The Foreign Policy Elite Can't Understand How They Got Us Here

Richard Haass of the Council on Foreign Relations thinks the biggest danger to the world is the United States. But he doesn't mean it in the way that's, y'know, true.

The Foreign Policy Elite Can't Understand How They Got Us Here
L to R: Prince Saud al-Faisal, Richard Haass, Robert Gates, George H. W. Bush, James Baker, John Sununu, Prince Bandar. Kennebunkport, 1990.

Edited by Sam Thielman

RICHARD HAASS doesn't recognize his country anymore. "Our domestic political situation is not only one that others don't want to emulate," the outgoing president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently lamented to the New York Times’ Peter Baker. "But I also think that it’s introduced a degree of unpredictability and a lack of reliability that’s really poisonous. For America’s ability to function successfully in the world, I mean, it makes it very hard for our friends to depend on us." Foreign contacts tell him they don't know if Trump is the norm for America or if Biden is. Haass now reluctantly concludes that the biggest threat to global security is "us," an assessment Baker notes is "never a thought this global strategist would have entertained until recently."

Leave it to the president of the Council on Foreign Relations to have never before entertained the idea that the premiere danger to the world is the United States of America. Leave it to him, as well, to avoid the sense in which that's actually true—that is, the bloody, exploitative and destabilizing manner in which America has exercised its economic and military power during its rise from continental conqueror to hemispheric overlord to Cold War team captain to global hegemon. Instead, Haass means that it's dangerous for the world if America, wracked by fissures at home, no longer exercises that power.

To forestall the collapse of American global leadership, Haass wrote a book about the obligations of citizenship, the Times reports, which tells me that he doesn't have a critique to explain the "domestic political situation" he laments. In that, he would be typical, in my experience, of U.S. foreign policy practitioners. They tend to see their enterprise as distinct from the tumult of domestic politics, and earnestly agonize when the tumult reaches them. That reach indeed can be brutal, as Masha Yovanovitch learned when she became an obstacle to Donald Trump using Ukrainian security dependence on Washington for his personal benefit.

But there are not two United Stateses of America, one handling domestic and the other handling foreign affairs. There is only one United States of America. What it does abroad is what it does at home. Richard Haass sure helped America do what it did abroad. It seems not to have occurred to him that work would leave an impact here at home.


THE TIMES’ RECAP of Haass' career notes that his crowning achievement in government came during George W. Bush's first term, when he served as director of policy planning at the State Department. That's a prestigious job whose occupants never stop reminding you that it was first held by George Kennan. In a 2003 speech, Haass once marveled at the position's mandate—to "look at the entire mosaic of U.S. foreign policy," in order, at his moment in history, "to make sure that America uses its primacy wisely."

Haass' example taught me, as a cub reporter, that State's policy-planning office was a self-important irrelevancy. Absolutely no policy planning that Haass performed resembled the foreign policy that Bush implemented. Like Colin Powell's State Department broadly, whatever Haass thought he was doing, he was granting respectability to Bush's intensifications of imperial violence and assertions of American Exceptionalism.

Haass was well-known at the time for his skepticism of invading Iraq, which meant to war supporters that he was an opponent of the enterprise. Baker, gesturing at this period, writes delicately that Haass stepped down in 2003 "disenchanted with the Iraq war, which he later called “a poor choice poorly implemented."

Haass surely had his doubts, but in office, he served the war's interests dutifully. A search through the Nexis news database for the crucial year of 2002 shows that Haass was more diplomatically active on behalf of the war than I had appreciated. From February 2002 to January 2003, Haass took trips to Egypt, Chile, Bahrain, India, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Ireland to shore up support for the war, and I'm sure I'm missing some. A Channel NewsAsia story from January 6, 2003, reporting on Haass' visit to New Delhi, claimed Haass "denied that there were concrete plans to attack Iraq," a denial Haass contradicted not three months later, when he told Nick Lemann of The New Yorker that by July 2002 he understood that Bush had decided on military action.

For someone looking at "the entire mosaic of U.S. foreign policy," Haass' statements bore little relationship to the reality coalescing around him, and instead reflected the hubris of the early post-9/11 era. In June 2002, Haass, who doubled as the U.S. special envoy to Ireland, told the Irish government that while the U.S. was committed to "bringing about a change of regime in Iraq … whatever it is that we ultimately do will only be done in consultation with others." Speaking to the Chicago Tribune in September 2002, Haass assured, "We're not looking to turn international relations in 2002 into the Wild West." Shortly after the invasion, which occurred when Bush voided a United Nations process he himself pursued, Haass told Lemann, "We've not done irreparable harm to anything."

