TheDC Interview: Christian Whiton explains ‘smart power’
A former official in George W. Bush’s State Department, Christian Whiton is the author of the recently released “Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War.”
In an interview with The Daily Caller, Whiton explains his “smart power” concept, what he thinks of President Obama’s foreign policy and much more:
Before we get to the book, you’re obviously not a fan of President Obama’s foreign policy. But do you think there are any big issues that he has gotten right internationally?
No — Obama differs radically even from his Democratic predecessors, especially in his fundamental disdain for traditional U.S. influence and power, which he made so clear beginning with his 2009 Apology Tour. When this contempt is the beginning and end of your foreign policy, when you mistreat allies and attempt to embrace adversaries, you won’t even achieve the broken-clock standard of at least being right two times a day. Under the Obama progressives, every one of our alliances has grown weaker. Every adversary is more emboldened. Every major threat has drawn nearer.
So why did you decide to write the book?
I didn’t think many politicians, pundits, or think tanks were defining the foreign threats we face accurately or applying to them the quintessential American national security policy of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Also, as I learned as a political appointee at the State Department during the Bush administration, many of our tools of national power are broken. I wanted to argue why Iran, Islamism, and China are the chief threats we face today, and show how we might make life more difficult for them — primarily with nonviolent means.
How do you define “smart power?”
It’s the missing middle of statecraft that should exist between diplomatic garden parties and going to war. There’s a lot that should be there, and which presidents of both parties used to get, but which seems lost on Washington today. Smart power isn’t just foreign aid or trying to sing kumbaya with enemies, but the many financial, cultural, rhetorical, economic, espionage-related, and military actions that states can take short of general war to influence political outcomes abroad. It most crucially should involve a revival of political warfare: the non-violent push of ideas, people, facts, and events with which our adversaries would rather not contend.
Let’s apply this to the Arab Spring. How do you think President Obama handled it poorly and what would you have done differently if you were president?
In the book, I argue that Arab Spring is a case study in what not to do with statecraft. Our $80 billion-per-year intelligence bureaucracy missed its onset. Then, with every new country entering crisis the administration either stood dumbstruck or made conflicting statements. We went to war in Libya to enforce what Obama called the “writ of the international community,” whatever that is, and wound up with a failed state. Through three governments and counting in Egypt, we’ve consistently managed to be on the opposite side from the secularists who are our most likely allies (or at least non-enemies). In Syria, Obama’s policy might lead to a postwar government even worse than the Assad regime — one run by the most radical of Islamists and jihadists.
A simple policy of supporting secularists and opposing Islamists everywhere would have led to better responses in each situation. In Libya and Syria, it would have meant modest support for more secular-leaning fighters who, in victory, would have been well positioned to form secular governments. In Egypt, it would have meant backing the military and secularists against the Muslim Brotherhood.
How about Iran’s nuclear program. Is there a “smart power” way to eliminate the threat or do you believe we are at a point where force is the only option to set back their nuclear program?
Smart power begins with telling the truth, which we’re not doing. The absolute giddiness with which the Obama administration is pursuing nuclear talks with the same old Iranian regime reminds me of how Condi Rice approached North Korea when I was at State. Three nuclear tests and a growing North Korean nuclear arsenal and delivery capability show how well that worked. So it will be with Iran. Even if Israel acts militarily to set back the Iranian program — and no one should believe Obama’s rhetoric that a U.S. military option is on the table — the threat will probably persist as long as the Tehran regime does. A smart power approach should delegitimize the regime by supporting its political, economic, religious, and ethnic opponents. Iran is only about 60 percent Persian and fewer Persians each year are on board with the corrupt, theocratic tyranny in Tehran. Iran’s ethnic and religious minorities are even less enthralled. We should covertly support regime opponents. The Gulf states are spending enormous sums on air and missile defenses; we should go further with an integrated regional missile defense scheme. Before that, American presidents should stop pretending there are reformers in Iran’s regime — as they have at great cost since the 1979 Revolution — and instead explain how Tehran threatens the U.S. directly, not just Israel.
To what extent should human rights play a role in our foreign policy?
