Through a Broken Window Darkly: A False Vision of Foreign Policy

April 2, 2015

Bret Stephens, America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder (Sentinel, 2014)


American foreign policy has veered wildly between extremes over the last 14 years. We have tried and failed to remake the world through armed intervention. We have tried and failed to ignore the spiraling disorder in the developing world. Though we may wish to turn inward, America is inextricably entwined in the world’s sordid affairs and will be for the foreseeable future.

America simply cannot shut itself off from the world. While globalization may ebb and flow, the global nature of supply chains, finance, and markets mean that even the most local of American businesses and consumers cannot insulate themselves from the rest of the world. Add in factors such as technology, transportation, and criminal and terrorist tactics, and it is clear that what happens beyond America’s borders has real impacts at home.

The stark dysfunction of American politics – and especially American political commentary – have created such a polarization that even the most basic premises of what constitutes economic, political, and scientific reality are hotly contested. In such a milieu, extremists on the left and right imagine that isolation is truly an option. Bret Stephens’ America in Retreat: The New Isolationism and the Coming Global Disorder takes this increasingly vocal fringe as its foil, offering in turn the seemingly straightforward alternative of a more robust U.S. military presence around the globe and a policy defined by more: a larger budget, a larger force, and a larger footprint abroad.

Behind this prescription and a relatively clear – though simplistic – statement of a conservative foreign policy lies a tangled mess of arguments and cherry-picked data that are for nothing and against everything Obama and Clinton. This is the real tragedy of America in Retreat: it, in a microcosm, reflects the broader triumph of partisan politics, domestic political agendas, and ideological blinders over rational foreign policy in the past decade. Stephens takes every opportunity to score points on ideological opponents, even when doing so contravenes his own policy position. In considering the actions of ideological fellow-travelers, he glosses over massive missteps or lays them off on scapegoats, such as L. Paul Bremer in the case of Iraq. There is plenty of blame to go around for all parties, as well as some bright spots – all of which could be used to far more credibly support Stephens’ proposal. Instead, he has produced a Rorschach test: a shape with little substance that only confirms one’s predilections rather than informing a more nuanced view.

No Better Priest, No Worse Spectator: Walking the Beat

Stephens warns that the false vision of foreign policy as “spectator sport” has lured America into a retreat from its role of global leadership, portending “a world in which dictatorships contend, or unite, to fill the breach.” As a corrective, America in Retreat proposes a conservative foreign policy that will “maintain global order in a way favorable to the security and prosperity of our friends, watchful of the ambitions of our adversaries, and be mindful of the need to keep the countries caught in between… tilting toward us.” Under such a policy, America would be “in the business of shaping habits of behavior, not winning hearts and minds. It announces red lines sparingly but enforces them unsparingly. It is willing to act decisively, or preventively, to punish or prevent blatant transgressions of order… in the interests of deterrence.” America must dutifully assume “its role as world policeman,” but not as the world’s priest.

This singular emphasis on military policing of the global neighborhood is supported by Stephens’ reading of the “broken windows” theory of policing, which “emphasizes the importance of the surface of things. … It is much less interested in all the things that go by the name of ‘root cause’.” Thus, while Stephens calls for a sharp increase in defense spending – to 5 percent of GDP (it’s now 3.5 percent) – he insists stability will require little else if America sticks to hard-nosed police work. There’s no need to be the world’s priest, he assures us; “Cops merely walk the beat, reassuring the good, deterring the tempted, punishing the wicked.”

Such police actions would not be undertaken in the name of “international ‘laws’ of dubious enforceability,” but rather “to set and enforce basic global norms – that is, to establish and enforce a set of basic behavioral expectations.” Stephens does not define these, but he does caveat that the global policeman “cannot put out every geopolitical fire.” Thus, he envisions a global policeman enforcing an undefined set of norms, answering the call only when it chooses – based again on undefined parameters. When his beat cop did answer the call, he would often do no more than give the transgressor a lazy swat with a club and be on his way. Occasionally, the beat cop might hand out weapons to locals to finish the job. If the beat cop had to take out a particularly bad criminal, he would do it decisively – think Baghdad Thunder Run in 1991 – then leave the root cause nonsense for the locals to figure out.