As perhaps befitting someone occupying George Kennan's old job, Haass had greater success explaining the intellectual underpinnings of the early War on Terror. America of course didn't want to turn international relations into the Wild West, Haass elaborated in that 2002 interview with the Tribune, but "there may well need to be a place for exceptions" to the norm of restraint, and it just so happened that America got to be the exception. Haass' aforementioned 2003 speech is an apt document of the ascendant foreign-policy thinking between 9/11 and the Iraq War. Titled "Sovereignty: Existing Rights, Evolving Responsibilities," it pledged that "sovereignty is not a blank check."

Whatever the rhetorical justifications about the unacceptability of practices like genocide or terrorism, as well as the gestures at international law, the lasting impact of Haass' speech lay in its clarity that the U.S. intended to decide when other nations' sovereignty accounts are overdrawn. Haass issued his highly intellectual discourse on the revocability of sovereignty about two months before the U.S. embarked upon a war of aggression opposed by tens of millions around the globe, which killed hundreds of thousands of people and turned millions more into refugees. Within that context, his speech underscored that what we currently call the Rules-Based International Order is simply an international order based, in the final analysis, on American prerogative. This is what counted for America using "its primacy wisely" when that primacy was at its peak, and the entire world paid attention.

We know what happened next. The Iraq War, like the War on Terror broadly, became a fiasco that put American weakness on agonizing display. Abroad, the lesson that the Vladimir Putins of the world drew from actions like Bush's—and speeches like Haass'—was that they would prefer to make their own Rules-Based International Orders before America sent its sovereignty repo men for them. At home, the War on Terror gave nativism respectability in the early days of 9/11 as it sang in the same register as imperial pursuits. Then the intoxication of American Exceptionalism smacked against the reality of American futility, and the humiliation that resulted was enormously potent fuel for the far right. That's the story my book REIGN OF TERROR documents, so I'll refer you to it rather than run through how this unfolded across 20 years and counting, as this newsletter is getting long.

If Haass thinks the deep divisions within American life can be solved through a recourse to civics, then he probably does not consider himself, his peers, and his enterprise the precursors to Trump—and future Trumps—that they've proven themselves to be. In a 2009 memoir, Haass wrote that he was "60-40" against the Iraq War, and defensively noted that organizations just can't work if people quit when they don't get their way in situations like that. Geoffrey Wheatcroft isn't my usual cup of tea, but he aptly wrote in his Times review that "there’s surely a difference between acquiescing in a majority decision over a corporation’s marketing strategy and over a war that must mean much bloodshed and have incalculable ­consequences."

When Haass took stock of the Iraq War in a piece for this March's twentieth anniversary, he gestured imprecisely at how the disillusionment of millions with U.S. foreign policy "set the stage for the anti-government populism and foreign-policy isolationism that has dominated US politics in recent years." That underdeveloped thought was the closest I've seen Haass acknowledge the role of foreign-policy elites like him in contributing to the present democratic crisis. His disdainful characterization of "anti-government populism and foreign-policy isolationism" is a formulation preferred by such elites, as it suggests that the people have failed them once again, rather than the other way around. But hey, they've not done irreparable harm to anything.

A MORE VISCERAL WAY to confront both the legacy and the ongoing reality of American destabilization comes from Roberto Lovato, whose 2020 book Unforgetting: A Memoir of Family, Migration, Gangs and Revolution in The Americas I'm about 30 pages from finishing. Lovato's book is, if you'll pardon me, unforgettable. It tells a multigenerational story of social destruction in El Salvador that is at every step facilitated by Washington’s active involvement, stretching back to the 1930s and the infamous January 1932 La Matanza slaughter of an estimated 30,000 people, mostly indigenous peasants. American exploitation of El Salvador and its support for its various anticommunist juntas is well-documented. But Lovato is able to tell this story through his own family, which provides a depth of understanding that traditional journalism or history can rarely touch.

At one point in a narrative that jumps across decades, Lovato, who grew up in a Salvadoran family in San Francisco, is interviewing a woman in 1990 who survived the U.S.-backed counterinsurgency of the 1980s; two of her children did not, and a third lost his leg. Frankly, Richard Haass would do well to read this:

Before departing, I pretended to need to gather more information from the area near the small crosses; I actually went to bawl. Looking at the crosses placed near the bombed-out adobe wall, thinking about the children—living as well as dead—and the falling bombs dropped on them, my jaw trembled in fury and tears streamed from my eyes. I'd visited similar sites, but none with so many child casualties. At that moment, I made a commitment to fight more furiously, and not just against the government of El Salvador. My new fight was also against the government that, since just after El General and La Matanza, put El Salvador on the path to becoming one of the longest-standing military dictatorships in the Americas. The same government that had trained, armed, and politically defended the Salvadoran dictatorship through more than nine years of barbarity and oblivion: my own government, the one that had issued my passport. Any semblance of the chess-playing child who had ardently defended America from critics, like my cousin Adilio's university friends, died in that moment.

