An In-Depth Interview With Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute

Recently, I conducted an in-depth interview with Christopher Preble, Director of Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, on his assessment of President Obama's foreign policy, the implications of the WikiLeaks revelations, U.S. leadership in the age of globalization, excess defense spending and international development, the future of U.S. diplomatic engagement, and much more.

A 2000-word excerpt is below, while the full 4300-word transcript can be found at World Affairs Commentary.

Rahim Kanani: As you observe U.S. foreign policy in the context of the recent and continued uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa, how would you assess the Obama Administration's current posture towards the crises?

Christopher Preble: I think that the Obama administration inherited a difficult situation, and has handled it reasonably well, all other factors being considered. When I say "inherited" I don't mean merely George W. Bush's administration; a parade of U.S. leaders going back at least to the Nixon administration have behaved as though the region's various autocracies were, and always would be, or should be, our close allies. Such an attitude might have been excusable in the context of the Cold War, when a "loss" for the Americans was a "win" for the Soviets, and vice versa. But I really fault U.S. policymakers, and this includes the Obama administration, for not adapting to new realities.

The United States has a few core security interests, and we must prioritize. I believe that the U.S. government's near obsession with the Middle East and North Africa has distracted us from a number of important challenges and opportunities in Asia, and in our own hemisphere. It isn't too late to adjust; but if Washington continues to behave as though the United States is the indispensable nation that must be involved in solving all of the world's problems, we will merely make our current challenges -- including our burgeoning debt, and the burdens placed on the men and women in our military -- even more difficult to overcome.

Rahim Kanani: With the White House now deciding how to balance democracy promotion around the world and the values and principles that underpin this effort, with the desire for stability and order in the region, what would your advice be to President Obama moving forward?

Christopher Preble: President Obama's speech in Cairo in June 2009 set the tone for U.S. policy in the region, but he failed to follow up. He became distracted by domestic priorities, and by the war in Afghanistan, especially. By raising expectations, he inadvertently played into some of the worst attitudes toward the United States: that we are a country that doesn't live up to our rhetoric, or that we play a double game.

This is not to minimize the challenges; policymaking is hard, and especially in a place where our values often bump up against our interests. It is entirely appropriate to ask whether a rapid wave of democratization in the Middle East/North Africa region would be harmful to U.S. interests, or a threat to our allies. I don't fault the Obama White House for asking such questions. It is easy to imagine the worst-case scenario, call it the Iran Scenario: the collapse of a friendly regime, and its immediate replacement by an unremittingly hostile one. I think U.S. policymakers have erred in believing that the worst-case scenario is the most likely scenario. This mindset has prevented them from considering reasonable alternatives to the status quo.

Rahim Kanani: Is the trove of U.S. diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks a story of success for increasing transparency in international diplomacy or failure in that diplomacy is best conducted behind the curtain?

Christopher Preble: Neither/both. Some of the documents reveal the hypocrisy that I mentioned earlier, but should not have surprised anyone. Some of the revelations were embarrassing, to be sure, but it isn't as though someone discovered that the U.S. government sometimes plays a double game because of Wikileaks. As a practical matter, the release of the documents, and the manner in which they came out, might impose a form of discipline on the part of our diplomats that isn't particularly helpful. Perhaps they will be less candid in their assessments of foreign leaders, or less willing to challenge the conventional wisdom in their analysis, if they fear that the information will be released. Perhaps they will shift to modes of communication that are less susceptible to interception (i.e. face-to-face conversations). That might pose a problem in the near term, as such communications are more vulnerable to misinterpretation. But it is also a problem for historians trying to reconstruct events after the fact. A valid document is almost always a stronger piece of evidence than a person's recollection.

My frustration with the way that the Wikileaks story has been covered is the focus on the content of the cables, and the alleged threats to U.S. national security posed by the release of these cables. I understand some of the fascination with the content. Some items are salacious, or embarrassing, or amusing. But while I don't think that the wholesale release of classified information is a good idea, I would have hoped that people would inquire as to why so much of our government's communications or documents are being classified. We have missed an opportunity to scrutinize the overclassification of information, which goes hand in hand with limited transparency into the workings of our government. And then we're back to hypocrisy again. It is unseemly to berate foreign leaders for not being more forthcoming about the inner workings of their government, but at the same time maintain a comparable wall around U.S. government information. If anything, the United States should have a far more open standard when it comes to information, and we should challenge other countries to follow our example.

Rahim Kanani: What has surprised you the most about U.S. foreign policy since President Obama took office?

Christopher Preble: Continuity. I am both surprised and disappointed by this. For someone who rode into office on the mantle of change, Barack Obama's foreign policy has represented largely a continuation of the foreign policies of his predecessors. This was signaled within a few weeks of his election when he chose to retain Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and when he selected Hillary Clinton to be Secretary of State. Despite their obvious differences, Gates and Clinton are cut from the same cloth. They reflect the comfortable foreign policy consensus in Washington that holds the United States as the world's indispensable nation, and that seems incapable of conceiving of an alternative to American primacy. That the majority of Americans consistently object to being the world's policeman is essentially irrelevant. They've ignored such sentiment for a long time, and they seem prepared to continue doing so.

