Should America Do Less?

Hillary Clinton subscribes to the “get caught trying” school of foreign policy. But action isn’t necessarily better than inaction in world affairs.

U.S. President Barack Obama walks away from microphones at the White House in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)

Is trying and failing better than not trying at all? When it comes to America’s role in the world, Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and current Democratic presidential frontrunner, would probably answer the former. She has told aides, and written in her memoir, that she’d rather be “caught trying” in foreign policy than do nothing.

In short, and perhaps in contrast to her former boss President Barack Obama, when confronted with a foreign-policy crisis or challenge, Clinton was more inclined to act than not. The reflex to be “caught trying” is ennobling and very much part of the American can-do spirit—especially when set against Obama’s much-criticized “don’t do stupid stuff” mantra against taking action, which Clinton herself has derided as “not an organizing principle” worthy of a great nation. But is “get caught trying” any wiser a mantra for America’s approach to the world?

The idea is hardly an HRC original. I first heard a version from her husband, President Bill Clinton, during a briefing in preparation for the Camp David Middle East peace summit in the summer of 2000. Back then, I was an adviser for Arab-Israeli negotiations, and we were preparing for a summit we hoped could result in a peace agreement. Reflecting on the failure of those efforts later, Clinton echoed the view I’d heard him articulate at the briefing: “We always need to get caught trying—fewer people will die.” But since leaving government in 2003 and watching U.S. foreign policy under both Republicans and Democrats ever since, I’m no longer as convinced as I was that “doing something” is better than nothing, particularly if the “something” being done isn’t well thought through.

As for Hillary, whose penchant, at least rhetorically, is for action, it’s impossible to know what she might have done had she been elected president instead of Obama in 2008. By her own account, Secretary Clinton argued for arming the Syrian rebels early, though that recommendation wasn’t for giving them weapons systems that would have significantly altered the battlefield dynamics. Nonetheless, it was more than the president was willing to do. She and others did manage to persuade a reluctant Obama to intervene against Muammar Qaddafi in Libya—a move Obama now views as a mistake, but which Clinton has not disavowed. This year on the campaign trail, Clinton has called for a no-fly zone in Syria—an idea seemingly in search of a strategy.

But while Obama has been criticized for “inaction,” it doesn’t necessarily follow that action is generally the better course. First, “get caught trying” is more of a predisposition than a sustainable policy. The urge to “do something”—smart or not—is powerful for United States presidents and secretaries of state. The logic is that if you don’t play, you can’t win. And after all, people come to Washington to fix things, not sit on their hands; if you’re in government, your job description virtually compels you to figure out how to make something work, not to argue that it can’t. Democratic and Republican administrations alike are vulnerable to this impulse; more so than to looking at history’s lessons or considering seriously whether action really is superior to inaction.

Second, the urge to be caught trying is also powered by two largely naïve and self-reverential American notions: that most problems, including violent conflicts, can in fact be resolved, and that America is the indispensable power that’s not just mandated, but able, to solve them. The former United States senator George Mitchell, who led peace talks in Northern Ireland, maintains there is no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. “Conflicts are created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings.” It all sounds so right and so logical. On the other hand, I spent 20-plus years working on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by the time I left government it was worse than it had been when I began. Despite brilliant success in Northern Ireland, Mitchell, too, had little luck with Israelis and Palestinians as Obama’s special envoy; and neither did Secretary of State John Kerry during Obama’s second term. We all wrongly believed that the conflict was either ripe for a breakthrough or could be made so if only we tried hard enough.

The American image of itself as a fix-it nation is not wholly unwarranted. There are cases in which the United States has in fact contributed mightily to fixing things. In addition to its key role in helping to unwind the bitter conflict in Northern Ireland, the United States also helped create and enforce a more peaceful situation in the former Yugoslavia. The past half century offers many other examples: Just look at the country’s role in Europe and Japan between 1945 and 1950; its creative diplomacy with China; its brokering of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty; its hand in ending the Cold War in the late 1980s; and its success pushing Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait in 1991.

