10/03/2012 05:15 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

Rational Engagement


There are those who feel that America should not disengage or forgo its leadership position in the world. For example, one of the past lead editorials in The Economist, the prestigious British news weekly, advocates that the United States look beyond the recent tragedy and unrest in numerous countries to retain its leadership role. Many in Congress, particularly on the Republican side of the aisle, as well as both presidential candidates, echo this sentiment, even while the present administration has been accused of leading from the rear.

What's wrong with this? The answer is that we do it so badly. Our valuable men and women are killed and wounded, billions of our dollars are squandered or end up in Swiss bank accounts, and yet, nothing seems to go quite in the direction we advocate. If we're going to remain engaged, we need to take a more skilled and rational approach.

One problem is the way we formulate policy. Rather than the president leading a probing and meaningful dialogue and then making a decision, we become mired in politically driven decision making that puts vested interest and sacred cows first. This is a reason why the Israeli-Palestinian issue has defied settlement.

Another is the talent pool. For every diplomat like the revered J. Christopher Stevens, we produce a Paul Bremer, who was, in large measure, responsible for the post-invasion fiasco in Iraq in 2003. The Department of State is filled with bright and talented young civil servants working in the best interests of the United States, but also with questionable performers who are simply on the government payroll, and who have learned how to survive in the system. This is not a popular topic in government, and the problem is in no way limited to State, but if you doubt it, think about the Congressional hearings you've seen. Committee members shriek at witnesses about who is responsible for colossal screw-ups; names are never offered up. We need greater stress on merit and ability, but, most of all, greater accountability.

Then, there's the way we do business. Why do we give anyone money? Other countries don't just need money; they also need stuff. We need to stop throwing money down third-world sinkholes, which ends up buying nothing but yachts and Aston Martins, and start providing tangible assets that will improve lives. Don't give a grant for a power plant -- build the power plant. This will require direct American involvement instead of a hand-off to a local contractor supervised by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). USAID does some things well. This doesn't happen to be one of them. Corruption, shoddy workmanship, and poor maintenance are endemic. It isn't enough for only some of these projects to look good. It's our money. Everything should be done by the people who do it best. And that doesn't mean that they shouldn't be closely scrutinized, as well. Our best department inspectors general need to be utilized to oversee these very expensive projects.

There must be rational red lines set in stone except where we've decided that we're in, no matter what. Help Pakistan only if it helps in the war on terror. Fine, but if you say it, you have to mean it. Otherwise, shut up, help Pakistan, indicate what you'd prefer it to do, and hope for the best. There are places where we can walk away, and others where we really shouldn't. They cannot be treated identically. The countries where we are absolutely obliged to stay engaged are usually smart enough to realize it, and aren't about to accept our attached strings. We may as well not bother with setting conditions, and hope that those countries will realize that they're better off with us than without us.

We must do better understanding other cultures. A U.S. Air Force colonel told me about a Kuwaiti counterpart he met in Kuwait in 1991 right after we had expelled invading Iraqi forces. He asked the Kuwaiti colonel what he did when the Iraqi invasion started. The Kuwaiti told him that he had rushed home to his village to make sure his family was okay, that he was a villager first, a Kuwaiti second. This is not how we think, but it is how much of the Middle East thinks. Many don't care whether their women are allowed to drive, whether their kids are educated, or even whether they get to vote. All of them have little experience in democracy; even those who want it are likely to get it wrong for a long time. It's their game. If we want to play, we have to learn their rules. If those rules are unacceptable, we take our ball and go home.

Finally, we must stop making our troops the mandatory "or else" of every equation. They are the single most valuable foreign policy assets in the world, but they are human and limited in quantity, two reasons they should not be squandered. Sometimes, the answer should be disengagement. We should also remember that, besides their unparalleled military talents, they are also provide the most powerful humanitarian tool on the planet. We need to be more circumspect about how we use them, that not every internal dispute is our business, and that a no-fly zone or Special Forces operation is never as simple as it sounds. It is easy for The Economist to implore continued U.S. commitment. The idea might have sounded more legitimate if it included British troops standing alongside us. But then, who isn't happy to see us do the heavy lifting when it absolves them from doing the same?