Wishful Thinking Isn’t Foreign Policy

A post-debate column from the Brookings Institution focused on a criticism of Administration foreign policy that is dangerously disconnected from reality in its naivete.

The Republican presidential candidates last night disagreed on many important issues, but on foreign policy, they showed a remarkable unanimity. Together, they presented what boils down to a consensus Republican foreign policy manifesto: “Obama is weak; I am strong.”

As the author notes, the message is simple: favoring diplomacy over force is weakness.

The problem with this very simplistic worldview is front and center in the current debate about the Iran nuclear agreement. Opponents–not all of whom are Republicans, and several of whom should know better (yes, Senator Schumer, I’m looking at you)–routinely fault the agreement as “not good enough,” but fall curiously silent when they are asked to propose alternatives. To date, I have not heard any of them offer a single specific suggestion; when pressed, they say something like “I’d get a better deal,” without explaining what “better” would look like or how they would achieve it.

None of those who are opposed to any deal at all with Iran have said what they would do instead. Implicitly, of course, they are counseling war.

All of the Republican candidates seem intent on ignoring the changes in the world that limit America’s capacity to achieve such dramatic outcomes. America’s military power is second to none, but it has been shown in both the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies to have severe limits in achieving foreign policy outcomes. Overall, particularly since the global financial crisis, power has diffused; strong, new competitors have emerged, and even America’s allies have grown more independent and willful as they have grown in relative power. No presidential act of will can change those stark realities.

Indeed, this was a realization not originally of President Obama, but of President Bush, whose second-term foreign policy looks much more like that of Obama than that articulated by the Republican candidates at the debate. It was George W. Bush after all, humbled by American difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan, who started the process of withdrawal from Iraq, began the search for an Iran deal, and chose to respond to the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia with sanctions and negotiation. The ideas of preemptive war and unilateral American action were essentially abandoned by the end of the Bush presidency, in fact if not entirely in rhetoric.

The Iran deal is a case in point. It is all well and good to counsel abandoning it on the first day. But, after scrapping the deal, the United States does not have the capacity to reconstruct the international coalition that kept Iran in its box the last 13 years. All of its allies have accepted this deal, and without them there can be no effective effort to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

There’s a reason thoughtful and knowledgable people–from Dick Lugar and Madelyn Albright to nuclear weapons experts–have strongly endorsed the Iran agreement.

Wishful thinking is not strategy; posturing and self-delusion are not foreign policy. It took an unnecessary and costly war to teach George W. Bush that lesson; we don’t need a repeat performance.


  1. I won’t dignify the comment that the Iran Nuclear Deal “is not good enough” with a specific response. The Republicans have spent the last six and one-half years complaining that everything President Obama and his administration have done is not good enough but have nothing better or different to offer. The GOP “No” administration would have this country still at full war with Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and would have entered us into additional wars with Iran, Syria, Egypt, Russia and probably invaded Cuba.

    There is NO perfect nuclear deal to be had; Congress seems to forget that President Obama was NOT the only world power head involved with these negotiations and that getting Iran to agree to anything about anything is a major accomplishment. The current Iran Nuclear Deal would give involved world powers an immediate basis for sanctioning Iran if – or when – they violate the signed agreement. The GOP operated and continues to operate on the same do nothing premise regarding the ACA and anything to do with women’s health care issues, fight against creating jobs by repairing crumbling infrastructure nationally; continue battling against full civil and human rights for blacks, legal immigrants and especially LGBTs, and refuse to negotiate on immigration reform. Again; with no solutions coming from their massive number of presidential wannabes, they do nothing but argue the issue regarding Trump’s ugly anti-women responses at that ill-conceived “debate”. That old adage, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” fits here. Except I would make one change – they ARE the problem.

    I can’t help but wonder if this Republican presidential nomination campaign, with a fool in the lead, isn’t a setup deal; pre-negotiated and enacted on prime-time TV.

  2. At its base conservatism here is the empowerment of ignorance. It’s taking the enormous complexity of the world today and convincing folks ill equipped to understand it that their folk tales come closer than experts who devote their lives to learning about and untangling the complexity.

    Foreign policy is just one of many topics that are problematic due to the inadequacy not of experts but of those couch potatoes who cannot discern entertainment from analysis.

    Here’s one such expert.

    Benedetta Berti: The surprising way groups like ISIS stay in power


    In order to really understand the Iran nuclear arms treaty and as importantly the process that crafted it and the diplomatic realities that it’s based on one would have to have devoted full time during the process to understanding it. Instead entertainers simplify complexity that is way over their heads into simple entertainment sized sound bites to feed the masses their opium for the day.

    Among other things it’s based on the science behind fission weapons and the complex process that’s required to manufacture them. It’s also based on the reality known for decades that once the genie is out of the bottle that knowledge will proliferate inevitably. The only hope for mankind is that civilization can stay ahead of that curve. It’s also based on the reality of sovereign nations who don’t exist at our pleasure but as dictated their regional cultures.

