James Fallows Interview (2005): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Bush Administration: Conversation with James Fallows, National Correspondent, The Atlantic Monthly, March 28, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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American Idealism and Foreign Policy

I want you to talk a little now about American idealism in U.S. foreign policy. You were a speech writer for President Carter, who helped shape the agenda in an earlier period with regard to human rights. That theme recurs in American foreign policy. What is striking for me is that when you link American idealism with American military power, the key question becomes how you balance against the abuse of power on the one hand, and on the other hand, the misperception that comes from a bloated idealism, "freedom everywhere," for example.

A couple of the points you made exactly sum up the issue. It is a matter of balance and it's a matter of recurring themes. As long as the U.S. has existed, there's been a tension between, on the one hand, the universalism of the values the U.S. has preached, which spread in the French Revolution and were meant to be an example for people in South America and elsewhere; and a sense of the practical limits of whether the U.S. could get into entangling alliances and how much we could afford to do things. We've seen through our history a testing of the limits on each side of that.

Interestingly, at least to me, during the Carter administration, it's fascinating to remember how careful Jimmy Carter was in his rhetoric, that when he was talking about human rights he was not saying we could make this the only lodestone of our policy [or that] we could impose it everywhere, but that on balance we would stand for it. That we've recognized complications but we'd always push for this as a goal, recognizing we couldn't realize it everywhere, which is in reality what any administration has to do, even though rhetorically it's not what the Bush administration has talked about. It's talk in much more absolute terms.

So, a problem for the Bush administration now is the contrast between the president's inaugural speech for his second term, which was absolutist in a way we haven't heard since Woodrow Wilson, "We will stand for freedom everywhere and that's it, that's our policy," and the reality that this administration, like every other one, has to balance that with what it can do and just what the limits are of how far the U.S. can afford to impose its ideals on everyone else.

If you bring idealism to the agenda, do you think that initially it wins public support, that you then have more support than you might otherwise have? But then do you lose that support when it becomes clear that when the tire hits the road it doesn't work so easily?

Yes. It's in the American nature to like the idea of being more than simply a great power. We want to think we are a power that others aspire to, we like the idea of being liked and admired, and we think that just as this country can receive immigrants from all over, that our model should be inspiring to people. That is a deep part of our culture. But as soon as it becomes a quagmire or a mess, there is an equally strong part of American culture saying, "Wait a minute. Why is my son, my daughter being shot to try to let people in Baghdad vote? If they're going to blow themselves up, what are my children doing over there?" I think that it is impressive that the U.S. has gotten this far into the engagement in Iraq with as little backlash as it's had, even though in 2005 the opinion polls seemed to show a clear majority thinking the Iraq war is a mistake.

These events of the last couple of years and the decisions we've made are a period of opportunity like the end of World War II, when the groundwork was laid in the form of a grand strategy, containment, and the principles that essentially guided us forward. Do you think the administration has been successful in the documents that it has produced, calling for a way to deal with the world?

To give them credit, by their lights they've laid out a coherent theory, if you believe it. The first big statement would have been that national security doctrine in the summer of 2002 on preventive and preemptive wars: the U.S. had to strike before it was struck against; and then in all the speeches since then with the arguments that bringing democracy around the world is the way to avoid terrorism, it's the way to bring freedom to all people. So, it's coherent if you believe it.

There's a counter argument which says this is logically consistent but practically impossible, and practically unsustainable by our money, by our manpower, by our alliances. So, there's a different theory struggling to be born about how the U.S. can practically and sustainably manage to set a good example and win the battle of ideas in the long run without the heavy military presence that it's had so far.

You sketched out in an article in the Atlantic some of the elements of a strategy, and they're fairly simple, but the policy process as it's guided by this administration obfuscates the possibilities.

Well, I would not pretend for one second that I presented a grand unified theory, but I was impressed, after interviewing people, that you could have a kind of triage list. During the Cold War the idea was to contain the Soviet Union and deter nuclear war, as job number one. Job number one right now is to contain the loose nuclear weapons floating around the Soviet Union and make sure they aren't spread to terrorists, because that is the one thing that could disrupt our society in a permanent way. So, job number one is saying, "loose nuclear weapons matter more than anything else."

Job number two is a more rational approach to homeland security, which actually we're starting to see now, with the replacing of Tom Ridge by Michael Chertoff, who is starting to say that we can't protect against everything, there are greater and lesser threats.

Job number three would be a different kind of cold war, of saying there's a long-term battle of ideas and ideals and making the idea of small "d" democratic, small "l" liberal market society be appealing to people over time, not this culture war of the Christians versus the Muslims, or the Judeo-Christians versus the Muslims. There's a surprisingly rich literature on this front of how in the long run you can have an appealing example of ideas to the third world, the Arab-Islamic world.

Let's talk about the second one, because you point out something in your piece, namely that the goal of the adversary is fear, and that if you're not prioritizing -- I think you said "democratize all threads" -- then you're helping them accomplish their goal. Talk a little about that.

There was a wonderful paper by a young graduate student at MIT named Benjamin Freedman, in a magazine called Breakthroughs, essentially arguing that homeland security as a phenomenon in the last two or three years has actually made the U.S. far worse off than it had been before. The argument is that the goal of terrorism is not so much to kill individual people as to impose all kinds of costs on society, financial costs, diplomatic costs, and psychic costs, where people can't live a normal life because they're so afraid. The way we'd had our homeland security service was magnifying all these things. We had nationwide terror alerts where if there was some threat on Wall Street, then people in Omaha, and people in Stockton and in San Antonio would have to be on orange alert, or red alert. They'd have to spend more money, and they'd be fearful for no good reason.

We were spending money in a way that acted as if the whole country was at risk. We were acting as if anything could go wrong. It was a Chicken Little - type phenomenon, making ourselves fearful. If you had the idea that you would scare people only when that information could make them safer and for no other reason, then you could have a whole different approach. You would say, okay, here are the ten things which we think are actual risks. We'll protect against those, and for the rest we'll say, we're all going to die of something, let's not spend all of our time worrying about it. You try to minimize the stupidity of [actions like] like airline security screening where you're wasting billions of dollars and killing the airlines, acting as if everybody is at equal risk, which is not the case. So, fortunately, with Michael Chertoff, there's beginning to be some progress in this.

On the third point, the administration has confused reactions to our policies, let's say vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, vis-à-vis Israel, with what is really a conflict of ideas about which there's no doubt. How do we disentangle that, or how should they go about doing that?

Thank you for giving me the chance to make clearer the point I was making earlier. President Bush says again and again and again, "they hate us for our freedom, they hate us for our good life, they hate us for who we are." And you can imagine there is a shred of truth to that, a sort of resentment, historically. But almost every serious expert on terrorism says it's only minorly about that, because if it were really about freedom, the Norwegians would be getting blown up, and so would the French and everybody else. Really, this is about policies, it's about troops in Saudi Arabia, it's about a sense of being entirely indifferent to the Palestinians, it's about X, Y and Z. It's not a matter of kowtowing to every demand from Islamic extremists, but understanding the model we want to project, understanding the things we do which are most irritating and finding ways to present the right model.

Significantly, we always talk about liberty and freedom, which is a less appealing model in much of that world than the idea of justice. So, standing on the side of justice for all people in the world might also have some impact.

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