Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass has just published an article in Time magazine (also available here) that challenges many of the comfortable nostrums guiding U.S. foreign policy for at least the last twenty years. He scores a 9 out of 10 in his analysis of what is wrong: we have an inordinate fear of things that shouldn't be that frightening; we have a misplaced faith in our ability to fix nettlesome problems in distant lands; and we repeatedly stumble into costly and counterproductive wars that we should generally avoid.
Haass then proposes a new doctrine to "help establish priorities and steer the allocation of resources" and "that fits the U.S.'s circumstances."
It is one that judges the world to be relatively nonthreatening and makes the most of this situation. The goal would be to rebalance the resources devoted to domestic challenges, as opposed to international ones, in favor of the former. Doing so would not only address critical domestic needs but also rebuild the foundation of this country's strength so it would be in a better position to stave off potential strategic challengers or be better prepared should they emerge all the same.
So far, so good. The problem, however, is not what Haass proposes to do -- refocus America's attention and resources at home, what he calls "restoration" -- but rather how he proposes to do it. For all his wisdom in defying the Washington foreign policy consensus, he betrays a typical Washington-centric approach by suggesting that the federal government must take the lead "in restoring this country's strength and replenishing its resources — economic, human and physical government."
Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power.
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness.
In other words, the money we save by not waging foolish wars abroad would be redirected to other government projects. Thus, he calls for more federal spending for higher education, despite the fact that such spending has exploded over the past three decades, and has coincided with an equally dramatic rise in tuition -- often three to four times the rate of inflation. (H/T N.M.) Haass likewise calls for more money to public transportation, despite the fact that federal support for Amtrak, for example, amounts to a massive subsidy paid from non-riders to the often relatively well-to-do. Similar facts prevail in other government-subsidized transit systems.
Haass is also wrong to perpetuate the myth that we are dependent on Middle East oil. We're not. The Middle Easterners are dependent upon selling it. We have alternatives to buying their oil, and we don't need government to force us to exercise them.
Here's a different approach to restoring America's strength at home: we should stop asking our brave men and women in uniform to be the world's policemen; refocus a smaller, less expensive military on a few core missions that are vital to U.S. security; and give every American family a tax cut. If we spent what the average British or French citizen devotes to national security, that could amount to more than $6,000 a year for the average family of four. The savings would be even greater if we matched what Germans and Japanese spend. Every American family could then choose how to spend or invest their money (e.g. Save for college. Pay for bus/train fare. Buy a more fuel-efficient car, etc).
There is already considerable support for cutting the Pentagon's budget, and I think there would be even more if people believed that these savings would not merely be diverted elsewhere within the federal government. Richard Haass has made an important and timely contribution to the debate over the future of U.S. foreign policy, and I generally concur with his assessment. But he and others should demonstrate the tangible benefits that would flow to the average American from a more prudent, restrained foreign policy. I think that fewer dumb wars and more money in our pockets is a pretty compelling case.