard are Ryan Crocker, the former ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense for both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
Alissa Rubin wrote an exceptional New York Times article on July 29 based upon an interview with Ambassador Crocker before he left Afghanistan. She opens the article by stating
“that American policy makers need to learn the lessons of the recent past as they weigh military options for the future, including for Syria and Iran:
• Remember the law of unintended consequences.
• Recognize the limits of the United States actual capabilities.
• Understand that getting out of a conflict once you are in can often be dangerous and as destructive for the country as the original conflict.”
Given this advice, she quotes Crocker as follows: “You better do some cold calculating, you know, about how do you really think you are going to influence things for the better.” On the subject of Syria, Ambassador Crocker said, “We’ve been writing memos to policy makers with the subject line ‘Levers on Syria’ for decades. Well you know, the reality was those levers didn’t exist.” He added, “I’m not certain we can do much to influence it.”
Crocker’s perspective, shaped by more than 40 years of experience regarding the actual scope of American influence and power, is a realistic and pragmatic one. He puts it this way:
“We’re a superpower, we don’t fight on our territory, but that means you are in somebody else’s stadium, playing by somebody else’s ground rules, and you have to understand the environment, the history, the politics of the country you wish to intervene in.”
Secretary Gate’s perspective mirrors Crocker’s in terms of the need for prudence and restraint. In his brilliant January/February 2009 article for Foreign Affairs, Secretary Gates says the two things he has learned in his 42 years in national security are limits and a sense of humility. Recognizing this, he acknowledges that the United States is the “strongest and greatest nation on earth,” but also warns that “we should be modest about what military force can accomplish and what technology can accomplish.” He cautions that:
“We should look askance at idealistic, triumphalist, or ethnocentric notions of future conflict that aspire to transcend the immutable principles and ugly realities of war, that imagine it is possible to cow, shock, or awe an enemy into submission instead of tracking enemies down hilltop by hilltop, house by house, and block by bloody block.”
Ambassador Crocker’s interview and Secretary Gate’s article should be required reading for all those involved in the shaping of foreign policy, diplomacy and national security. They are professionals who basically are saying, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.” They are also saying be extremely careful before wielding that stick. We would do well to heed their advice — even during a presidential election years when the tendency is to engage in political polemics instead of practical policy formulation.