WASHINGTON – When President Barack Obama announced the beginning of a drawdown of U.S. forces from Afghanistan last month, he offered a memorable justification: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.”
The line could be interpreted — and was interpreted — in many ways. A realization that open-ended wars just don’t fly in a time of economic and fiscal challenges? A doff of the cap to antiwar or political isolationist forces? Or a clever way to push for renewed infrastructure spending in the United States?
Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations and an alum of both Bush administrations, saw something different: the seeds of a new foreign policy doctrine, which he has dubbed a “doctrine of restoration.”
The debate over what Obama’s foreign policy doctrine is or should be — or whether he even has one — is long and at times even interesting. Haass’ essay, in the Aug. 8 issue of Time magazine, falls in the latter camp. In a relatively nonthreatening world, Haass writes, restoration would refocus resources from international challenges to domestic ones.
“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.”
Lest you cry “isolationism!” (as I did on first reading), Haass tries to preempt the critique.
The United States would continue to have an active foreign policy, he insists, forging alliances to deal with outside threats and to manage the challenges of globalization. But there would be fewer wars of choice — which in his view include Vietnam, the second Iraq war and the intervention in Libya. Wars of necessity, like the first Gulf War?
Haass’ essay seems to double as a proposal to the president and an interpretation of where Obama is already headed. But for an essay titled “Bringing Our Foreign Policy Home,” it gets tricky precisely on the home front.
Haass calls for “smart” cuts to defense spending and entitlements, and targeted dollars for transportation infrastructure, education and energy efficiency.
But while rethinking foreign policy commitments might lie well within the president’s discretion, boosting domestic spending — particularly in this political climate — looms as much more difficult and time-consuming.
Foreign policy doctrines are a lot less useful if you never get to the water’s edge.
Carlos Lozada is the editor of Outlook, The Washington Post’s Sunday section for opinion, analysis, debates and reviews. Previously, he served as the paper’s national security editor and economics editor. Before joining The Post in 2005, he was the managing editor of Foreign Policy magazine and a Knight-Bagehot fellow at Columbia University. © 2011 The Washington Post