Weighing Foreign Policy Choices

Monday’s presidential debate offered a startling case of President Obama defending his first-term foreign policy and challenger Mitt Romney abandoning many of his harsh criticisms of the incumbent. But ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar suggests some common-sense ways for Americans to assess global choices.

By Paul R. Pillar

After a debate that did not do a lot, to put it charitably, to clarify and illuminate differences between the candidates on issues of foreign and security policy, how should a citizen who would like foreign policy to be an important factor in electoral choices think about the choice to be made next month?

Here are some considerations that such a citizen (whose recognition of the importance of foreign policy ought to be applauded) should bear in mind and that do not require explicit reference to either of this year’s candidates or to specific statements they have made in the campaign.

President Barack Obama at the second presidential debate. (Photo credit: barackobama.com)

Limits of the possible. The big, messy, violent and troublesome world outside our borders will be big, messy, violent and troublesome in most of the same respects no matter what the United States does.

Even the superpower cannot solve all the problems out there, much less remake the rest of the world in its image. Unfortunately much of what has been said about foreign affairs in this campaign has failed to recognize that principle.

That part of the campaign has mirrored the domestic part by sounding as if the question at hand were simply whether we like or dislike what has been going on lately rather than who has the best response to problems that exist and the best understanding of what can or cannot be done about them.

We also hear many references to “strategy” but without any specifics about the content of a strategy and without recognition that the first step in formulating a sound strategy is to recognize the limits to what is possible, what we can and cannot do given our available powers and resources. We need to ask in the face of unpleasant happenings, even before asking what we should do about them, whether there is anything we can do about them.

First do no harm. The Hippocratic principle ought to apply to the nation’s choice of its leadership. Think about ways in which we would want to revise U.S. foreign policy of the past if somehow we could do that.

Probably most of the revisions, and surely most of the really consequential ones, would involve not doing something that turned out to be harmful to the nation’s interests, rather than failing to do something one might hope would have been beneficial.

In this respect what may be sound advice for living an individual life is not good advice for leading a nation. Maybe it is true that in old age one will regret not trying something more than one will regret trying and failing.

For a nation, where the consequences of failure are far greater and long lasting, the regrets will be more about the failures. In choosing leaders we should pay at least as much attention to avoiding those who pose a bigger risk of failure as we do to picking ones who hold out a promise of greater success.

The appointees. A peculiarity of the U.S. political system, as compared to most other advanced democracies, is the installation of huge numbers of political appointees with each change of presidential administration. This political stratum, belonging neither to the ranks of elected politicians nor to the professional bureaucracy, tends to have major influence over foreign policies even more so than domestic ones.

So we should realize we are choosing not just a president but a corps of appointees, most of whom have their own strong ideas about the direction policy ought to go. We cannot determine in advance exactly who will wind up in what positions, but we can get a good idea of the possibilities by looking at who has become associated with the campaigns.

The more that the candidate at the head of the campaign lacks his own strong and original ideas about foreign policy, as a matter of lack of experience in this area or overall changeability, the more important it is to consider the possible appointees.

Outside influences. Something similar could be said about likely influences on the next president that do not themselves become appointed officials. The influences in question here are ones that could affect foreign policy, but the influences could be found either inside or outside the United States.

The latter would include any foreign countries or governments to which the candidate has developed a particular affinity. As with potential appointees, we can get a fairly good idea of the influences on a future president in office from where he has been receiving support and advice before entering office.

First term vs. second term. This is unavoidably a major consideration whenever an incumbent president is running for reelection. It embraces two sub-issues. One is a matter of risk propensity and in that regard is related to the earlier point about risk of failures.

An incumbent’s record, and whatever is good or bad about it, will always give us a better idea of what we can expect from the same person in the next four years than the idea we would have with someone who has never held the office. A caveat to the preceding point is that a president in a second term has different political equities or vulnerabilities than he had in a first term.

That gets to the second sub-issue. It concerns the difference between the sorts of policies produced by a president who will never be running for office again and the sort produced by a president who, given the competitive partisanship that has become a permanent feature of American politics, will be campaigning for reelection from the day he takes the oath of office.

Domestic political considerations will naturally bear more heavily on the policies of a first-term president. The foreign-policy-concerned citizen needs to ask whether this influence will on balance tend to produce better or worse policy on matters of importance to him.

On that last point, there is something to be said for the Mexican-style system of electing presidents to a single nonrenewable six-year term. But that’s not the system we have.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)


10 comments for “Weighing Foreign Policy Choices

  1. Rehmat
    October 24, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    America’s foreign policy has long been dictated by the all-powerful Israel Lobby and the Jewish-controlled think tanks. With the exception of a few – no American lawmaker can criticize America’s blind support for the Zionist-regime. Rep. Ron Paul criticized USAID to Israel – and he was called “vicious anti-Semite” by the Jewish lobby spokespersons – and finall he was dumped by GOP in favor of Mitt Romney.


