Presidential Foreign Policy Debate Needs Less Belligerence, More Balance

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American Security Project Report Urges Presidential Candidates to Reject the "Hawk Consensus" in Favor of a More Pragmatic Approach

A new report released this week by the American Security Project (ASP) blames a pervasive and flawed decades-long foreign policy consensus for the lack of meaningful debate among 2008 presidential candidates of both parties about America's security needs.

"Serious debate, real deliberation, true questioning of deep assumptions and airing of alternative ideas about U.S. national security strategy have become almost impossible in the shadow of a domineering and tyrannical gospel, 'The Hawk Consensus,'" writes ASP adjunct fellow Michael J. Mazarr, the report's author who is also a professor of national security strategy at the U.S. National War College.

The consensus, which holds that military strength is the preeminent form of national power and which rose to prominence after World War II and throughout the Cold War, has enmeshed candidates obsessed with "burnishing credentials and reassuring skeptics" in an escalating game of one-upmanship about who will be toughest against America's enemies while eschewing any discussion of balance, restraint and non-military instruments of power.

While this approach may be good for the candidates, it is bad for the country, the report finds. "A fatal mismatch has emerged between our tools of statecraft and the threat we face," says Mazarr. "Meanwhile, the hyper-aggressive global posture we have adopted in the hope of striking a classical pose of credibility and toughness is merely feeding the fire we are desperately attempting to extinguish."

With the decline of major state-to-state war and the empowerment of mass publics, "psychologically traumatized peoples are now the major source of conflict, radicalism and terrorism," the report says. But while "this is not the sort of thing one can effectively counteract with tank divisions," some armchair hawks "continue to urge getting 'tough' with this threat" and the candidates are largely falling in line.

This deficiency was underscored last week by none other than Defense Secretary Robert Gates who said, during a speech at Kansas State University, "We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military…. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the coming years." Gates' comments illustrate the report's contention that the U.S. military is one constituency that understands the need for a broader more sophisticated combination of tools to fight increasingly complex wars.

While "there is no question that military deterrence remains an important element of U.S. strategy…it is equally obvious that the threats and challenges the United States has faced have demanded far more than a military response, even during the Cold War" when the "United States may have deterred the Soviet Union with its military power," but "it won the standoff with its economic, informational and cultural power," Mazarr contends.

Mazarr argues that the key question for Americans assessing candidates should be, "What national security strategy would be most effective in keeping the United States safe and secure?"

The likely answer, according to the report, is a strategy that recognizes three major principles, including restraint in the use of U.S. power, the deployment of non-military instruments of power, and a recognition of the crucial importance of patience in the pursuit of our foreign policy goals.

Such principles would call for policies in the "war on terror" that emphasize "a much more prominent diplomatic engagement of moderate Muslim governments, greatly enhanced economic aid throughout the region, larger human exchange programs like scholarships, vastly professionalized informational diplomacy, a stronger diplomatic-political-informational footprint throughout the region" and "expanded partnerships with local nongovernmental organizations," Mazarr concludes.

Will we see such a shift in the debate in 2008? "The chances seem slim," concludes Mazarr, as long as the perceived political risks of being seen as weak on defense remain, and the unfortunate result is that we will "remain stuck in the language, concepts and mindsets of a passing era as we grope our way through the national security challenges of an emerging one."

Read the full report, "Beyond the Hawk Consensus: Toward a Balanced Foreign Policy," at

The American Security Project (ASP) is a non-profit, bipartisan public policy research and education initiative dedicated to fostering knowledge and understanding of a range of national security and foreign policy issues.

It is organized around the belief that honest public discussion of national security requires an informed citizenry--one that understands the dangers and opportunities of the twenty-first century and the spectrum of available responses.

ASP was formed to help Americans--from opinion leaders to the general public--understand how national security issues relate directly to them, and to explain challenges and threats in a way that spurs constructive action.


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