Foreign Policy Isn't 'Above Politics'—and Shouldn't Be

Putting it beyond partisanship sounds high-minded, but it's ultimately hypocritical and dangerous.

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The U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya burns after it was attacked on September 11th, 2012. (Essam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

After the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where four Americans (including the U.S. ambassador) were killed, the debate about what went wrong has grown into a heated partisan debate. From it, a refrain of sorts has emerged: we should not "politicize" foreign policy. People of the left and of the right preach that talk of the Benghazi security failure must remain, somehow, above politics.

But foreign policy is inherently political. It is driven by domestic politics and partisan interests. Twisting facts to serve a partisan agenda is distasteful; but the left and the right in this country do disagree on some aspects of U.S. foreign policy, and the process by which either side discusses and eventually builds consensus on those issues is ultimately a political one.

Foreign policy elites in Washington tend to want critical debates about America's place in the world to take place outside of a political context. Michael O'Hanlon, a prominent analyst at the Brookings Institution, recently celebrated how little political discussion there's been of the war in Afghanistan. "I'm afraid that any political discussion would probably deteriorate a bit into a race for the exits," he told a reporter from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. That's a curious position, especially considering O'Hanlon's own advocacy of actively participating in Afghanistan's politics. He wants America to play politics in Afghanistan, but doesn't want Afghanistan to be political in America.

Perhaps foreign policy is simply too important to be left to the hands of an indifferent public, or that the public is simply not smart enough to make informed decisions about foreign policy. Neither of these reasons makes much sense. It's possible that the public hasn't registered much interest in foreign policy because ultimately the two candidates running for president do not differ on the topic as much as they'd like to believe -- indeed, as the arguing over Benghazi has intensified over the last month into a direct confrontation between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the public certainly seems to have registered more interest. And the argument from ignorance is needlessly insulting the country's intelligence: health care is hardly less complicated and difficult than foreign policy, yet its status as a political issue is not controversial. Whatever the reason, the idea that foreign policy should be exempt from politics is worse than naïve -- it is counterproductive to reasoned discourse.

Politics help determine whether good ideas ever make it into practice. Even the strongest proposals can break down if the politics surrounding their implementation go ignored. Ideas for limiting the spread of nuclear weapons, for curbing terrorism, or even for revitalizing foreign trade are often not the shoo-ins their supporters assume: There will always be an objection to how it's put into place, how it affects the status quo, or how it might affect the prospects of future proposals.

That might sound like dysfunction, but it's not: that's how bargaining and negotiation resolve (or at least ameliorate) differences.

During the 2010 debate over the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) with Russia, the secretaries of state for five Republican presidents endorsed the measure's ratification. Despite their efforts, the treaty passed only when Senate Democrats agreed to two Republican-backed amendments committing the United States to pursuing a missile-defense capability while modernizing the nuclear force.

The overall policy had broad support, but the politics took time to catch up. Had Senate Democrats pushed ahead without developing political support from Republicans, the treaty would not have been ratified. Only via the difficult process of settling political differences between Senate Republicans and Democrats did a key nuclear reductions treaty finally pass.

In the wake of the Benghazi attack, both Obama and Romney made statements that turned out to be inaccurate. The White House initially believed the attack to be either spontaneous or opportunistic, and not a pre-planned event; for his part, Romney confused the sequence of events between the attack and Obama's statements about it.

But rather than analyzing both statements to find out the truth of what happened and understand how such an important failure could have occurred, the debate has descended into both sides accusing the other of "politicizing" the issue. It's gone off the rails.

Foreign policy isn't just political after the fact; it's inherently political when it is being executed. Whether on issues of trade, navigation rights, nuclear proliferation, or human rights, implementing a foreign policy requires constant political bargaining between the White House and Congress. Even with the strong support for ratifying New START two years ago, some senators remain openly skeptical about how it's being enacted. Assuaging their concerns is a political issue, regardless of one's opinion of the treaty itself. Foreign policy, in other words, should be aware of politics and responsive to it. It is certainly not above politics, nor above partisan debate. The call to keep the two apart is nonsense.

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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