Foreign Policy

Practitioners of U.S. Foreign Policy: Views From the Field

May 20, 2016

This panel offered a glimpse into the experience of practitioners of U.S. foreign policy and the challenge of translating policy into the real world. The panel was moderated by Dan McCarthy, editor of The American Conservative, and featured a conversation between retired Colonel Gian Gentile, now a senior historian at the RAND Corporation, and Chas W. Freeman Jr., former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Freeman noted that there is often a discrepancy between the public narrative constructed around an issue and what practitioners know to be true. There are “lots of misconceptions that have great currency in the United States,” he said, further noting that the media is not particularly helpful in this regard, since “the journalistic narrative is involved with the reinforcement of bias rather than the questioning of it.” He said that practitioners can and should challenge mistaken thinking internally but acknowledged that they are often not in a position to influence the public discussion.

Freeman also pointed out that U.S. foreign policy abroad has lacked effectiveness partly because we do not have a professional diplomatic corp. He believes that “we have career diplomats, but very few professionals.” As opposed to other countries that have professionalized their diplomatic corps, the United States reserves many of its top jobs in diplomacy for political appointees. Consequently, American diplomats sometimes come to think of themselves as area specialists rather than advocates for the United States. He notes that there is “no understanding in the U.S. of what diplomats do or are capable of doing if appropriately backed.”

In his remarks, Gentile stated that the “practice of counterinsurgency and the theory behind it is completely flawed and devoid of any kind of a historical understanding.” He noted that after he returned home from a tour in Baghdad, he saw the narrative of the surge, which suggested that there was a military solution to the problems in Iraq, gain traction with the public. A true-nation building effort in Iraq would have required as many as 500,000 to 700,000 troops and full physical control of the country. This was unnecessary, however, since our primary objective was to defeat al Qaeda.

One of the arguments challenged by Gentile was that the difficulties in Iraq were the result of failures at a unit level. Instead, the problem existed at the strategic level, he said. Gentile cautioned against the belief “that there is always an operational solution to any problem presented to the U.S. in war.” He also noted that unlike the Vietnam War, in which the American people “were deeply, even morally engaged,” the conflict in Iraq was largely disconnected from public consciousness.

Both speakers emphasized the importance of having a clear strategy in conducting foreign affairs and of understanding the limits of what the military can and cannot do. One of the reasons we have struggled abroad is that “we have not recognized that problems that are political in nature are unlikely to be resolved by use of force.” As a result, the United States has accumulated approximately $6 trillion in current and future liabilities from our military conflicts.