"Does America Need a Foreign Policy?” is the name of a book by Henry Kissinger published a few months before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. A prominent reviewer at the time called the title “peculiar.”
“Does anyone suppose,” the reviewer asked, incredulously, “that the answer would be no—America doesn’t need a foreign policy?”
But the title wasn’t peculiar; it was fundamental. And prophetic. It anticipated Barack Obama and the America for which he stands.
That’s an America that is somewhere between mildly bothered and happily indifferent that the world beyond our shores is in an increasingly bad state. Iran close to a bomb? Probably inevitable. Chemical weapons in Syria bouncing around like stray tennis balls? Their problem. Islamism ascendant throughout the Arab world? That’s democracy for you, and it’ll have to sort itself out. Vladimir Putin staging reruns of the Moscow show trials? A pity. China flirting with a war against Japan? They should work it out.
As for the U.S., we’re practically bankrupt. And foreign policy begins at home, as none other than Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, tells us in a new book.
These are the sorts of views—isolationist is the only real word for them—that crowd my inbox every week, and they’re not a fringe. A growing number of Americans, conservatives too, have concluded that the lesson of the past decade is that, since the U.S. can’t do it all, the wisest, most moral, and most self-interested course is to do nothing.
“How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” Mr. Obama pondered in an interview in January. He’s still pondering—and paying no political price for doing so.
Hence the importance of the Kissinger question. America has always conducted foreign policy despite itself—despite a conviction, shared by liberals and conservatives alike, that America’s global role is to serve as a model unto, not a player among, others; despite the knowledge that foreign policy requires a choice of evils that may be necessary but is always debasing; despite the faith that Providence, already on our side, doesn’t need to be hastened by us in order to reach its destination.
In short, why bother? “The post-Cold War generation of American leaders (whether graduated from the protest movements or the business schools) finds it possible to imagine that foreign policy is either economic policy or consists of instructing the rest of the world in American virtues,” Mr. Kissinger noted in the book. Had he known about Mr. Obama back then, he might have added personal charisma to the list of foreign-policy substitutes.
It was the conceit of the Obama administration when it first came to office that America’s foreign-policy problem was, at its heart, a public-relations problem; that the combination of unattractive policies (Gitmo, warrantless wiretaps, “torture”), and an unattractive president (W) had made tractable problems difficult.
The cure? Mr. Obama’s emollient rhetoric, his compelling biography, his concern, his willingness to reach out. In this analysis, America had erred by setting the wrong example. Set the right one, and the problems—from Iran’s unwillingness to strike a grand bargain with the West to America’s unpopularity on the Arab street to Russia’s all-round nastiness—should have gone away.
They didn’t. America’s problems with Russia, Iran and the Arab world have all become inarguably worse since Mr. Obama came to office. That’s because, following the failure of the administration’s initial analysis, it had no policy. Is there any consistent theme to American foreign policy today—an explanation of why, for instance, we intervened in Libya but not Syria, why we withdrew completely from Iraq but surged (and then de-surged) in Afghanistan?
Let’s face it: America in the age of Obama does not have a foreign policy. It has foreign-policy impulses, and a foreign-policy apparatus, which bobs along on the waves and currents of events. Since we haven’t capsized yet, we assume we can go on like this for a long time, maybe forever. One of the paradoxes of our supposedly hyper-connected world is how easily we still pretend that the rest of the world is far, far away.
That’s probably why the Benghazi fiasco, or scandal, has gained only limited political traction. Benghazi is the story of how the requirement to tell the truth when four Americans lose their lives in the service of their country is subordinated to the needs of a presidential political apparatus whose narrative is that “al Qaeda,” “Libya,” “Arab street” are things which happened “a long time ago,” as Jay Carney immortally put it, like Peleliu or Antietam. Yet barring fresh blockbuster revelations the scandal will go nowhere, because so many Americans are as eager as the White House spokesman to forget it ever happened.
Elsewhere in the world, most countries suffer because they remember too much, too well. America alone, it seems, suffers the opposite affliction: We remember little, and we remember it poorly. “Does America Need a Foreign Policy?” The question seems odd only because not many people besides Henry Kissinger, nearly 90, can recall that the U.S. has attempted to do without one before—and recall also how the previous attempt ended in September of 1939.