What Next for U.S. Foreign Policy?

Power, stability, and the post-Iraq world order.

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Benjamin Schwarz, 39, is a former staffer at the RAND Corporation, a former executive editor of World Policy Journal, and the current literary editor of The Atlantic Monthly. The most cogent statement of his foreign policy views is "A New Grand Strategy," written with foreign policy analyst Christopher Layne and published in The Atlantic in January 2002. There and elsewhere, he and Layne have argued that the United States should reduce its commitments around the world and allow other powers to maintain their own spheres of influence. The result, they argue, would be a safer and more stable world.

reason: You've written that "the very preponderance of American power may now make us not more secure but less secure."

Benjamin Schwarz: There has never been a power as dominant as the United States today. As we see with the international opposition to what the United States is taking on in Iraq, that power itself makes other countries nervous. Eventually, you run the risk of a combination of states forming in opposition to America. For now our power may make us more secure and advance our interests in the world, but it creates a situation in which our interests are thwarted and other powers form a coalition against us.

Clearly, the more we muck around in the Middle East, the more we are going to be a lightning rod for the grievances of the people in the area. That's even if we do, in fact, build a prosperous and democratic Iraq. We helped build a prosperous and democratic Israel, and it's now seen as a Western outpost in the Middle East. For American security, this is a part of the world that we should just stay away from if it's at all possible. The fact that we haven't stayed away from it in the past has exacerbated the ill feelings directed toward the United States. A lot of Osama bin Laden's anger toward the United States is clearly related to the first Gulf War -- that we brought troops into Saudi Arabia. Just in itself, even though this military presence is extremely unobtrusive, it still angers a great many Muslims. The fact that we have launched what will be seen in the Arab world as an aggressive war against an Arab regime will anger people more.

reason: The president obviously isn't following the strategy you and Layne laid out. Is it possible to shift gears right now?

Schwarz: I don't think so. Now that the United States has assumed this role of disarming Iraq, it's very difficult for it to tell other countries that it will look to other powers to police those regions of the world that they're particularly concerned with themselves.

You can't say, after conducting this war in the face of tremendous international opposition, "All right, guys, you take care of the mess." They would say, and they would be correct to say, "Why should we take care of this? You created the mess, you clean it up yourself." If the United States believes that a reconstructed Iraq is an important national security interest for the United States, it's going to have to do that largely for itself.

reason: One argument people have made for the Iraq war is that it is a matter of cleaning up a mess. The United States helped build up Saddam. Even if in the long term it would be a good idea for the United States to reduce its presence in the Middle East, they say, it has a moral obligation to remove the tyrant it aided.

Schwarz: Yes. Christopher Hitchens makes this argument. I don't buy it, but I understand it.

reason: Why don't you buy it?

Schwarz: Washington didn't say, "We want a nasty, bloody dictator to take control of Iraq." The reason we supported Saddam years ago is because we were worried about Iran, so we threw our support to Iraq as a counterbalance. It's not as if we liked him, or encouraged him to torture and rape. We supported him for our own geopolitical reasons, and countries are allowed to do that without incurring a moral obligation.

On the other hand, I fail to understand how people could support U.S. action in Kosovo for moralistic reasons and then not support action in Iraq. I mean, clearly this is a far more bloody and terrible regime.

I'm an opponent of this war, but I don't understand why most of the people who are opposed to it take that stance. The strategy Chris Layne and I outlined is one where you'd accept that other regional powers would develop military capabilities that we are now not comfortable with. Chris and I are perfectly willing to accept that world. The U.S. foreign policy establishment isn't willing to accept that world, and I can understand their reasons. But if you don't want that world -- if you think that, de facto, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is a bad thing -- then I don't understand how you could oppose this war. Sanctions only worked because there were a quarter of a million troops on Iraq's border. Obviously, we can't keep those troops there forever. So if you're worried about Iraq acquiring certain military capabilities, it would seem to me that you have to be willing to go to war to prevent that.

reason: Do you think pre-emptive war is ever justified?

Schwarz: If a power believes it's threatened by another state, there's no reason it should have to wait for that other state to launch an attack on it. Bush's rhetoric, I think, is completely right -- it's just wrong in this particular situation. He is responsible for the security and well-being of the American people, and if there were a mortal danger to the United States, it's his obligation to meet that challenge.

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