Saturday, May 13, 2017

Q&A with P.J. Crowley

P.J. Crowley is the author of the new book Red Line: American Foreign Policy in a Time of Fractured Politics and Failing States. He was assistant secretary of state from 2009 to 2011 and is a retired Air Force colonel. His writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The Washington Post and The Guardian, and he teaches at the George Washington University. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.

Q: Why did you decide to write this book, and what do you feel will emerge as President Obama's foreign policy legacy?

A: In the national security world, we spend a lot of time understanding the politics of other countries and how that might affect relations with the United States. But we resist the idea that politics shapes national security policy here at home.

We want to believe Arthur Vandenberg's admonition that politics should stop at the water's edge. But it never has. You and your father wrote compellingly about how Lyndon Johnson's domestic agenda influenced his approach to Vietnam.

A decade after we left Vietnam, Caspar Weinberger advanced a doctrine that suggested the United States should never go to war without reasonable assurance of public and congressional support. He rightly understood that without political support, a military intervention was unlikely to succeed.

That was the problem President Obama confronted in August 2013 when Syria crossed his red line regarding the use of chemical weapons. He faced genuine political constraints, in ways that George W. Bush didn't in the aftermath of September 11.

I thought there was an interesting opportunity to chart how policy and politics intersected during these two administrations and to place that dynamic in historical context.

To me, the two bookends of Obama's foreign policy legacy are Syria and the red line, and the Iran nuclear deal. Both reflect the fact that Barack Obama largely delivered the foreign policy that he advertised in 2008 and for which he was elected.

In the early stages of his administration, Donald Trump is to a significant degree doing exactly what he said he would during the 2016 campaign. Paraphrasing that great scene from Casablanca, we should not be shocked that there is politics going on here.

Q: How was the book's title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Choosing the title was almost as hard as writing the book. The working title for the book proposal was The Iraq Syndrome, reflecting how the conflict shaped national security politics for this generation just as Vietnam did for decades.

The second option was Myth of the Water's Edge, reflecting how domestic politics in the aftermath of September 11 and the Iraq War had an undeniable impact on how the United States approached the conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

As I structured the book, once I decided to open with Obama in the Rose Garden, wrestling with the conflicting policy and political implications of military action, the title crystallized, his struggle to fashion a credible response given the failure of the existing state system in the Middle East and the fractured political environment here at home.

Q: You describe a pattern of a certain amount of continuity from one administration to the next. Do you think that holds true for the Trump administration?

A: The United States is the only true global power, which means that it has a policy attached to every nook and cranny in the world. The bulk of American foreign policy does not change from one administration to the next, since our foreign policy is rooted in American interests and not a four or eight-year election cycle.

With the Trump administration, while there are certain threads that are evolving in a more conventional direction -- recognizing the importance of NATO and trying to build a working relationship with China -- his view of trade does represent a sharp U-turn. He certainly has unconventional instincts, but he has built a pretty conventional national security team around him.

As a result, we are already seeing a Hamlet-like dynamic emerging at the White House, where his tweets tell us what he actually thinks, but not necessarily what he will ultimately do.

Q: As someone who was an assistant secretary of state, what do you think of the role of the State Department so far under the Trump administration?

A: Hillary Clinton got off to a fast start at the State Department for a couple of reasons. She was a sitting senator and already steeped in national security policy. And based on her agreement with President Obama, she quickly formed her own team, many of whom had helped her develop foreign policy ideas during the 2008 campaign.

Rex Tillerson is obviously in a very different place. He has a relevant skill set as the former chairman of a multi-national corporation, but he is learning on the job how government works. He has not been allowed to build out his own supporting cast at Foggy Bottom, which retards the development of an effective and coherent policymaking process.

The secretary is backed by an experienced foreign service, but the White House sees it as part of the “swamp.” Morale at State is pretty low.

What is most concerning to me is the Trump administration's budget proposal. Secretary Tillerson talks about doing things more efficiently, but if you try to take 30 percent off the budget top line, you're cutting muscle, not fat. I don't think Congress is going to go along with that level of reduction, but there is little question that the United States is going to reduce its foreign aid.

There's a real disconnect here. For example, at some point, we will defeat the Islamic State caliphate. But reducing the threat posed by this brand of violent political extremism depends on our ability to stabilize Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and Afghanistan and then ensure that they are governed more effectively and inclusively going forward.

Who is going to do that if we don't? And if we don't invest in better governance across the Middle East, it's unlikely we can end these conflicts on terms that are consistent with long-term American interests.

A successful policy requires investment in all dimensions of American power, not just one. But that's another example of how politics shapes our national security policy. There is a much stronger political constituency for defense spending as opposed to foreign aid. But it ends up skewing the policy options that are available to the president since we only fully fund one national security agency, the Department of Defense.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I am considering a sequel to Red Line that charts the intersection of foreign policy and domestic politics as it shaped the 2016 campaign and the first term of the Trump administration.

On a number of occasions, President Obama said that nation-building starts at home. There is not a significant rhetorical distance from that narrative to Make America Great Again. Notwithstanding President Trump's sharper rhetoric, he confronts the same political constraints that shaped the Obama administration's foreign policy.

Obama was elected to unwind America's wars and avoid new ones. Trump was elected to fix problems in the United States, not Syria. He is leading an unconventional administration, but barring external developments, he is likely to lead a fairly conservative foreign policy. 

That said, President Trump values unpredictability. That certainly was the watchword during his first 100 days in office, so we'll see.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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