But these were unusual moments when United States had the right leaders, leverage, circumstances, and partners to play these consequential roles. Just as often—through, for example, interventions in Latin America and the Middle East, both clandestine and overt, or support for brutal authoritarian rulers, and of course repeated attempts to broker peace between Palestinians and Israelis—the United States has acted in ways reflecting a mistaken view that somehow America could impose its own values on a world eager to receive them.

Nowhere has this dysfunction been more apparent than in the Middle East. Today’s conflicts in this broken, angry, and dysfunctional region are more likely to have outcomes than solutions, in large part because they’re driven by internal social, religious, and political factors that are hard if not impossible for external powers to repair—even though outside powers help sustain the fighting. The Middle East is littered with the shattered, false beliefs of great powers who thought they could impose their will on small tribes, reform or change local political cultures, or heal the sectarian and political conflicts that have bedeviled the region for decades.

The “get caught trying” bias also assumes that the cost of failure, relative to the cost of not trying, is negligible. The problem is that the world’s most compelling idea isn’t nationalism, democracy, or capitalism: It’s success. Winning generates power and credibility, and failure generates the opposite. This means there are real costs beyond mere wasted effort to not succeeding, as America’s recent history demonstrates. My own view is that the country’s failures in war- and peacemaking have contributed to a loss in America’s ability to command respect, fear, and admiration in places around the world. The direct costs of failed military interventions like Iraq can be counted in dollars and lives. The costs of failures like the Camp David Summit are harder to measure, but the unrealistic and unrealizable expectations generated by that effort played into the hands of extremists. They made it easier for Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat to acquiesce in and support the violence of the Second Intifada, following the provocative 2000 visit of Israeli politician Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount, a site considered holy by both Muslims and Jews.

It wouldn’t be fair to accuse the Obama administration of not trying in all spheres (see Cuba and Iran) because of his reluctance for action in others (see Syria). And yet the image of the president that seems to have stuck, largely driven by the president’s risk-aversion in Syria, is of a hesitant, leading-from-behind foreign policy that’s abdicated U.S. responsibilities.

The fact is that in the Middle East, America can’t win, whether a given administration’s bias is for action, as pursued in Iraq and Libya, or the inaction that characterized the Obama administration’s response to the first few years of the Syria conflict. As Philip Gordon, Obama’s former special assistant for the region, summarized recent American involvement there: “In Iraq, the U.S. intervened and occupied, and the result was a costly disaster. In Libya, the U.S. intervened and did not occupy, and the result was a costly disaster. In Syria, the U.S. neither intervened nor occupied, and the result is a costly disaster.” Indeed, contrary to America’s purported status as “the indispensable nation,” the world could have done very nicely without the policies America pursued on any of these issues.

So if the solution is neither Obamaesque restraint nor Clintonesque zeal for action, what is it? I wish there were a simple formula—some magic prescription as simple as “don’t do stupid stuff” on the one hand or “get caught trying” on the other that could guide America as it seeks to navigate a cruel and unforgiving world. But there really isn’t.

It’s better, perhaps, to pose questions. It’s almost the Passover holiday, and part of the celebration involves posing four questions about its meaning. And I’d respectfully suggest that, as candidates refine their foreign-policy platforms, they pose four basic questions to determine when action is appropriate, particularly when military force is being considered. First, should America do it—that is, what are the objectives policymakers seek to accomplish and why are they pursuing those goals? Second, can America do it—are the means appropriate to the ends? Third, what is it likely to cost—including in intangibles like the second-order effects of raising expectations? And finally, is America prepared to see it through the day, or if necessary the decade, after? These questions cannot guarantee success; but considering them carefully might actually reduce the prospects of failure.

America has powerful agency. If its leaders want to be “caught trying,” they should at least try to do it smartly. It’s so much better than doing it the dumb way.