Barack Obama should have come into office with a genuinely different perspective. During the campaign, he wore his willingness to buck the status quo as a badge of honor. Hillary Clinton, and subsequently John McCain, tried to defeat Obama by knocking him for his lack of experience in foreign affairs. But Obama's victory over both of these more experienced individuals demonstrated that experience wasn't all that it was cracked up to be. After all, despite their vaunted experience, both Clinton and McCain were wrong about Iraq. American voters concluded, I think correctly, that Obama's relative inexperience wasn't a liability. On the contrary, I think it allowed him to see, long before the experts and the Inside-the-Beltway consensus did, that war with Iraq would not advance U.S. security interests. Sadly, he was correct.

I think voters hoped Barack Obama would carry that skepticism toward military intervention with him into office. He had a chance to bring in some fresh faces with him, people who were not so invested in the status quo that they couldn't change course. But he chose to rely on the same Washington hands as his key foreign policy advisers, and the results are predictable: more of the same.

Our alliances with wealthy allies in Europe and East Asia were constructed in the Cold-War era to defeat an adversary that ceased to exist two decades ago, but Hillary Clinton tells us that they are embedded in our DNA. She seems to take pleasure in reminding Muammar Qaddafi that the United States is willing to use force to drive him from power.  This message could easily be applied to a few dozen other petty despots around the world. She exhibits no regret for her early and outspoken support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein. Meanwhile, Robert Gates deserves credit for putting pressure on Congress and weapons contractors when it comes to unnecessary platforms such as the F-22, the Future Combat Systems, and the extra engine for the Joint Strike Fighter. He talks a good game about restraining our ambitions, and prioritizing missions. But he was a leading champion for deepening the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, and he still believes the U.S. military should be the guarantor of global stability, presumably forever. With Clinton and Gates as his chief foreign policy advisers, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Barack Obama's foreign policy looks a lot like George W. Bush's.

Rahim Kanani: In a recent interview with Lord Mark Malloch-Brown, former United Nations Deputy Secretary General, he stated that this generation is probably the last globally unregulated generation. With international institutions and mechanisms slowly catching up to handle the effects of globalization, what role do you see, or wish, the United States might play as this new global paradigm is being both shaped and solidified?

Christopher Preble: A lesser one. If ever there was a time for a major shift in U.S. foreign policy, that time is now. The United States would continue to be the world's most powerful country -- militarily, politically, economically -- but it is grossly shortsighted to believe that we should be the world's government, as Michael Mandelbaum once claimed. And it is crazy to want to try. As Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute notes, a decade ago the United States accounted for one third global economic output and a third of global military spending. Today our share of military spending has risen to half the world total, but our relative economic output has declined to one quarter. This pattern simply isn't sustainable. We need to chart a new course.

The high cost of our current strategy is one of the reasons why I think that a change makes sense. But it isn't the only one, nor is it the most important one. Indeed, a strategic shift would make sense even in an era of budget surpluses, and is especially appropriate as large-scale operations in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought to a close over the next few years. First, a national security strategy that was less prone to large-scale conventional military interventions would allow the United States to avoid the very sorts of costly and counterproductive nation-building missions that a majority of Americans now wisely oppose. And, second, a more reticent or aloof posture would induce more responsibility among our stable, wealthy allies who have grown too accustomed to sheltering under the American security umbrella. My colleague Ben Friedman and I call this alternative grand strategy "restraint," a term first coined by MIT's Barry Posen; others call it offshore balancing - a posture that brings power from the sea rather than keeping U.S. troops permanently stationed in hundreds of forward military bases around the world. Offshore balancers disagree with one another on how often this power must be used, and just how far offshore this power should and must be deployed; but we all agree that our hyperactive foreign policy leans too far in the direction of active intervention (military or otherwise). The end result is an enormous and costly force; one that is used far more often than at any time in our nation's history.

This is not a popular point of view in Washington. By and large, the foreign policy community expects that American taxpayers should be responsible for the security of people living in Europe or East Asia or the Middle East. Or anywhere in the world, really. And I would even concede that this argument might have made sense in 1945, or 1955, or even 1965, when our allies were weak, and when we were confronting a common enemy in the Soviet Union. But as I explain in my book, The Power Problem, it should be obvious that our security challenges today are manageable, and certainly far less serious than that of many other countries around the world. Given this, it simply isn't fair to ask Americans to continue to bear these burdens indefinitely. We need to be planning, now, for a new global paradigm that is less dependent on U.S. power, and that distributes the costs and risks of maintaining global order more equitably among all beneficiaries.

Rahim Kanani: If President Obama granted you an audience in the Oval Office and asked you, "Have we lost the war in Afghanistan?", what would you say?

Christopher Preble: No. But we don't control the elements that will be essential to "winning" -- as currently conceived -- and we never will. Most nation-building missions fail, and conditions in Afghanistan make it a particularly inauspicious place to try to buck past trends.

More to the point, U.S. security doesn't depend upon building a functioning nation-state. Investing the time and resources required simply isn't worth it. The threat posed by al Qaeda can be addressed without a massive U.S. troop presence on the ground in Afghanistan ...continue reading.

Read the full interview here.