In other words, America in Retreat bases the global foreign policy prescription for the world’s leading nation-state on one, hotly contested theory about policing in certain neighborhoods of certain cities in the United States. This view disdainfully dismisses all the other work of governance that underpins a lasting improvement in the security situation: laws, the reliable and impartial application and adjudication of laws, subsequent economic and social development, and ultimately political engagement and buy-in to the established order.

Broken Windows Iraq – Broken Windows Afghanistan

While this worldview is questionable, when applied to the Iraq intervention it does support Stephens’ belief that a shorter, sharper action with a quicker handoff would have been more successful: “We only won the war when Bush realized that America’s task in Iraq was not to lecture Iraqi leaders about how they should conduct their democracy. It was to use overwhelming power to reassure friends and crush enemies.” In this version of events, the surge was “the right strategy for Iraq” and counterinsurgency, properly applied, is a broken-windows-like “deliberate, and emphatically visible, show of force; a way of reassuring civilians that American power was nearby—that the top cop was on his beat.” Thus, counterinsurgency, “often maligned as a soft-headed hearts-and-minds effort,” was instrumental in “victory” in Iraq. (He was writing as the Islamic State was sweeping back across Iraq).

Stephens’ story changes, though, when it comes to Afghanistan. Instead of welcoming the end of nation-building and a sole focus on combatting the remnants of al Qaeda and continuing to train the Afghans to police themselves, he crows that “government authority—and legitimacy—has been established” in Afghanistan’s restive Helmand Province. None of his support for this claim holds up, however. He vastly overstates voter turnout in Sangin, blindly applying a national figure in which at least 1 in 4 ballots were likely fraudulent.

One need not look to such root cause issues however. In the paragraph before his authority-and-legitimacy claim, he writes that the Afghan army recently found 178 improvised explosive devices (IEDs) clustered in two miles of dirt track. FOB Nolay – where the book opens – is known as FOB No-Legs for a reason. The Afghan government has no legitimacy or authority in Sangin, and Helmand is today the most dangerous place in Afghanistan to be a human being, especially if you are a civilian.

To make his case here, Stephens parrots rosy coalition lines without reference to deeper and more troubling data, investigative reporting from the field, or the critical caveats to topline figures that led other journalists to the conclusion that “nearly every metric that U.S. or Afghan officials pressed into service to show progress unravels upon inspection.” Yet, Stephens presses them into service to fault Obama for not “believ[ing] in his own war.”

It’s a Coup, but It’s OK and Other Contortions

The pattern repeats itself again and again. Instead of being for an idea and in support of a thesis, Stephens is against all things Obama and Clinton. He adjusts his arguments and picks his facts accordingly. He wants America to be a policeman, not a priest, while labeling the Obama administration’s policies as “a retreat from ordinary moral judgment.” He touts a hard-nosed realist approach, but faults policy choices based explicitly on calculations of American interest and global stability as Obama attempted to improve relations with Egypt after Bush’s very public push for greater liberalization there. This is the very prescription Stephens had for policy in Iraq – less lecturing about democracy – but because Obama did it, he labels it a moral failure.

Stephens’ criticism of Obama’s handling of General Abdel Fatteh al-Sisi’s overthrow of elected President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt is likewise duplicitous. He wants Obama to call it a coup (which would invoke PL 112-74, Sec. 7008 prohibiting military aid), but criticizes the decision to delay temporarily the sale of four F-16s (paid for by U.S. taxpayer dollars) and withhold some military aid (but critically not counterterrorism funding, military education and training in or with the United States, or spare parts and maintenance). In sum, the administration did what it could to maintain leverage against the Egyptian regime, following logic very close to Stephens’ conservative foreign policy prescription.