  2. db
    October 24, 2012 at 9:27 pm


    You’re off by several hundred years. Rehmat’s ideas had quite a following in the 20th Century. Took a lot of effort to shove those ideas back into the sewer out of which they crawled.

    The Jewish lobby is the reason Ron Paul isn’t running for President tonight?

  3. Rehmat
    October 24, 2012 at 10:08 pm

    A great majority of US presidential “appointees” have always drawn from the powerful Jewish think tanks like Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Brooking Institute, American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Hudson Institute, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, etc. etc. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are old members of CFR. There are over 300 members of these Jewish think tanks which are occupying very high positions in Obama administration.

    Last year, Helen Thomas told CNN Joy Behar that White House could not say NO to Israel as it’s infested with Zionist Jews.


    • db
      October 25, 2012 at 5:39 am

      I’m surprised you didn’t work the Tri-lateral Commission into the conversation.

      “Last year, Helen Thomas told CNN Joy Behar that White House could not say NO to Israel as it’s infested with Zionist Jews.”

      Well yes, and was roundly criticized for it.

      Doesn’t make it true. Just makes you look like a raving Anti-Semite

  4. Paul G.
    October 25, 2012 at 9:16 am

    “In choosing leaders we should pay at least as much attention to avoiding those who pose a bigger risk of failure as we do to picking ones who hold out a promise of greater success.”

    I think that is a particularly important criteria here-see the other article as Romney as a Trojan Horse. While Obama’s foreign policy may be abhorant, especially his drone program; Romney’s neo-con (now hidden) agenda portends even greater failure and disaster abroad, we have a choice between an ongoing train wreck and armageddon.

  5. Gusseppe
    October 25, 2012 at 11:15 am

    jews are NOT Semites. BorASS tries to hoodwink everyone into thinking so with his ‘antisemitic’ BS. Hey Borat – We do NOT take that smear seriously anymore. It holds ZERO weight.

  6. Borat
    October 25, 2012 at 1:39 pm

    Gushitppe is in the same bowl as rehmatshit. One flush should do it…..

  7. jerry gates
    October 25, 2012 at 8:32 pm

    Paul Pillar shows why he rose through the ranks to a top slot as a CIA analyst, his ” Weighing Foreign Policy Choices” shows a pro active and forward thinking foreign policy analyst at work on critical issues weighing heavily on POTUS mind.
    Your being hacked
    Heavy is the head that wears the crown, even in a system of consensus decision making, plausible denial schemes and Secret Service handling Cartegena’s prostitutes for visiting dignitaries, some decisions concerning foreign policy demand a level head, a sensible assaying of what is possible and the temerity of Hercules in fending off evil minds intent on steering policy in wrong directions for special interests benefits alone in mind. It pays to stick to the basics and keep the language in common sense terms when many lives are weighed in ones decisions, of two candidates, given their criteria for placement of subordinates, cabinet head positions and advisors and committee head chairs, Obama seems the safer candidate for a moderate left leaning independent, rank and file Democrats and many unionized conservative voters disgruntled with the union busting GOP and it’s offensive anti labor stances concering entitlments from binding arbitration settlements set on their chopping blocks while new jets for Israel to bomb Iran isnt negotiable, the waste of feeding Israel;s weapons frenzy is growing intolerable in a nation where sixty percent of the budget is steered into the weapons, intel, military and USAID NGO markets before workers solvency issues even come up in GOP platforms, At least the Crats are making it clear that building new forms of employment through better energy investing, better local investing and more stringent demands of transparency from Bonds agents, National security complex directorates and civic service sector appropriations from competitive bidders as the mandate, we have to control our commons with our own hands and the GOP doesnt want that they want the neoliberal model orthodox, the corporate conglomerate police state, Neither party is immune from this lurid temptation to pay protection to security services corps because the state is a criminal internationally and the only enforcer via it’s hegemony internationally hence th eneed for the New World Order, a pecking order with no recourse for USA NATO and Zionist criminality against victims in their gunsights is not order, it’s chaos by any assaying of results based outcomes and thinking that different resilts might come from the same path PNAC is suicidal insanity ruling with complete immunity from prosecution, a recipe for further chaos we do not need, the votes will be cast in faith, if betrayed, again, either partys elected and associates will face an epic reprisal from a chorus of citizens cocked and ready to fire at will at what they know is broken and not getting fixed to their satisfaction, which is a waste of we the peoples dime and brother, we cant spare it down here in the lower class, Mitt, make that 47 percent you wrote off fifty two percent you have forsaken for lack of interest? I remain Joe and Mary’s baby.

    • db
      October 26, 2012 at 7:29 pm

      You read through the whole thing? It was too continuous stream-of consciousness for me to muddle through.

      Though I will admit that I stopped at “Your (sic) being hacked”

      Thank you.

  8. rich beckmann
    October 30, 2012 at 1:19 am

    borat, you are an un-informed, incoherent, mean, nasty little glob of nothing, and obviously not very educated, either.

Comments are closed.