The terror attacks in Brussels last week fairly zapped the American political conversation. Among our presidential aspirants, it’s suddenly all about foreign policy and national security—a long overdue focus.
We have two new truths confronting us now.
One, the Islamic State’s conscious design is as plain now as all that shattered glass on the Belgian capital’s streets. Reporting in the Guardian, Martin Chulov cited two confidential ISIS sources privy to the group’s planning. The strategy as formulated prior to the Paris attacks last November is to keep European capitals in a constant state of panic.
“In what marked a critical phase in the group’s evolution, there was to be a new focus on exporting chaos to Europe,” Chulov writes of a meeting Islamic State leaders convened in the Syrian town of Tabqah. “And up to 200 militants were in place across the Continent ready to receive orders.”
This is a new reality. The terrorism crisis is no longer Iraqi or Syrian or Libyan or Afghani, or anyone else’s in the Islamic world. It’s also Belgian, French, British, American, West African, and so on: It’s global—and cellular.
Two, new realities require new ideas, and no one aspiring to the presidency of the United States seems to have any. As a long-term concern, one worries more about this dearth of sound, innovative policies than about where the next gruesome terror attack may take place. Post-Brussels, it’s pressing to address this vacuum.
Among Democratic and Republican candidates, Hillary Clinton is the one who boasts the most foreign policy experience, of course. But of what use is experience given (1) Clinton has repeatedly failed to learn from it and (2) she has articulated not one new policy proposal in response to recent events.
Clinton’s rigid adherence to a well-thumbed playbook was evident in a much-noted policy speech she delivered at Stanford University a day after the Brussels attacks. She wants an “intelligence surge,” more security at airports, and “partnerships” with Silicon Valley technology and media companies.
The New York Times caught the gist perfectly. “In her own policy prescriptions,” The Times noted in its report, “Mrs. Clinton called for an acceleration of approaches already under way.”
Fine, Madame Secretary. But how can you assert, “We need to rely on what actually works” when what’s in place too often doesn’t?
While Bernie Sanders won big in three Western caucus votes last weekend, he displays little interest in foreign affairs; he’s more or less a tag-along whose positions are borrowed from those already tried.
The Republican candidates are a more complicated read. They’ve correctly identified the vital issues, to their credit: The immigration problem is America’s migrant crisis by another name, for instance; America’s role in the world has become unclear during the Obama administration and needs to be resolved.
But look at their “ideas”—and we need the quotation marks. Ted Cruz wants to carpet-bomb the Middle East. Donald Trump wants to wall off our southern border, get back to the business of torture, and murder the families of terrorists.
Given how unrealistic such proposals would be to implement, these are not policies as much as poses. Scrape back all the spin and these are tacit admissions that Republican candidates don’t have any better strategies to respond to a new international environment than the Democrats do.
There must be a hundred explanations as to why we find ourselves in policy paralysis.
Gradually since 1945, the center of gravity in the policy-making process has shifted from the State Department, once home to well-trained diplomats with specializations in various issues, regions, cultures, languages, and so on, to the Pentagon and the agencies comprising the national security apparatus. No diplomatic historian would dispute this.
In consequence, policy is now more or less controlled by people whose training is narrow by design and focused on method—getting things done—to the exclusion of well-considered policy goals. It’s the “ours is not to reason why” syndrome, you might say. And it’s no longer going to get us through, given we’re in an era nobody’s training could possibly have prepared them for.
Brussels last week as a manifestation of a carefully planned ISIS strategy is one example of the new challenges policy planners face. Security is a vital question, obviously, but they have to think far beyond just that.