Even the data points behind the central arguments of the book are flawed. Key to the assertion of America’s retreat from the world stage is the argument that the U.S. Army “is returning to its June 1940 size.” The Army currently stands at roughly 510,000 troops and the FY15 budget request aims to revise the targeted end strength up from 450,000 to 490,000. The prewar Army was only 167,000 strong in 1938. It was only after the Munich Crisis and nearly two years of rapid growth to face the threat of war that authorized end strength reached 375,000 in June 1940, though actual troop numbers would not have risen as quickly. Thus, today’s Army is nearly three times larger than it was before the threat of Hitler prompted a build-up, and is augmented by 184,000 Marines (versus under 20,000 in 1939) and over 300,000 Air Force personnel (part of the Army’s numbers through WWII). Regardless, Stephens believes that America needs and can support a larger military to walk the beat.

Politics and Economics Have No Place in Foreign Policy… Unless They are Domestic

While he eschews consideration of root causes in the foreign policy cure, he does explore economic and political factors to demonstrate that America is “the last engine” in a sputtering world economy. While America is on much sounder footing than most of the world, Stephens again follows his ideology past the most salient points. He gushes about Silicon Valley innovation, writing, “With the exception of Israel, it is hard to imagine a WhatsApp emerging in any other advanced economy, where regulations, credentialing, and deeply ingrained habits of risk aversion are incompatible with the qualities of experimentation, serendipity, and a why-not mentality that made [co-founder Jan] Koum an overnight billionaire.” This completely disregards the non-American, non-Israeli entrepreneurs who pointed the way toward WhatsApp by creating Skype, as well as other foreign innovations such as M-Pesa, Dropbox, Spotify, or Nexmo. What is more, the anecdote demonstrates the growth and clash of strange tech behemoths and the resulting skew of innovation toward ventures that are lucrative as acquisition targets but add little value to the true engines of American economic power. It was Facebook’s very bold move to purchase the company for $22 billion that made Koum an overnight billionaire. His minor innovation never made a profit and employed only a handful of people.

While these Silicon Valley powerhouses are making a fraction of America’s clever and gifted workforce wealthy, others are falling behind. Yet, America in Retreat brushes off criticisms of mediocre schools and their failure to prepare Americans for the modern workforce as “a standard declinist cliché.” In a moving fit of elitist pity, Stephens then nods to the “lamentable” state of public schools, noting that they are “a tragedy for underserved minority students.” Not to worry, because the beacon of American higher education “at least partly compensates” for the shortcomings. Our fantastic schools – completely out of reach to more and more Americans who are relegated to lamentable, even tragic schools – will be enough to save us.

These and many other root causes in America have given rise to a growing malaise of polarization, isolation, and fear. This malaise has turned the tenets of broken windows policing in the cities of the world’s most developed nation-state into an ongoing series of nationwide flashpoint incidents. When broken windows policing is taken up in isolation, when social and economic factors atomize communities and drive them into despair, when cities are so disconnected, disenfranchised, and resource-poor that they cannot muster their own police force, broken-windows policing becomes foreign occupation. Citizens and police become enemies in an insurgency. It doesn’t work here, and it certainly has not and will not work abroad.

Root causes are important in America, and they are important in determining foreign policy. By eschewing root causes and supporting simplistic, partisan assertions with the shallowest of cherry-picked data, Bret Stephens does nothing to advance his own cause or that of American foreign policy more broadly. This is a partisan screed of some 800 tightly argued words packed into some 230 pages of text. It is a sad reflection on our commentariat that a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist would publish such a thinly reported and poorly reasoned book, and that a host of prize-winning authors and statesmen would endorse it as a powerful, literate, and well-researched argument. All sides do nothing more than yell into their own echo chamber for profit. That, more than any other root cause, is leading America into retreat at a time when the world very much needs a hard-nosed leader, willing to use all of its instruments of power to stave off disorder… before it is so far gone that only a military solution can be considered.

We are headed, again, toward tragedy. But it makes good copy.


Peter J. Munson is responsible for preventive services and global crisis management for a private sector corporation, coming to this position after his retirement from the US Marine Corps in 2013. He is a Middle East specialist with professional proficiency in Arabic. Munson is the author of two books: War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History and Iraq in Transition: The Legacy of Dictatorship and the Prospects for Democracy.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army