Special Guest: Mitchell Reiss on Thinking Big
Mitchell Reiss has worked in foreign policy for decades. He served as the director of policy planning at the State Department under Colin Powell, as Special Envoy for the Northern Ireland Peace Process from 2003 to 2007, and as an advisor to Governor Mitt Romney on national security issues during the 2008 campaign. Now the president of Washington College, situated comfortably in small-town Maryland just over an hour from the nation’s capital, Dr. Reiss granted Bellum an interview in his office in late April.
“This is a more difficult job than the ones I’ve held in government,” he said without hesitation. He described a jam-packed day that included several on-campus events — the first at 7 o’clock in the morning, the last at 5 o’clock in the evening — and then a panel discussion in Washington. The students, faculty, donors, parents, and local community present a formidable “array of constituencies that you have to be mindful of,” he explained, and unlike in government, where very few positions don’t have you reporting directly up a chain of command, as a college president “you are the final line of authority.”
It is commonplace in Washington to hear policymakers complaining about the “tyranny of the inbox,” the day-to-day duties that crowd out one’s ability to deal with macro-level issues that, while important in the long-run, aren’t particularly pressing on any given day. This has led some, like Henry Kissinger, to say that policymakers need to do all of their learning before they come to Washington, because they simply won’t have time for that once they arrive.
“You invest a lot in the bank, and then you draw from it,” Dr. Reiss said. “The urgent crowds out the important.” There are exceptions, of course — Policy Planning at the State Department, J-5 at the Pentagon, and other more ad hoc groups — but in general “it’s very difficult to carve out time to think about big issues and how you might want to deal with them.”
The policy scene, where these big issues are often discussed, is incredibly polarized. “Partly,” Dr. Reiss suggested, “that reflects how complicated some of these issues are.” Popular culture enjoys labeling people as “white hats” or “black hats,” and policy positions as “reasonable” or “extreme,” but “the reality is that a lot of these issues are really, really difficult.”
And so it was to these big issues that we turned.
The Grand Old Party
In recent years, many commentators have described a “civil war” in the Republican Party. A so-called “internationalist” wing of the party, including Senator Richard Lugar, led the way on New START ratification over severe opposition from another wing, led by Senator Jon Kyl. The party is split on Afghanistan, Libya, and cutting the defense budget, to say nothing of the many clashes on domestic issues.
“All of these different voices and strains within the party are bubbling up,” Dr. Reiss suggested, “but I don’t think they are anything new.” During the Cold War the coalition was held together by a common enemy, the Soviet Union and international communism. “What’s lacking now is a unifying theme.”
It is the lack of this theme that leads to the partisan friction on various policy issues. Some have “an understandable skepticism” about treaty commitments; others suffer from “war fatigue” over Iraq and Afghanistan, and the general “lack of leadership from the White House” on both these wars. There is also “spillover from the Tea Party focus on fiscal restraint,” including calls to bring the troops home.
“I’m not sure that there should be a common unifying theme in terms of identifying an enemy or a hostile force,” Dr. Reiss added. “Some of my colleagues in the party see China in that light,” but, he suggested, that is more of a choice “we get to help shape” than an inevitable outcome. “I don’t see China occupying the space that the Soviet Union did. I don’t see Russia occupying the space that the Soviet Union did.”
“Academics get tenure if they come up with grand unifying themes,” he said, “and to say that the world is messy and that we’ve got to do stuff on an ad hoc basis doesn’t get you tenure.” Unfortunately, he added, “that’s not a rallying cry. ‘It’s Complicated’ isn’t going to be on a bumper sticker any time soon.”
Few concepts in political discourse are more difficult to articulate universally than the notion that the United States has a special purpose in the world. Where did this purpose come from? How long have we had it? Can we lose it?
Dr. Reiss argued that we have to “disaggregate the different elements of American exceptionalism.” First, there is the fact that we are exceptional due to our economic, military and diplomatic strength. Second, there are the policy consequences that follow from that fact. The United States is “the most powerful country on the face of the planet, and hopefully we will remain so for many, many years to come.”
“But it’s not preordained that we will always remain exceptional,” he continued. “One of the tasks for every generation is to make those decisions that will perpetuate our strength, our values, and our interests. We are facing one of those times right now…We are exceptional but I believe that is because of really intelligent decisions and national conversations that we’ve had over the past two-plus centuries.”
American exceptionalism is a fact; it’s the consequences that divide us. Dr. Reiss suggested that Democrats believe “that America is inexorably declining, and therefore the job of any administration is to manage that decline as gracefully as possible.” Republicans don’t accept the premise of decline. Unlike other countries that have faced decline in the past, due to resource constraints and insurmountable demographic issues, “we get to determine our future.”
Dr. Reiss was measured in his evaluation of the Obama presidency. “I was probably a little more patient than some of my Republican Party colleagues,” believing that the president simply “deserved some time” to get up to speed and acclimated to his new executive role, he explained.
While he gave President Obama decent marks for his handling of North Korea, relationships with our Asian allies, and the deepening of the relationship with India, Dr. Reiss expressed dissatisfaction with the White House’s handling of Libya, the diplomacy surrounding the Israel-Palestine issue, and the situation unfolding in Syria.
But more basically, he said, President Obama misunderstood something fundamental, believing that many of the problems the United States faced in the first decade of this century could be blamed on the Bush administration. “There were structural reasons,” Dr. Reiss argued, that transcended a single man or a single administration.