At a different point, Lovato describes that counterinsurgency, which featured mass killings at El Sumpul River in 1980 and notoriously at El Mozote in 1981:

Vietnam-veteran trainers from the School of the Americas (SOA), Fort Leavenworth in Kansas [this is a minor error, the SOA was at Fort Moore in Georgia, which until May was known as Fort Benning; its successor remains there], and other military facilities had taught the Salvadoran military in the U.S. Other trainers were deployed to El Salvador by the Carter administration. Reagan significantly expanded this U.S. military presence. The Salvadoran military men who received the training returned from the United States to Chalatenango and other parts of El Salvador with expertise in "draining the water" and other counterinsurgency techniques. Some of their methods were documented in their training manuals, but the more horrific ones were not, instead left coded in deadly euphemism. As former Guatemalan president and SOA graduate José Efraín Ríos Montt put it, "The guerilla is the fish. The people are the sea. If you cannot catch the fish, you have to drain the sea." The Sumpul River communities were the water. Ríos Montt was eventually convicted of genocide but was not sentenced due to his poor health.
Despite the efforts of Salvadoran officials and the U.S. envoy to El Salvador, Elliott Abrams, to spin the news and deny the massacre, the truth leaked through the blockade.

I write all that here to underscore how obscene it is for Joe Biden to nominate Abrams—a figure who links the Central American dirty wars of the 1980s to the War on Terror and then the Trump years—to a public-diplomacy commission. During Abrams' unfortunately frequent reappearances within government, there's a tendency among the outraged to focus on his guilty plea for lying to Congress about Iran-Contra. That to me is by far the smaller part of his infamy. Aiding and denying these atrocities should be what Abrams is forever known for. This man had the audacity to take umbrage at Ilhan Omar bringing up his denial of El Mozote—and more broadly, his role in a policy soaked in blood—from his perch as one of the senior U.S. policymakers on Venezuela while, as John Bolton has admitted, the U.S. was in the midst of a coup attempt.

Anthony Bourdain had a famous line about how once you visit Cambodia you'll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands. I wonder what people who visit El Salvador might think of Abrams. Reading Lovato's book sure gave me an idea.

AYAH KUTMAH has a chilling piece in The Nation about the similarities between the Israeli military court at Ofer, which administers occupier's justice to millions of Palestinians in the West Bank, and the U.S. military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

The supposedly “temporary” ad hoc military judicial regimes have become outliers—often termed sui generis—in the international legal system. Francesca Albanese, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian Territory occupied since 1967, finds the classification misleading. “By giving [the occupation and courts] an exceptional sui generis label, we normalize what should be a manifestation of illegality,” she told me. An entrenched Israeli occupation is unlawful, she pointed out, as is a military judicial system that serves as its executive tool for the subjugation of the Palestinian people.
Still, both military courts simultaneously espouse and reject the law under a guise of exceptionality. What we must always remember is that these systems are predicated on power, not adherence to the rule of law. Temporary and exceptional legal regimes become the purveyors of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention recently published a call for the release of Abu Zubaydah, one of the “forever prisoners” tortured by the CIA. It identified systematic violations at Guantánamo that “may constitute crimes against humanity.” Addameer currently represents the cases of three Palestinian child prisoners before the International Criminal Court.

Kutmah writes that Israeli jails currently hold 5,000 Palestinians, a fifth of whom are indefinitely detained without charge or trial—"the highest number since 2003, amid a widespread crackdown by Israeli occupation forces that killed at least 156 Palestinians in 2023." It was hard not to think about that when seeing the Israelis assault Jenin – and from the air this time – like it was 2002.

THIS TIMES DESCRIPTION makes Yegveny Prigohzin's abortive march up the M-4 Highway sound like a speedrun of MAGA's relationship with the War on Terror:

Before standing down, Mr. Prigozhin was building support by combining a populist anti-elite corruption crusade with calls to transform Russia, at least temporarily, into a version of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea or Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in pursuit of victory in Ukraine.
He was tapping into dissatisfaction with an unaccountable system and a detached elite amid Russian losses on the battlefield. But he was also responding to desires, among a hawkish sector of Russian society, to go to far greater extremes if necessary, at one point assailing Moscow’s “weakling grandpas” for lacking the “balls” to use nuclear weapons.
His message by the end was contradictory — suggesting the need for a dramatic escalation to succeed in the war, while also characterizing the Kremlin’s entire stated rationale for the war against Ukraine as false. He was a curious messenger, assailing the very system responsible for his own wealth and impunity.

I'm surprised the Times didn't give this one a headline like "Yevgeny The Dove."

MICHAEL BRENES has a lengthy and valuable overview of the major historical trends— consolidation, principally—in the U.S. defense industry in Foreign Affairs. If you like stories with no good guys, in which destructive tendencies both clash and reinforce each other, this one's for you. Which also means you should buy WALLER VS. WILDSTORM, my DC Comics spy-thriller miniseries, at your local comics store. Issues 1 & 2 are on sale now, and DC recently solicited our collected edition of all four issues, which will be available in time for the holidays!