    So in the capturing of small minds entertainers conjure up the bogie man and spew sound bites that the ignorant might mistake for insight and lead them off to the promised land where TV can be worshipped as all seeing and all knowing. And the money behind the screen can buy power.

    It’s not theory. It’s conspiracy. And it’s working.

  3. It is interesting that as a Baby Boomer I recall the Republicans critiquing the Democrat Party as the “War Party.” This was a comment on the fact WW 1, WW2, and Korea all begin when Democrats were in the White House. After WW 2 in 1949 the Communists in China won the Civil War there from our puppet Chiang Kai-shek. Per WIKI – The “loss of China” was portrayed by critics of the Truman Administration as an “avoidable catastrophe”. It led to a “rancorous and divisive debate” and the issue was exploited by the Republicans at the polls in 1952. It also played a large role in the rise of Joseph McCarthy.

    LBJ commented years later, “I knew Harry Truman and Dean Acheson had lost their effectiveness from the day that the Communists took over in China. I believed that the loss of China had played a large role in the rise of Joe McCarthy. And I knew that all these problems, taken together, were chickenshit compared with what might happen if we lost Vietnam.” Thus we had the Vietnam War.

    What the Republicans and the NEO-CON Pundits ignore was that in 1953 an Anglo-American sponsored coup over threw the elected government of Iran. The Dictator, Shah of Iran was installed until 1979 when he was over thrown. The Iranian Revolution was Blow back.

    Sheila, you are correct the Republicans have no coherent plan concerning Iran, just like they have no plan for Health Care. So we are supposed to listen to advice of the NEO-CONs who brought us Iraq War 2, no thanks.

  4. The posturing by Republican presidential candidates on the issue of foreign policy reflects a broader life view that distinguishes the two problem solving approaches used in our society. Force vs. cooperation. While there remain instances that require force in order to be to resolved, we have learned from experience that more often it is cooperation between negotiators that brings about lasting solutions, solutions that damage neither party.
    Just saying “No” to proposals is a form of force. Coupled with any lack of counter proposal is an extension of that form of force. It’s the bully vs. the peacemaker. We’ve seen this our entire lives, from our first days on the school yard to the FOX so called debate. Nothing new here.

  5. To have a foreign policy that assumes that Iran will change its policies toward the U.S.and Israel IS wishful thinking, and quite divorced from reality. To give an enemy sworn to your destruction billions of dollars AND the ability to build a nuclear weapon ( in 15 years) is tantamount to self destruction.

    In addition, the premise that the choice is between the deal and war is a false premise. There are other options, including continuation of, let even more stringent, sanctions. The sanctions that were imposed are what brought Iran to the negotiating table, and we gave away all the leverage we had. The inmates are running the asylum!

  6. Sanctions can work in the short term. In the case of Iran, they have reached the limit of their effectiveness and are not going to produce more results. Think Cuba.

  7. To have a foreign policy that assumes that Iran will NOT change its policies toward the U.S. and Israel is defeatist thinking and quite divorced from the human aspirations of peace. How can you know that Iran will not change in the next 15 years? That 15 more years of sanctions that will cause untold deprivation on the Iranian people will make them ever so docile and willing to bow to our demands? How do you know that?

  8. And,Theresa, how do they know leadership in Iran will not change hands – in the next 15 year or the next year? I wonder if Fidel Castro were still in charge; would President Obama have achieved the current relationship after 54 years. The world, and world leaders, are in a constant state of flux. Would any of us believed it possible 15 years ago that we would be facing the political crisis we are forced to deal with today?

  9. One of the delusions that conservative entertainment has foisted on the gullible is that if you make people or countries poorer they will become richer. They will realize that poverty has been merely a choice all along and will mend their ways to become hard working honest and capable citizens of their communities for people or of the world for nations.

    Thus sanctions financially crippling the Irani people will cause the wealthy leaders to pursue world peace. Or being more hungry because of social service funding cuts will inspire those impoverished by lack of education to become engineers, lawyers, doctors or accountants.

    It’s time to call BS what it is. People and countries don’t choose poverty. Poverty is by definition marginal survival. The closer one is to not surviving the more desperate and resourceful they become. The rules of society are nothing to the dying.

    There was a day before we became puppets to TV that we were smart enough to say that while I know about this others know much more about that. And world affairs and the balance of power among the different worlds that populate the planet is one area that almost none of us has devoted our time and treasure to learning. We have to trust the experts and Fox News for one has made a fortune telling the gullible that they are the experts due to their degrees in Fox watching.

    We have to remember that these people believe that Donald Trump and Sarah Palin are smart. They’ll believe anything.

  10. I agree that complaining about the deal without making any viable counter suggestions is completely impotent. The Republicans criticize everything President Obama has done, from Obamacare to the Iran deal, but they don’t have anything better to offer. That said, I still wonder if we are just delaying the inevitable. These people hate us and believe it is their religious mission to annihilate us. They haven’t complied with their past agreements and there is no reason to believe they will comply with this agreement. They even murder aid workers.

