August is known in Washington political and policy circles as the “silly season” – when the vacation schedules of U.S. and many world leaders leave a news vacuum that the media conveniently fills with tales of juicy scandals and other tabloid-like fare.
Thanks to the recent mushrooming of overseas crises, this August is starting to look like “foreign policy doctrine” season. But President Obama’s interview last week with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman cast doubt on how serious such pronouncements tend to be, and Hillary Clinton’s session this weekend with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg added notably to the month’s supply of McStrategy.
Not that the former Secretary of State, U.S. Senator, and First Lady didn’t impress on any number of counts. Especially noteworthy was her mastery of diplomatic detail, evident from the ease with which she recounted and analyzed her myriad dealings with the likes of Israeli leaders, Palestinian factions, Tunisian and Libyan political parties, Islamist movements, Iranian nuclear enrichment demands, and Hindu nationalists – not to mention her fellow U.S. officials.
What was nearly completely absent from her wide-ranging remarks and her critique of the Mr. Obama’s dipomatic record, however, was exactly what was missing from the president’s ideas – a discernible definition of U.S. national interests.
Oops – let me qualify that. Secretary Clinton did mention “enforcing navigable sea lanes in the South China Sea.” Other than that, however, she discoursed expansively about the perils of America doing too much in the world and too little; about the limits to U.S. power and values and the importance of U.S. power and values; about the need to plan for interventions’ aftermaths; about the effectiveness of current American tools for dealing with “the complex situations we’re going to face”; about the related issue of the different ways America can “engage” the world; about the persistence of power vacuums and their tendency to be filled by “pretty unsavory players”; about not seeing “the world go to hell in a handbasket”; and about “resurgences of aggression”.
She even spoke of the need for “great organizing principles” and “visions” in foreign policy. But aside from a talking points-worthy reference to “peace, progress, and prosperity,” Secretary Clinton provided no indication of what specific, concrete objectives her overarching approach to foreign policy would try to protect or promote (except for those sea-lanes); or even of when, why, and how exactly the (often alarming) global trends she analyzed so knowledgably intersected with America’s distinctive national needs – or whether many of them do at all. And Goldberg never brought up these crucial subjects.
Obsessing about the instruments and tactics of American foreign policy while steadfastly ignoring the goals to be achieved makes as much sense as obsessing about construction tools and materials while steadfastly ignoring the building to be created. Until Secretary Clinton starts explaining to Americans much more clearly how her approach would or would not affect their security, freedom, and prosperity, she’ll deserve to stay yoked to the Obama foreign policy legacy no matter how energetically she tries to break free.