The favorite color of foreign policy is grey. Iraq is the latest example of a muddle where success is the absence of failure and options fall into categories based on degrees of bad.
In response to a surprisingly effective offensive against the Iraqi government by a coalition of groups that until last week most Americans had never heard of — the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — President Barack Obama is sending 300 military advisers. Their job is to assist an Iraqi leader we don’t like very much to avoid Iranian meddling in a region with unresolved sectarian conflicts that most of the world cannot comprehend.
This Iraq mess is a reminder of how ambiguous foreign policy options have become. There is nothing clear about the choices a great power like America can make in responding to armed thugs marching through a country where our soldiers died to protect freedom and democracy.
Absent strikes from the air or boots on the ground, the American public sees little point in vague nation-building exercises that exhaust our reserves even when the case is, rightly argued, that conflicts creep over borders and that weapons in radicalized hands have direct consequences for Americans.
It is time for a re-think of U.S. foreign policy goals and aspirations. In short, we may have to lower the bar.
The only way to “win” foreign policy debates these days is to show limited results. Reasonable people understand things they see — like a liberated town welcoming U.S. soldiers, a hospital able to function in a war zone, children getting vaccinated in a refugee camp, women voting for the first time. People understand human stories like Nigerian girls abducted from school. They care less about the complexities of countering terrorism in Africa and more about basic human rights violations against children.
For many decades the United States has sought macro wins on foreign policy — big-ticket successes like invading Iraq, solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, bringing down Libyan dictator Mohammar Qaddafi, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons, and other notable goals only to see gains reversed and goal posts moved. So maybe it is time to scope ambitions and seek smaller prizes.
In Syria, for example, rather than solve the civil war and remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, we might be better to focus on helping oppositions hold a few towns. Rather than solve the country’s bitter divisions, perhaps we focus solely on the refugees outside the country. Rather than seek congressional support to strike Syria, we needed to bring a few Syrian doctors to tell Congress how American assistance allows surgeries on children to take place in areas of the country under siege.
In Iraq, we need only keep Baghdad from falling into radical hands. We can’t stop ISIL from operating in parts of Iraq but we can minimize the damage by counseling Iraqis on how to protect their capital. In that sense, the president is right to loan the Iraqi Army a few good minds.
As we look around the world, the American footprint is smaller and, perhaps, rather than mourn our decreased influence we ought to embrace it as a realistic alternative to doing everything everywhere.
In the end, most of us make peace with small improvements in our communities whether they are American or global. Remember the old adage — sometimes something is better than nothing.
Tara Sonenshine is Distinguished Fellow at George Washington University’s School of Media and Public Affairs