    Once they become a nuclear power, which appears inevitable–just a matter of time–I’m concerned that we will have no choice other than to blow them away. At least with sanctions, we have some measure of control. Sanctions are crippling them, but their leadership doesn’t really seem to mind how much their people are suffering. They are hell-bent on building a bomb which they will use on us. With reasonable people, war is not the answer. These are not reasonable people. This is not like past conflicts involving the U.S. that led to war, as I see it, but based on fundamentalist religious beliefs which are not going away.

  11. We tried sanctions and the Iranians, though poorer, were still bent on producing nuclear weapons. We seem to be fighting everyone in the region and making little progress toward either defeating our many enemies or disengaging ourselves. It’s time for a change of tactics; if we’re headed toward all out war, doesn’t it seem like a treaty with Iran is worth a try right now? We all understand that if the situation changes, it will require a change in tactics – possibly a real attack in Iran or elsewhere. But, shouldn’t the US try everything possible to derail the possibility of another serious war?

  12. Natasha. I’ve found it useful to always question terms like “these people” because they typically imply more than reality can support.

    I believe that the vast majority of the world are like you and I. They have a family, they go to work and generally mind their own business. All they want is what most of us already have. A modicum of peace and quiet and a future for their next generations.

    Then there are the noisy ones. Extremists whose ego demands that everybody else be perfectly wrong so they can be perfectly right.

    People who say “these people” paint all with the same brush.

    I find it much more useful to try to align with all of the “normal” people against all of the megalomaniacs. Theirs and ours.

  13. Pete: I agree with you that it is not right to paint all people with the same brush, and that most people want to just raise their families and live in peace, but what do you do when a nation has basically one religion and that religion runs the government and tells citizens that their mission should be to kill us because we are “infidels”? How else do you explain 911–just a fluke carried out by a few deviant crazies?

    Annihilating us is the only reason they are developing a nuclear weapon, and it may well be just a matter of time.

  14. WWII was all about the crazies running the show so it can happen. Despite the Bush holy wars however I think that the real trouble is Arabs vs Jews. It’s unpredictable if, when, and who will throw the first nuclear punch there if it happens, just as it was between us and the USSR all of those years. But I believe that the horrors that ended WWII were enough to calm even the crazies.

    No matter, the path that makes it least likely is stable governments there. There is nothing that destabilizes like poverty.

    So the best available path doesn’t eliminate the risk, only reduces it. That’s the best we can do and, IMO, the path Obama has led us down.

    Unfortunately things could get worse because of global warming. When the hottest populated place in the world gets hotter and therefore hungrier, at the same time that oil looses all value, instability is bound to return.

    A huge problem for the next President.

    Imagine Donald Trump as the solution?

  15. One of the great divides in the world are those who’d say the world can’t survive without religion versus those who’d say that it won’t survive with religion.

  16. Sheila – Thank you for noting that the agreement is multi-lateral. It’s amazing that the U.S. was able to get disparate nations to agree on much of anything. But it’s strategically notable that this agreement essentially surrounds Iran by economic, geographic, political, and military powerhouses. Nuclear experts from each of these countries feel confident Iran will be unable to develop nuclear weapons under the current agreement with the verification procedures.

    After the Cuban missile crisis, Pres. John Kennedy gave a speech at American University which is still celebrated as one of his best. He notes the many resources spent to prepare for war. Given that huge investment, it’s hard for some to resist using it. But JFK urgesd that we spend equivalent time and treasure to secure peace – especially in the nuclear age with the advent of mutually assured destruction. A filmed version of his speech is available at http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/BWC7I4C9QUmLG9J6I8oy8w.aspx. It’s a message for the nuclear ages.

  17. It’s rather humorous, albeit in a fairly sickening way that most of the folks calling for the rejection of the P5+1 agreement were connected with orchestrating our war of choice in Iraq a dozen years ago. They had no discernible end game then and, in regard to all the sabre-rattling over Iran, no end game now. Just a lot of loose talk, hubristic slogans, and, of course, wishful thinking. They have nothing more, nothing more – still.

    In reference to launching a sustained air campaign against Iran’s nuclear processing infrastructure, Senator Tom Cotton flippantly stated, “the U.S. military has amazing capabilities”. Sure, no doubt, but that’s still not an answer nor is it even close to being one. If these people have their way we will once again risk setting in motion what we are supposedly trying to prevent and possibly pay a dreadfully unpredictable price for doing so. War is still hell no matter how some, like Senator Cotton, try to sugar coat it. The entire Middle East and Persian Gulf regions could very well explode into even greater instability and wider conflict as the result of still another poorly thought out war of choice by this country. I wonder if even then those whose wishful thinking has already scrambled the strategic balance in those regions of the world will finally reflect on the gross errors in their thinking. Probably not.

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