Call me old-fashioned but I still believe that truth and falsehood exist; that with some effort a nation’s policymaking and political establishment can determine one from the other; and that any nation that fails to do so when it comes to foreign policy — with such huge stakes and so many lives on the line — puts itself in mortal danger. I guess it’s my Realist streak.
Once upon a time, and here I reveal how old I am, American foreign policy managed, not always but often, to rise above politics. There was this quaint concept called the “bipartisan consensus” with its poetic mantra, “Politics stops at the water’s edge.” The many erroneous or wrong-headed policies of the time generally came out of ignorance, especially of new developments in a changing world, rather than willful disregard of facts. It took a while to realize that nuclear weapons were not just very big artillery shells, that Vietnam was not the same kind of war as WWII, and that China and the Soviet Union might both be communist but not necessarily allied, for instance.
In the past decade or so, however, facts and truths seem to have gone out of style altogether. Partisan politics drives everything. Foreign policy discussions play out without questioning the underlying assumptions even when the latter are totally unfounded. And this is not happening just on minor or obscure issues, but the most important ones. When we invaded Iraq (leaving aside whether that was such a bright idea), the number of troops needed to occupy the country could be calculated based on past experiences, such as the forces that successfully kept the peace in the Balkans just a few years earlier. But when the head of the Army, Eric Shinseki, provided that number, the political leadership just pushed him aside and said, oh no, we don’t like that number, we’ll do it with far less. The result was a costly disaster for U.S. foreign policy.
Another example: political leaders and the public assume that levels of violence and threat in the world are increasing, when in fact hard evidence shows the opposite to be true (see my book). As a result, the USA spends more on the military than during the Cold War, spending that is helping drive the country into deep debt and economic malaise. It’s not just that we can’t afford it, but that we don’t need it. Yet political leaders talk on about the need to keep up military spending to face these terrible new threats. And speaking of new threats, our political leaders constantly harp on the threat from a rising China, conveniently forgetting that China has not fought a single military battle in 25 years. Not one. Why? It’s not in their national interest. Do we Americans remember that old concept, “national interest?”
Now comes the latest doomed stand for Truth — the dispute over the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Was it a protest against the anti-Muslim video that went wrong and turned violent? Or was it a premeditated attack by al Qaeda timed for the anniversary of 9/11? This debate goes on and on and on, the Energizer Bunny of inane foreign policy discussions. Politicians and media, please just shut up and listen! We know the answer! It’s not a debate, it’s not a mystery, and it’s not exactly either of the above stories.
We’ve known the full story for at least six weeks, since New York Times reporter David Kirkpatrick published it after interviewing the eyewitnesses and participants in Benghazi. Yes, published it not in a fly-by-night blog or a partisan rag, but in the New York Times. Does anybody read it anymore? “To those on the ground, the circumstances of the attack are hardly a mystery,” he wrote.
And this is what happened: A local prominent Islamist armed militant group called Ansar al-Shariah has openly operated in Benghazi for some time. They are radical Islamists like al Qaeda, but are focused on local aims, not global attacks on America. “Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its leaders and ideology are all homegrown,” wrote Kirkpatrick. Because Libya does not have good governance yet, after the overthrow of its longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi last year, there are many of these armed militias roaming around and controlling various territories within the country.
Last September 11, without a thought to the meaning of that date and without prior planning, the members of Ansar al-Shariah watched news coverage of a protest in Cairo against the offensive anti-Muslim video. They became enraged, grabbed their automatic rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and attacked the American consulate. The hundreds of attackers overwhelmed the defenses and burned the building. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens was inside and died of smoke inhalation.
In the context of Libya, it was not such a strange action — a similar attack hit the Italian embassy in 2006 after a perceived Italian insult to the prophet Mohammed. But it did not in any way represent the Libyan people. After the attack, Libyans in Benghazi who realized they’d lost a great friend in Ambassador Stevens were outraged at Ansar al-Shariah, marching on its headquarters and throwing its members out.
Was it a terrorist act? Sure. A protest gone wrong? No. Was it a premeditated attack timed to 9/11? No. A spontaneous reaction to the video? Yes. An al Qaeda plot? No. Mysterious and complicated? No!
And by the way, what does any of this have to do with our UN ambassador Susan Rice, who repeated CIA talking points on Sunday talk shows (points that had omitted references to Ansar’s phone calls, in which they bragged to their ideological cousins in “al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” [North Africa], so that Ansar wouldn’t know we’re listening in)?
Author Tom Ricks (The Generals) went on Fox News recently and offered that the Benghazi story had been “hyped” by Fox. They booted him off the air instantly. Ricks has also been making the media rounds in the wake of the Petraeus sex scandal, arguing that we should assess generals based on how well they fight wars, not their private lives. (His take is that Petraeus was a good general but that the same can’t be said for a lot of our other top brass who led us through Iraq and Afghanistan.)
Personally I’m ready to lay off the sex scandals, the political talking points, the ideological certainties, and have an adult conversation about some big issues our country faces. Like the war that’s still going on in Afghanistan. Like the defense budget. Like the Arab uprisings in Libya and across the region that have left unstable places groping their way toward democracy and prosperity. Unstable places where maybe an ambassador gets killed trying to help — but that’s not even the main point. Let’s start from facts and look to the big picture.
The world’s first published Realist was the Chinese military advisor Sun Tzu in ancient times (The Art of War). His idea of the best general was not the one who had the good character to resist sexual temptation, nor the most brave or aggressive one, nor the most cautious one. It was the general who could cooly calculate the costs and benefits of each course of action. And realize the other side was doing the same thing.
Costs and benefits. National interest. Fact-based assessments. Bipartisan consensus. These are the best elements of Realism, a school of thought that has many deficiencies but some enduring strengths as well. I’m not a Realist overall, but we could use a dose of it right now.