U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and China

Two recent foreign policy articles are worth reading; they’re especially interesting when compared to each other.

Mark Helprin’s sobering essay in the Claremont Review of Books is titled The Central Proposition. It’s about American foreign policy as it relates to the utopian Bush/Obama vision of the Middle East. It opens:

For a decade, the central proposition in America’s foreign relations has been that it is possible to transform one or another Islamic nation and indeed the Arab Middle East or the entire Islamic world. We have apportioned a crippling share of our resources and attention to this project. We have tried force, diplomacy, aid, propaganda, confession, persuasion, apology, personality, and hope. And as one approach fails it is supplanted by or combined with another, the recipe depending upon who happens to be in the White House.

Helprin gives intellectual/historical credence to what many Americans are feeling on an emotional level: a desire to pull back, to restrain ourselves, to give up on democratization projects, to be less interventionist even when there’s humanitarian aims.

But isn’t democracy and the desire for freedom universal and shouldn’t powerful countries enable that?

To succeed, a paradigm of “invade, reconstruct, and transform,” requires the decisive defeat, disarmament, and political isolation of the enemy; the demoralization of its population; the destruction of its political ethos; and the presence, at the end of hostilities, of overwhelming force. In Iraq and Afghanistan none of these conditions was fulfilled, the opposite impression flowing mainly from our contacts predominantly with an expressive, Western-educated elite, and from our failure to understand that despite the universal human desire for freedom, equity, safety, honor, and prosperity, the operational definitions of each of these objectives can vary so much as to render the quality of universality meaningless.

Helprin ends his piece saying that as we’ve been bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan, China continues to rise as America’s most challenging long term foreign policy issue.

Which leads to Robert Kaplan’s fascinating profile of John Mearsheimer in the latest Atlantic. It’s an overview of the man, his ideas, how his “muscular” foreign policy beliefs compare and contrast to other thinkers. And it’s about his conviction that the smartest foreign policy minds and the bulk of the Pentagon budget should be focused on China, not the Middle East. (Kaplan spends ample time on Mearsheimer on Israel, so I won’t rehash those qualifications/disclaimers here.)

I found it broadly educational, but I wanted to point out two minor quotes/sentences somewhat unrelated to the thesis of the article:

“Offensive realism,” he writes in Tragedy, “is like a powerful flashlight in a dark room”: it cannot explain every action throughout hundreds of years of history, but he exhaustively goes through that history to demonstrate just how much it does explain.

I like the flashlight metaphor as a clever way of saying “despite a few exceptions, it’s mostly right.” Also this:

As Huntington once told his protégé Fareed Zakaria: “If you tell people the world is complicated, you’re not doing your job as a social scientist. They already know it’s complicated. Your job is to distill it, simplify it, and give them a sense of what is the single [cause], or what are the couple of powerful causes that explain this powerful phenomenon.”

That’s the job of a lot of leaders, isn’t it? Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it.

6 Responses to U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East and China

  1. Dan says:

    “Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it.”

    Oversimplification is also a problem. Some kinds of complex things can only be effectively dealt with as complex things. See “Unsimple Truths” by Sandra D. Mitchell.

  2. Dan says:

    Full title is “Unsimple Truths: Science, Complexity, and Policy”

  3. “That’s the job of a lot of leaders, isn’t it? Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it” Yep and hope and pray they got it right.
    Riley

  4. fahad says:

    Reminds me of Nassim Taleb, his rant is against experts who think that they can assign causal links to a complex system. Tawk is cheap, so apply hamurabi’s code, and next time anyone who writes newspaper articles, or appears on a talk show calling for e.g. a war in Iraq should be embedded in the front lines, so he has skin in the game.

    On another note, i can’t really believe that Americans still think that there country has something to do with democracy. Supporting Musharraf, Hosni Mubarak, Shah of Iran, the Saudi King, The Kuwaiti and Emirati guys, Yemen, and at one time Saddam Hussein their old pal, doesn’t seem like a policy of promoting democracy. I feel like shouting at the top of my lungs, IT’S OIL!!!. If you compare China with OIL, then OIL wins, hence middle east is more important.

  5. Carl Shan says:

    “That’s the job of a lot of leaders, isn’t it? Take complexity and simplify it, then explain it, then assign causes, and finally propose action for dealing with it.”

    Perhaps, but I would add the qualification in here, as many other readers have already done that the overarching goal is to use these simplifications as a means to a productive end. This is contingent upon the simplification being accurate and holistic.

    I would wager most political simplifications fail both tests.

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