09/17/2012 02:08 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Why America Struggles

Overwrought comparisons between Vietnam and Afghanistan may not be helpful, but there is one indisputable fact: in that span of a half century, we have not learned how to improve outcomes in the realm of foreign policy. Why?

President Obama understandably responded to the tragedy in Libya by promising to bring the culprits to justice. We are also engaging the Egyptian government concerning the failure to protect our Cairo embassy. Within these two scenarios are the kernels that help us to understand why we consistently struggle overseas.

First is the response to what happened in Libya. What are we proposing? The assumption is that the Libyan government, democratically elected, has the legitimacy and monopoly on force application that will make it possible for Libyan forces to bring the consulate miscreants to justice. Let us remember that some eastern Libyans have been agitating for partition since the overthrow of Gaddafi. Such an event may not be imminent, but it suggests that the government in Tripoli may simply not be in a position to go into eastern Libya and investigate, let alone apprehend, those responsible. That means that if there is going to be an "or else," it will mean, at minimum, the CIA and U.S. Special Forces. It is a microcosm of how we seem to end up doing everything. The missions tend to be difficult, confusing, and frustrating. All too often, there are "kill'em all and let God sort it out later" events simply because it's impossible to differentiate the good guys from the bad. It has nothing to do with the quality of our armed forces. It has to do with the complexity of the jobs we ask our forces to carry out, often in inappropriate settings.

Our politicians exacerbate this approach. A good example is the one-track approach of the Senate's "Three Amigos," John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joseph Lieberman. They have spent years in the Senate Armed Services Committee adoring American officers who are accomplished soldiers, but who have proceeded to misapply strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan that have failed to settle matters in either country. The Amigos' approach: "We're going to make you God-fearing, terrorist-fighting democrats, or we're going to blow your brains out."

The second reason for our struggles is evident in the Egyptian conundrum. There are actually people in Washington who think we should get Mohammed Morsi, the Egyptian president, out of there. Failing that, some are calling for an end to foreign aid for Egypt. Just how are we supposed to get Egypt's democratically elected president out? Do we stop aid as precipitously as we send our kids to bed without dessert without analyzing consequences? The fact is that Morsi made numerous promises concerning how he would improve everyday life for the Egyptian public, from more electricity to improving traffic congestion in Cairo, and he has so far appeared completely inept at getting anything done. Expecting him to guarantee protection for the embassy of the Israel-loving Americans may be a stretch. We've backed Egyptian elective democracy; it's up to them to get him out. The better questions for us are why we always seem to get stuck with supporting leaders like these, and why we never seem to know what's coming.

The overarching problem that causes us to back losers and reach for military solutions all too often is a profound and enduring failure to formulate foreign policies that match situations and regions. Part of the problem is inherent in our principles. For example, we are not about to abandon human rights demands even though, in the past, we have backed dictators who were anti-Communist.

Another part is our negotiating strategy. Speak to foreign service officers (the professionals, not the political appointees), and many will tell you that we often go in with our best offer up front and then get driven to places we don't want to be.

Also, there is our simple inability to understand or believe that events will not unfold the way we want. One of the basic tenets in military strategy is to avoid assuming that your enemy will do exactly what you want him to do. Foreign policy is no different. No one is going to give women equal rights, pay workers a decent wage, or practice religious tolerance just because we know these principles are appropriate, and because we want them to. China often eats our lunch because they just don't care how other countries conduct their business. How many troops does China have in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Africa? And yet, China repeatedly ties up valuable contracts to exploit natural resources and build capital projects. One African foreign minister answered the question about why China was being allowed to exploit mining concessions in his country by stating that the Chinese were going to build that country a $400 million beach resort without caring about human rights reforms.

Do we simply walk away? I know I've been precipitant in my own thinking about disengagement. The question is whether one should do things wrong because it's better than doing nothing. I have no problem with the doing if it doesn't cost the lives of American troops and trillions of dollars.

We're simply short of statesmen. I have no idea about how one lures back such talent. One shortcoming that could be addressed is the insular attitude of the Beltway toward examining ideas contributed by academics and consultants outside Washington. Every time something goes wrong, I seem to have a friend in academia who had predicted it months before. At the very least, we need to try to improve our analytical and human intelligence capabilities, and to be more circumspect before we irrevocably commit our valuable and dwindling national treasure.