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How the Shutdown Weakens U.S. Foreign Policy

Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
October 2, 2013

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The circumstances that have brought a government shutdown raise concerns that U.S. political dysfunction now poses the biggest threat to national security, says CFR President Richard N. Haass. The shutdown, combined with other recent events, also stirs questions about "American predictability and reliability, which are qualities that are vital to an effective great power," says Haass. The U.S. Congress, vital for advancing policy initiatives from trade to sanctions, is now an unreliable partner, he argues. "This sends a message to allies that they're somewhat on their own," Haass says. "It sends a message to adversaries, or would-be adversaries, that you've got a more unpredictable America."

With the U.S. government in a shutdown phase right now, what does that tell the rest of the world about how this country is run?

It sends the message that the country is divided. It certainly dilutes any appeal of the American political model, and it raises anew questions of American predictability and reliability, which are qualities that are vital to an effective great power.

Tourists view the closed Lincoln Memorial in Washington atop a Big Bus double-decker tour bus, during the second day of a U.S. government shutdown, October 2, 2013 Tourists view the closed Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. on the second day of a U.S. government shutdown. (Photo: Gary Cameron/Courtesy Reuters)

And does it have any particular meaning for any particular part of the world?

This is not coming in a vacuum. This is coming against the backdrop of many things. One is the sequester. So, it raises questions about the adequacy of U.S. resources. Now you can't get a continuing resolution passed; the government is shutting down. So, for those parts of the world that are dependent upon U.S. aid, that are dependent upon U.S. military presence, it naturally raises questions. More acute, be it in the Middle East in particular, but possibly beyond, coming on the heels of what happened and didn't happen around Syria, it reinforces the sense of American unpredictability. It was never clear that Congress would authorize the use of military force against Syria. This reinforces the sense that this institution called Congress, which happens to be central to American governance, can't be counted on with any degree of confidence to be a consistent partner for the president when it comes to American foreign policy. This sends a message to allies that they're somewhat on their own. It sends a message to adversaries, or would-be adversaries, that again, that you've got a more unpredictable America.

It was interesting that in the president's UN General Assembly speech, in a time when we're trying to be focusing our attention on Asia, he hardly mentioned Asia. I think China was mentioned once.

I thought that was one of the weaknesses of the speech. There's already been tremendous concern in Asia about whether the so-called "pivot," or rebalancing, is more rhetoric than reality. And this concern has grown considerably over the last nine months, basically in parallel to President Obama's second term, when so much of the administration's focus has been on Egypt, Syria—and now on Iran. And virtually every Asian leader who I have contact with is trying to make sense of this, but the bottom line is two things: one is that the United States is less dependable, and this comes both out of the shutdown and out of the president's eleventh-hour decision to seek authorization for the use of military force in Syria; and, secondly, the continued U.S. strategic focus on the Middle East brings with it not just cost, but opportunity cost, and it's left a lot of people in Asia shaking their heads. And this, by the way, would be reinforced if, as is possible, the president were to postpone his trip to Asia next week for the annual ASEAN meeting on account of what is going on—or not going on—here in Washington. [On Thursday, the White House cancelled the president's trip to Asia, which was to include the APEC summit in Indonesia and the U.S.-ASEAN summit in Brunei.]

Right now he seems to be really caught up in Iran and the possibility of negotiations. These negotiations won't happen tomorrow, but he seems to be really caught up on a breakthrough.

The emphasis in the Iran talks is at least more understandable, given the stakes. And 2014 becomes a fundamentally different year if there's a war involving Iran, or if not. There's more understanding for the U.S. interest, given the stakes, as opposed to something like trying to remake the character of a society, be it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Egypt or Syria. My own view is that a focus on Iran is more warranted, though, again, it seems to be coming somewhat at the expense of a greater focus on Asia.

But how do you just walk away from all of these Middle East issues? You can't, can you?

Well, again, it's not a switch. I am not talking about walking away. What I am talking about is restraint. And I am talking about restraint and ends in terms of what it is we seek to do when remaking other societies, and I would suggest we ought to be somewhat modest there, and we're obviously talking restraint and means. We don't want to replicate the sort of experiences we had in Iraq or Afghanistan. The problem for the administration is often a disconnect between extraordinarily ambitious rhetoric, "Assad must go," or, in a place like Libya, where we did quite a bit to oust the government, but we've done very little to see that something better comes into place. There's been a lack of follow-through, if you will, between the articulation of goals and then the implementation of policy.

So you think in Syria we've done better by just going along with the Russians on this negotiation on ridding Syria of chemical weapons?

What the agreement has done is made highly unlikely any additional use of chemical weapons by the Syrians. It's also reinforced the low probability of any American use of military force. So, what it has done is essentially remove chemicals and American military force from the equation. The agreement from what I can see has had little or no effect on the trajectory of the civil and regional war that is Syria.

Congress seems to be paying no attention whatsoever to foreign policy right now.

Very little, and it's part of a larger trend in the United States where you're seeing shades of neo-isolationism across party lines. This is not simply a Democratic or Republican phenomenon. It goes beyond intervention fatigue. There's a real focus on things domestic. There is, I believe, a lack of appreciation of the potential of the United States to do good in the world at a reasonable cost. There's also an underappreciation of the potential for things happening out there to come here at considerable cost to ourselves. I also worry that we're not building support at home for what you might call "responsible internationalism." For example, if the U.S. trade representative is successful—as I hope he will be—in negotiating either a transpacific or transatlantic trade deal, it's not obvious to me that the president could secure congressional approval for such an agreement. If the president is able to, say, negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran, it's not obvious to me that he's in a position to secure Congressional approval of sanctions relaxation. So what's worrying to me about the shutdown beyond the immediacy is what it tells you about the breakdown of relations between this president and the Congress. What it's done now is add this large additional dimension of uncertainty and predictability. What makes this so worrisome is: predictability is central to a great power's ability to be a great power.

What about the debt ceiling?

At the risk of being even more pessimistic, what worries me is we may not have bottomed out. In two weeks, we come up against the debt ceiling. Right now we're dealing with the shutdown of the government. With the debt ceiling, we're dealing with the fundamentals of this country's relationship with the rest of the world financially. It's not self-evident that we will avoid hurting ourselves badly over the debt ceiling. So, what's happened with the shutdown is a real warning sign that what is going on inside the Beltway is being fought with a kind of partisan myopia, and I simply don't see very many people standing up and saying, "Hey, wait a minute, what is going on inside the Beltway is threatening America's national security." I don't see people making that connection, but that connection is there, and simply because politicians don't see the connection doesn't mean it doesn't exist. We've reached the point now where the greatest threat to our national security, for the immediate and the foreseeable future, is not some other country or organization; it's increasingly our own political dysfunction.

Richard N. Haass is the author of Foreign Policy Begins at Home.

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