One of my bosses at the State Department, Jay Lefkowitz, always insisted on also citing America’s economic and security interests when talking about human rights abuses in countries like North Korea and China. I think he believed Americans would always be sympathetic to the oppressed, but Americans also know we have to focus attention on foreign matters that might affect us directly. John Quincy Adams said America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” At the other end of the intervention spectrum, John F. Kennedy said we would “pay any price… support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” However, most American presidents, including those two, have operated in the pragmatic middle. We oppose foreign tyranny, but generally only do so energetically when those tyrants threaten clear U.S. interests.
You list five “deadly illusions” the foreign policy bureaucracy has bought into. What are those and which is the most dangerous?
Counting down, the illusions are:
5. Social media can destroy dictatorships
4. The CIA knows all
3. Ally neglect softens adversaries
2. Al Qaeda is the only real threat
1. China is not an adversary
Joseph Nye, the establishment icon and bard of Harvard’s Kennedy School, wrote in Al Jazeera of his tenure in the Clinton administration that, “If we treated China as an enemy, we were guaranteeing an enemy in the future.” In Obama’s first term, his third-ranked Pentagon official bluntly said, “The U.S. does not seek to contain China; we do not view China as an adversary.” But Beijing is more than a decade into a massive military buildup. It wages economic and political warfare on the U.S. every day. It systematically steals our intellectual property and military secrets. It has provoked territorial disputes with all of its maritime neighbors and India. And it consistently probes U.S. cyber weakness for the day it may stage a 21st century electronic Pearl Harbor against us. Meanwhile the politician-in-an-admiral’s-uniform whom Obama has running U.S. Pacific Command said this year that the greatest threat in his region wasn’t China — but climate change! Self-delusion on this scale is an invitation to national catastrophe.
What is the most interesting fact or anecdote you discovered researching the book?
That the War on Terror — including Iraq and Afghanistan — was estimated by the Congressional Research Service to cost $1.28 trillion in the decade after 9/11. This expenditure occurred during a decade in which the federal government spent a total of $29 trillion. When politicians say those wars caused the deficit, they are misleading you.
Are there any political figures that embrace your foreign policy principals? I believe you supported Newt Gingrich in 2012. Who would you like see run for president in 2016?
In my book, I show how the federal bureaucracy undermined President Bush and will do the same to the next Republican administration unless it is managed differently. My ideal candidate is a proven manager with a track record of fighting the bureaucracy and not caring about inevitable demonization by the press. I think Americans also might be getting sick of polished talking points and empty if inspiring rhetoric, and ready for low-key straight talk. To me, this means Republicans should skip the senators and go with a accomplished governor who has survived the crucible. Scott Walker has done this in Wisconsin. There are a number of other governors too who have effected real change. While not foreign policy experts, they are actually more likely than others to have a chance at instituting a traditional American national security policy because they know the permanent government bureaucracy is not our friend.
What three books most shaped your worldview?
Forget about anything by Henry Kissinger:
“American Caesar,” by William Manchester, the definitive biography of Douglas MacArthur, shows a soldier with a huge ego but also a stinginess with the lives of his soldiers—one reason MacArthur’s World War II battles are less well known than the bloodbaths of Europe and the Central Pacific. MacArthur’s stewardship of Japan after the war—essentially the opposite of what we did in Iraq—was a masterful exercise in statecraft and the beginning of an indispensible alliance. MacArthur grasped the fundament of power.
“With the Old Breed,” by Eugene Sledge, exhibits the other extreme of the Pacific War: that experienced by a Marine grunt. It made me realize most of what I knew about what the infantry faces in war was wrong. The book also humanizes the immense cost Americans of that generation paid for security in the Pacific—and for American power throughout the world—from which we still benefit today. As a diplomat and subsequently, I’ve never crossed the Pacific without thinking of what they did for the United States.
“We the Living,” by Ayn Rand, is her first novel and less of a political frontal assault than her later work. She dramatizes the horror of the gradually increasing tyranny, terror, and privation of the Soviet Union in the years after the Russian Revolution and Civil War. For me it was far more horrifying than other dystopian novels, perhaps because Rand saw the growing darkness firsthand before escaping to America. The novel’s ending is tragic, but for those who believe it’s better to live free or die, better than the alternative.