Bringing It All Back Home

Why the smartest foreign policy choice for the U.S. now is to focus on domestic affairs

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Christopher Anderson / Magnum Photos

Downtown Midland Texas.

I have just written a book i never imagined writing. Sandpaper off the nuances and subtleties and Foreign Policy Begins at Home argues for less foreign policy of the sort the U.S. has been conducting for much of the past decade and greater emphasis on domestic investment and policy reform. For someone like me, a card-carrying member of the American foreign policy establishment for nearly four decades, this borders on heresy.

So, what got me to this point? It begins with what is going on here at home--and what is not. We lurch from crisis to crisis, nearly going over fiscal cliffs, threatening not to pay our bills to creditors, cutting much needed investment in human and physical capital, stealing from our children by refusing to rein in spending on retirement and Medicare, and educating people from abroad who want to stay and contribute to this society--and then refusing them the opportunity to do just that. Our public schools and many of our colleges and universities are not preparing young people or the long-term unemployed for a competitive global world. Our debt trajectory is unsustainable. Unless something meaningful is done, it is a question of when, not if, a major economic crisis materializes.

It is possible that things will turn out all right in the end. But I am not so sure. The political system is too often gridlocked, a victim of unprecedented polarization. Special interests representing retirees, public-service unions and various private interests bring great intensity to public debates, along with dollars and pressures to match. Much less clear is just who speaks for the national interest.

Our recent record in the world, starting with the Iraq war and the Afghanistan troop surge in 2009, has only added to my concerns. I mention both because my differences are not with a single party. Many participants in the foreign policy debate appear to have forgotten the injunction of former President and Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that America "goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy." Neither Iraq nor Afghanistan (as of 2009) was a war of necessity; more important, neither was a justifiable war of choice. In both cases, the interests at stake were decidedly less than vital. In both cases, alternative policies that promised outcomes of comparable benefit to this country at far less cost were available. History and even a cursory knowledge of the societies in question suggested that ambitious attempts to refashion their workings and political cultures would founder. More than a decade of enormous sacrifice has hurt this country's reputation for judgment and competence and failed to produce results in any way commensurate with the human, military and economic costs of the undertakings. Such an imbalance between means and ends makes no sense at the best of times; it is even less defensible now, when the U.S. faces challenges to its solvency.

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