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Is the U.S. Overreaching Abroad?

May 28, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Could an aggressive foreign policy agenda be threatening U.S. interests at home and, in turn, eroding the nation's standing in the world? Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, joins Margaret Warner to discuss his new book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America's House in Order."

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, the second of two conversations about America’s role in the world.

Last week, Margaret Warner talked to former State Department Vali Nasr, who offered a behind-the-scenes critique of policy-making in the Obama administration.

Tonight, Margaret gets a different view.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States is overreaching abroad and under-performing at home — that’s the thesis of Council on Foreign Relations president Richard Haass in his new book, “Foreign Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order.”

It’s a surprising viewpoint from a former top State Department and National Security Council official.

Richard Haass joins me now to discuss his book and his recommendations for rebalancing our country’s priorities.

So, Richard Haass, welcome.

You have spent your entire life dealing with how America should meet challenges abroad. Now you’re saying it’s time to refocus here at home. What led to this turnabout?

RICHARD HAASS, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, as you suggest, it’s not a book I ever thought I would be writing.


RICHARD HAASS: It surprised me.

In part, it was because of what wasn’t going on in the world. There’s no challenger out there that is of the scale, say, of Nazi Germany or Soviet Union during the Cold War. So despite all the challenges we face abroad, we have a little bit of space.

On the other hand, it’s always complicated out there. And what I wanted to do was write a book that would say, here’s what to do and what not to do abroad, and, more important, here’s what to do and what not to do at home.

I actually think the biggest challenge, as you said, facing us is what is going on here domestically. Above all, the bases of American power, I believe, have been eroding. We have not been tending to them. And what I think we need to do, not simply to make the United States better for Americans who live here, but so we can be a force in the world, is we have got to put our house in order.

MARGARET WARNER: when you talk about rebalancing, or you call it restoration, what are you talking about in practical terms? Is it the money we spend? Is it the president’s time?

RICHARD HAASS: It’s resources in lots of ways.

One is the foreign policy dimension of it, less time trying to remake the Middle East, more trying to keep things stable in Asia, more focus on North America, which is — right now could be the economic engine of the world, tremendous energy resources, but rebalancing abroad, home, more resources here.

Focus more on getting entitlements under control. Focus more on infrastructure, with right now we’re barely Third World in many cases. Focus more on our K-12 schools. Margaret, I can’t think of one child who comes to the United States to attend our public elementary schools. Sure, they come for Stanford and Harvard. Nobody comes for PS-this or PS-that. We have got to do a better job here at home.

MARGARET WARNER: But we have known about these domestic problems for 10, 20 years even.

What is the evidence that if the presidents, our last three presidents hadn’t been so focused overseas, that these problems would have been addressed?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, two things.

One is, overseas, the cost of the Iraq and Afghan wars have contributed to this. The long-term costs of that war, because of health care costs, will be quite considerable. More important, though, it’s what we haven’t done at home. We have gone from budgetary surplus to massive deficits, to some extent for understandable reasons, on the other hand, many self-imposed, the lack of regulation of the economy, for example, runaway spending on entitlements. That’s the problem.

MARGARET WARNER: But isn’t it really political dysfunction at home that has made it so far impossible for us to adjust most of these?


At the core of these economic problems are political problems. The system isn’t working. And we can’t get people to address what a lot of Americans I actually think would agree on in private needs to be addressed. Many of us know what’s wrong.

Our politics are simply letting us down.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me ask you this. The last three presidents, if you start with Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all essentially campaigned initially on this theme.

And, of course, then Kosovo and Bosnia wars. Then you had 9/11. Then you had Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Why — one, were those misplaced for the presidents to get so involved in those? Why was it so hard for them to resist getting involved overseas?

RICHARD HAASS: To a large extent, they were misplaced.

Yes, there were some things we needed to do after 9/11, but most of what we have done abroad in the last 20 or so years I would say were wars of choice. And in many cases, our vital national interests weren’t at stake. Presidents got pressured. And more often than not, they gave into the pressure. In some cases, the president just decided, like George W. Bush, that we would embark on a major adventure to remake the Middle East.

And I simply think it was ill-advised. At the same time, they didn’t tend for the most part on things at home. So we funded, for example, a new prescription drug benefit program. Well, where’s that going to come from? Or we had the Simpson-Bowles commission under this administration. It gets reintroduced and then essentially it gets orphaned. And we’re not doing anything now, so five, 10, 20 years from now when all the baby boomers are retired, we have got enough to take care of them.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, you’re not saying all wars are to be avoided. Only, we have to be more discriminating.

RICHARD HAASS: Absolutely.

MARGARET WARNER: What’s the criteria?

RICHARD HAASS: This is not an isolationist book.

I actually want us to do more in Asia, where the great powers, the economic powers of the day are increasingly colliding. Wars of necessity, where our vital national interests are at stake, where there are not good alternatives, we ought to fight those. But something like Syria, which is very much in the news, is not a vital national interest.

There are alternatives to the United States getting heavily involved. We have always got to ask ourselves two questions: Can we make a difference, given local realities? And, second of all, do we have the luxury, if you will, of focusing on one square of a chessboard, given everything else in the world and everything here at home?

And what I try to write is something of a guide to working through those challenges.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but that is where your doctrine will be most immediately put to the test is what to do about Syria. So what are the alternatives? You’re saying don’t get involved at all militarily? Are you say no to no-fly zone? Are you saying no to even further arming the rebels?

RICHARD HAASS: I’m OK with selectively arming rebels. That’s an indirect form of involvement.

I’m OK conceivably with certain very, very limited military actions, for example, cruise missile strikes if chemical weapons are used. But, no, I don’t want to set up no-fly zones. I don’t want the U.S. Air Force involved. I certainly don’t want soldiers on the ground. I don’t want to be responsible for trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again.

If and when the Assad regime goes, that’s when the really difficult stuff is going to begin. That’s what we should have learned from Afghanistan. That’s what we should have learned from Iraq, a little bit of humility. There are limits to what American to power can do.

Instead, we ought to focus it in foreign policy, where we really know our tools can be useful. And, more important, we ought to focus it here at home. We want to be a leader for the long haul. We don’t want to be a short-term power. I have recently written, we want the 21st century to be a second American century. It will only be that if we first get strong again, and that means fixing things here at home.

MARGARET WARNER: And what are the consequences if we don’t?

RICHARD HAASS: Interesting enough, the alternative to an American-led world, it is not a China-led world. It’s not an India- or Europe- or Japan-led world. It’s a world that no one leads.

That’s a world that’s chaotic. And what we have learned is the world is not Las Vegas. What happens there doesn’t stay there. It comes here. So a world in which there’s chaos out there, that chaos will come here in the form of terrorists, the form of a breakdown of economic relations, in the form of climate change, in the form of nuclear proliferation. We have got to stay involved, but, again, we will only be able to do it if we’re strong.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Richard Haass, thank you.


MARGARET WARNER: And Richard Haass, the author of Foreign “Policy Begins at Home: The Case for Putting America’s House in Order,” will join us for further conversation online.

JEFFREY BROWN: For the record, Margaret is a board member of the Council on Foreign Relations. As she noted, Richard Haass is the organization’s president.

And, as she said, you can watch more of their conversation. That’s on our home page.