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Our Foreign Policy Blind Spots

Author: Leslie H. Gelb, President Emeritus and Board Senior Fellow
Summer 2011
Democracy: A Journal of Ideas


In crisis mode, U.S. foreign policy deals more in fears than facts, more in rhymes than reason. After ten years, it's hard to still cloak 9/11 in its early patriotic garb. It's been a decade of needless and prolonged wars, of exaggerated expenditures on national security bureaucracies, of being mesmerized by a world America believed it could dominate, and of neglecting an America drowning in debt and political irresponsibility. There was 9/11, and then Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, and yes, even Libya.

This is part of an American historical pattern. Calling it the arrogance of ignorance doesn't quite capture its complexities, nor does labeling it fatal overreaction. Responses to attack or threat or crises usually begin well, in a shower of patriotism and unity. Then, with the help of revenge seekers, the country flies into a political and policy rage, followed by rash actions in and toward countries about which our leaders and experts know little. Inevitably, the wrong lessons are learned.

Take the Korean War. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower rightly responded and wisely settled for a stalemate rather than risk wider, even nuclear war. Eisenhower's Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, however, believed this was not nearly good enough. He concluded that mere containment of communism was defeatism and called for “rollback.” One consequence among many was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, triggered by Hungarians who were deceived into believing that Washington would defend them if they rose up against Soviet rule. Thousands were killed.

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