Afghanistan: An Intermestic Moment

President Obama’s long anticipated announcement of a schedule for removing American fighting forces in Afghanistan last week elicited the familiar and predictable howls that seem to follow anything that this chief executive does. Some thought he proposed too much, some not enough, and hardly anybody thought he had it just right. What’s new?

The president’s action and reaction to it almost perfectly exemplified what some political scientists (including this one) refer to as “intermestic policy.” The term refers to policy issues that have both an INTERnational and a domESTIC component, hence the name. Most foreign policies have some intermestic aspect to them: there is hardly any issue in the foreign policy realm that does not have some domestic impact, and vice versa. The impact is that it reduces the boundary between foreign and domestic politics, a boundary that used to be sancrosanct. An old saw has it that “politics ends at the water’s edge,” the implication being that purely political concerns should not extend into America’s relations with other countries, toward whom it is only right and patriotic to maintain a common face.

In today’s environment where absolutely everything is political and highly partisan (what Pat Haney and I refer to as “hyper-partisanship in our new foreign policy text), the boudary represented by the water’s edge has been swamped; it is literally under water itself. In the most prominent issue areas with an intermestic cast, the domestic and international elements of policy intermix, confuse one another, and make sensible policy more difficult to maintain. The United States policy toward the war in Afghanistan is a classic example of this phenomenon run amok.

Look at the war through the dual lenses of international and domestic politics. The international (foreign policy) concern is with the effect of various endings of the war on the international environment and America’s place in it. Clearly, the major concern is the status of a post-war Afghanistan in relation to international religious terrorism, most obviously associated with Al Qaeda. There are two basic arguments to be made about this aspect. One is that without a “victory” in Afghanistan, the country will likely revert to being a haven for terrorists (as it was during the latter 1990s), meaning that continuing the war until a satisfactory outcome is achieved (and however that is measured) is vital. From that vantage point, and given the assessment of the situation on the ground (we are not yet winning), the president’s decision is premature and damaging to efforts to reach a satisfactory ending, and thus the withdrawal is too much. The other side is that the outcome is excessive to the cost, that it is unlikely to be achieved by outside military force and that, since the successful decapitation of Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is not worth the effort because the threat has been sufficiently reduced to allow a successful effort with far fewer forces. From this vantage point, the withdrawal is not nearly enough.

The domestic side has two different aspects that are not necessarily connected intimately to the international dimension. One is that public opinion has turned decisively against the war, with those who want out altogether becoming a progressively larger part of majority which dislikes the war. Clearly this majority thinks the president did not go far enough. Among those who support the war, most wrap themselves tightly in the flag and argue that to do anything but continue would dishonor those who have sacrificed (an honor presumably served by sacrificing more Americans). The other argument is economic: at a little over $100 billion a year (and I personally suspect that is a “low ball” estimate), the United States simply cannot afford to continue the war. This justification has little to do directly with the international worth of the effort, and more to do with deficit reduction.

When one stacks up the pro and con arguments, the negative arguments are most strongly represented in domestic concerns–and especially the affordability argument in the current economy–whereas the more muted arguments in favor of staying in tend to be more international, associated with the military’s reluctance to abandon an enterprise in which they are heavily invested. The “inter” and the “mestic” thus come into conflict and, most tellingly, result in a debate where one side simply does not address the other. Those who want the U.S. to leave on economic grounds make an after-the-fact defense of the lack of need to continue, but they don’t really address systematically nor refute those who maintain our interests will be weakened if we do. Similarly, those who believe we should stay admit the war is expensive but that the outcome overrides the negative economic impact. Neither side refutes the other position convincingly.

President Obama is caught in the middle of this. As president, he is both chief executive in all the domestic senses of that term and commander-in-chief, with overriding foreign policy responsibilities. He (like any president) can avoid neither the “inter” or the “mestic,” and thus ends up sitting on the fence. Critics–on both sides–generally have the luxury of avoiding these distinctions, since they bear no direct responsibility for outcomes. The view may be better from the top of the fence, which is higher than the ground below, but it also makes whoever sits there a better target for the shoes hurled whenever the incumbent opines from the fence top.

There is nothing that can be done to remove the intermestic element from foreign policy decisions in an increasingly interdependent world, and the system simply needs to find a better way to conduct its foreign policy when it knows that whatever it does will affect American citizens directly and thus become political, because some will benefit and others will not in any circumstance. The grease that could make that process smoother and ultimately more productive is a less partisan, super-charged political atmosphere, one that is less hyper-partisan. No one should hold their breath for that to happen anytime soon.

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