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Foreign Policy and National Security Are Not the Same Thing

by Dave Lindorff
Wed, 08/28/2008
Moral foreign policy would be looking at ways to work with other nations to bring down the level of combat, and to bring peace to Afghanistan and to other war-torn regions of the world.

One of the sorrier legacies of eight years of Bush and Cheney in the White House has been the conflation of the terms “National Security” and “Foreign Policy” by both Republicans and Democrats.

Granted that the history of US foreign policy in the world has been heavily larded with wars, many of them at America’s instigation. It is nonetheless true that foreign policy is much bigger and more far reaching than just what has come to be known as “national security” issues.

In Bush-speak, national security come to mean having big guns, lots of heavily armed troops, cruise missiles, nuclear weapons, naval armadas and a bully’s willingness to use these weapons on a whim, with no thought of consequences.

The term is kind of oxymoronic, since it is clear that by resorting to war and to threats of war, and by squandering unprecedented sums of money on the military, eight years of bellicosity has not made the nation more secure. Quite the opposite: The military has been run into the ground, the economy has been bankrupted, education, healthcare and other critical national services have been shortchanged, and the country has become a pariah state, viewed around the world as a loose cannon and a terror nation—hardly a comforting position to be in.

Foreign policy, meanwhile, has ceased to have any meaning at all, beyond the making of war or threats of war, making it virtually synonymous with the term national security.

When I was a Fulbright professor in China, back in 1991, at a mid-year conference in the southern Chinese city of Kunming, we grantees were addressed by the head of the Fulbright Program in China, a cultural affairs director from the US embassy in Beijing. He informed us that as teachers (I was teaching journalism at Fudan University in Shanghai), we Fulbrighters were the frontline of American foreign policy in China. Most of us were kind of repulsed by his semi-military allusion to a battle line and by implication to us as soldiers, and we chose instead to see our role as something different: emissaries from the American people to the Chinese people. In fact, given that most of the 21 of us were hardly superpatriots or cold warriors (the academics, journalists, lawyers and other professionals who serve in the Fulbright Program tend demographically to be among the most liberal and left-leaning group in the American workforce), we would have made a pretty bad defense line. Rather, what we were doing in China, by teaching and building relationships with young Chinese college students, was the essence of real foreign policy—building bridges at the grass roots level between the people of China and the people of the US.

Foreign policy can be reduced to a strategic chess game—the kind of “real politik” practiced by Klemens von Metternich in the 19th Century, or espoused by Henry Kissinger in the Nixon years—but it is actually, or at least ought to be, much broader than that kind of cold and calculating manipulation and pursuit of narrow self-interest.

Real foreign policy should be about winning friends, building trust, establishing relationships between countries and peoples, negotiating treaties designed to achieve mutual advantage and to deter aggression. It is about aiding countries that are in need of assistance, and at its best, should also be about making the world a safer, better place for all, which in the end is the best way to guard against war and the threats of war.

Now it would be naïve to imagine a foreign policy that ignored national self-interest. Much as I or others might wish for a world without borders and a common humanity, in a world of nation states, it is inevitable that foreign policy as practiced by any nation, including the United States, will be focused on achieving the maximum benefit for that nation, and US foreign policy has always been about just that, and unfortunately probably always will be. But even granted this selfish parochialism, it is incredibly shortsighted and ignorant to treat foreign policy as simply an America-first process of bullying others into submission to our dictates. Thousands of American teachers and Peace Corps volunteers and aid workers do much more to advance America’s position in the world and to enhance the nation’s security than do hundreds of thousands of soldiers and hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and missiles.

For Republicans, there is no difference between national security, which is defined as a powerful and assertive military, and foreign policy. But Democrats, who at times have had a more nuanced view, have more recently bought into this too. At the current Democratic Convention, anxious to look as tough as Republicans, Democratic speakers have used the terms national security and foreign policy interchangeably.

Afghanistan and Iraq provide excellent cases in point. Clearly, the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, ostensibly aimed initially at hunting down Al Qaeda fighters and leaders, quickly devolved into an all-out assault on that nation, which has been reduced to the same rubble and state of chaos and civil war as has Iraq. Now, Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama is talking about expanding the war there, and increasing the killing and destruction in that country. In Iraq, where the US has been involved in an orgy of killing and destruction now for over five years, Obama and fellow Democrats are calling for a “responsible exit” from that conflict over the course of another 16 months. A truly responsible exit would be an immediate withdrawal, a national apology to Iraqis and to the world community, and a massive program of reparations to help rebuild that nation.

What Obama and the Democrats are touting is not foreign policy. It is a continuation of national security run amok.

No amount of American force, no level of mayhem and slaughter, will bring about a secure and tranquil Afghanistan. In fact, every time Americans kill Afghanis, as American bombers recently did, slaughtering 60 children and 30 other adults, women and men, in an aerial bombardment reminiscent of the German Luftwaffe’s attack on the Basque village of Guernica, they produce not peace and submission, but rather hatred and a desire for vengeance.

It will take perhaps a generation of good works for the US to undo the evil done to American foreign relations by eight years of Bush/Cheney obsession with national security, but it doesn’t even look like the Democrats “get it.” In Congress, they have vied with Republicans to look tough, supporting both the invasion of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq, they have supported the continued funding of those wars and increased funding for the already bloated US war machine, and they are now backing Obama’s call for more combat troops in Afghanistan.

Real foreign policy would be looking at ways to work with other nations to bring down the level of combat, and to bring peace to Afghanistan and to other war-torn regions of the world.

Meanwhile, the concept of national security needs to be broadened. As Genghis Khan, conqueror of China, is reputed to have said as a frightened Chinese empire, at extraordinary financial and human cost, constructed the Great Wall to fend him off, “A wall is only as strong as the people behind it.”

One need only drive through any American city today and view the bombed-out neighborhoods, the crack dens, the pot-holed streets, the decrepit transit systems, the shamefully overcrowded and prison-like schools where any teaching and learning that goes on is an accident, one need only visit ignored and forgotten rural areas of America where unemployment is the norm and healthcare is half a day’s drive and half a year’s income away, one need only drive through a suburban neighborhood and look at all the “For Sale” and even more pathetic “For Sale: Reduced Price!” signs in front of houses, to see that what lies behind America’s walls, like the ridiculous one being built now along parts of the border with Mexico, is incredible weakness. (At the rate things are going here, it won’t be long before Americans will be scaling that wall to find jobs in Mexico!)

The folly of conflating national security and foreign policy, and of imagining that a mindless willingness to resort to force and bullying is the sine qua non for being “presidential,” has been made painfully clear not only in the screams of wounded children in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in the cries of hungry children in America. The United States does not need a man of war in the White House. It needs a wise advocate of peace.

Lindorff speakingAbout the author: Philadelphia journalist Dave Lindorff is a 34-year veteran, an award-winning journalist, a former New York Times contributor, a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, a two-time Journalism Fulbright Scholar, and the co-author, with Barbara Olshansky, of a well-regarded book on impeachment, The Case for Impeachment. His work is available at

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This story was published on August 28, 2008.