Continuity and Dysfunctionality in U.S. Foreign Policy (Lessons for Our Conflict with Iran)

Summary:  Today we gain some insights about ourselves from Cold War uber-hawk Colin Grey.  Nations have different strategic cultures, different styles of foreign policy.  Like those of the US and Iran,  global prosperity in the next decade might depend on how these two cultures interact.  Here we look at internal factors driving US foreign policy.  We can do better.  Chapter 11 in a series; links to other chapters and more information are at the end.

Iran should say “Thank you, boss” when we head-slap them


  1. Long-standing traits in US foreign policy
  2. Example:  Iraq
  3. Example:  Iran
  4. Other posts in this series
  5. For more information

(1)  Long-standing traits in US foreign policy

US foreign policy strategy since WWII has displayed strong continuity, with some success during the Cold War and poor results since then.  In Henry Kissinger’s first major work, Nuclear Weapons & Foreign Policy (1957), he described America’s inability to use “its vast strength to accomplish reasonable policy objectives”. (p.41).  Our wars in Iraq and Af-Pak show this continues down to our time.

Colin S. Grey (Prof Strategic Studies, U Reading; Wikipedia bio) discussed the causes of this dysfunctionality in Nuclear Strategy and the National Style (1986).  He sees several persistent elements to US strategic thinking, among them:

  • Reliance on force (and tactics); disinterest in strategy and ignorance of history
  • Belief that our opponents think like us and share the same values (perhaps out of ignorance that there are other ways)

The applicability of these traits to our emerging conflict with Iran is obvious.  Excerpt:

First, the US is an insular political culture. There is an expectation of safety as the norm … to take expensive and risk actions, we must believe, rightly or wrongly, a foreign threat to be immediate. … The cultural proclivity to assume that peace is normal, when turned around by apparently unambiguous evidence of foreign threat, produces a possibly disproportionate military response.


Second, with few exceptions, US national security policy making tends to be dominated by people who have a poor sense of the value of history. … To the average US maker of “high”policy, international events occur as if by constant revelation, and they have meaning solely with reference to his personal experience. US decision-makers tend to judge each event on its merits, in isolation, because they know no better. Pragmatism without principle produces a reactive muddling-through style.

Since history provides the only possible basis for prediction, lawyers and engineers employ it in uncritical fashion — and very crudely. The US government is vulnerable to almost any professor-turned-policymaker who has a historically grounded (or apparently grounded) theory of statecraft.

Third, in part due to the ahistorical or even antihistorical training of US policymakers, US national security policy tends to be dominated by people expert only in inappropriate US domestic matters. Harvard Law, Wall Street, or state house generally do not prepare one well for coping with graduates of Stalin’s Great Purge of the 1930′s.

In practice the “best and brightest” of the US tend to be almost heroically ill-equipped to cope with the Soviet Union. It is unreasonable to expect prudent and judicious foreign policy assessments from an official who has little historical knowledge of Russia and no personal life experience likely to facilitate his on-the-job-education.

… The study of national style should enable Americans to understand themselves better, to understand others better, and to understand better how others interpret Americans.

(2)  Example:  Iraq

All of these traits were seen — to America’s disadvantage — in our expedition to Iraq.  Comprehensive accounts are now appearing, such as Arrows of the Night by Richard Bonin (60 Minutes producer).  For a summary see this review:  “Ahmed Chalabi: Conning America“, Barry Lando, Huffington Post, 19 December 2011.  He explains how a exile with a dubious history worked with a faction of the America’s leadership to start a war (providing lies serving their needs), hoping to get installed as ruler of Iraq.  He almost succeeded.

A little knowledge of history and political science could have allowed our leaders to avoid this disaster.

We see, then, how vain the faith and promises of men who are exiles from their own country.  As to their faith, we have to bear in mind that, whenever they can return to their own country by other means than your assistance, they will abandon you and look to the other means, regardless of their promises to you. And as to their vain hopes and promises, such is their extreme desire to return to their homes that they naturally believe many things that are not true, and add many others on purpose; so that, with what they really believe and what they say they believe, they will fill you with hopes to that degree that if you attempt to act upon them you will incur a fruitless expense, or engage in an undertaking that will involve you in ruin.

… A prince therefore should be slow in undertaking any enterprise upon the representations of exiles, for he will generally gain nothing by it but shame and serious injury.”

— Niccolò Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy (circa 1517)

(3)  Example:  Iran

An insular people, ignorant of history  and other cultures, is easily fooled by rudimentary propaganda.  As we saw in the run-up to Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  As we see in the efforts to spark a war with Iran.  Aggressive US measures are down-played or ignored.  Iranian responses are described in hostile terms.

From “Dangerous Mix: Iranian Oil and U.S. Sanctions“, Vail Nasr, Brookings Institute, 4 January 2011:

Iran has started a 10-day naval exercise in the Persian Gulf to show off how it could use small speedboats and a barrage of missiles to combat America’s naval armada. And the U.S. Navy has responded, in the words of a spokeswoman: “Anyone who threatens to disrupt freedom of navigation in an international strait is clearly outside the community of nations; any disruption will not be tolerated.”

This is a significant escalation of tension between the United States and Iran, and the start of a more dangerous phase in the West’s attempt to curtail Iran’s nuclear program.

Since 2005 the US and Israel have frequently threatened to bomb Iran.  There has been a campaign of assassinations and sabotage.  Now the US threatens to economically isolate Iran.  Iran shows that is has the capability to strike back — and that is escalation of tension.  In the eyes of US geopolitical experts the only response to US threats is “Thank you, boss.”

While our war mongers speak nonsense in a mild voice, the hordes of lay hawks are roused to fever pitch.  Like this by investment guru Dennis Gartman, from his January 4 Letter — like British editors fuming about the evil hun in July 1914:

{about Iran’s forbidding US carriers from entering the Gulf} Iran’s bluster in this circumstance is sadly comical and truly idiotic. Her entire navy is wholly inadequate to stand up to the full force of a single US carrier battle group … President Ahmadinejad and Major General Salehi do not understand the seriousness of the US resolve. … Back channel negotiations are very probably underway between the Mullahs and Washington to allow Iran to back down from this uncomfortable, belligerent and idiotic, some would say apocalyptic, stance.

Gartman and his fellow hawks have obviously not read about the 2002 Millennium Challenge war games.  Admirals in both Washington and Tehran have done so.

(4)  Other posts in this series

  1. Is the War on Terror over (because there are no longer two sides)?, 3 September 2008 — Rumors of covert ops by us against Iran.
  2. Iran’s getting the bomb, or so we’re told. Can they fool us twice?, 16 January 2009
  3. Iran will have the bomb in 5 years (again), 2 January 2010
  4. About the escalating conflict with Iran (not *yet* open war), 4 January 2012
  5. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel?, 5 January 2012
  6. What do we know about Iran’s nuclear ambitions?, 6 January 2012
  7. What does the IAEA know about Iran’s nuclear program?, 9 January 2012
  8. What happens when a nation gets nukes?  Sixty years of history suggests an answer., 10 January 2012
  9. What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told., 11 January 2012
  10. Status report on the already-hot conflict with Iran – and the looming war, 12 January 2012
  11. Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012

(5)  For more information

See these FM Reference Pages:

A few posts about geopolitical strategy:

This post originally appeared at Fabius Maximus and is posted with permission.