U.S. Can Get To Work On Its Image

By Lee Hamilton
Feb 26 2008

 It is no secret that America's image abroad has suffered recently. According to last summer's Pew worldwide survey, since 2002, views of the U.S. have soured in 27 of 32 countries studied.


There is widespread criticism of our foreign policy, much of it rooted in the view that the U.S. ignores the interests of other states in its conduct of foreign affairs. But it is not just our policies but also our competence in implementing them that has precipitated a widespread loss of confidence in America's global leadership. To a foreign observer, it seems we cannot even respond to a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, much less simultaneously fight three wars (Iraq, Afghanistan, and the global war on terror) tens of thousands of miles away, defeat al–Qaida, capture Osama bin Laden, or develop an effective and comprehensive plan to fight terrorism.

Though I do not agree with all such denigration of our competence, I do believe that we have housekeeping to do. Developing a more effective foreign policy will demand not just new ideas, but also a more effective translation of those ideas into practice.

The key to the effective implementation of foreign policy is the integration and coordination of all the tools of American power — economic, military and political, which is the chief responsibility of the National Security Council.

Running the NSC is, without doubt, one of the most important and challenging jobs in government. However, the interagency process simply does not function well. The NSC is overwhelmed and has underperformed.

And while our intelligence community, so vital in our fight against transnational terrorism, has made significant strides since Sept. 11, all agree that further improvements are necessary. The office of the Director of National Intelligence is still developing and our human intelligence capabilities need more investment.

And when it comes to nation–building — where constructing roads, agricultural improvements, and civic and educational reform can be as important as military operations — the effective integration of the knowledge and skills of several departments of government is vital.

The relationship between the president and the Congress needs some work, too.

U.S. foreign policy is always more effective when we speak with a single voice. But today, the relationship between executive and legislative branches is poor; the bipartisan political center has collapsed — and it shows.

We also will struggle until we devote adequate attention and investment to the under–funded State Department.

President Bush's desire to bolster the diplomatic corps by 1,076 is a good start, but is long overdue. Meanwhile, Europe and China have long been investing heavily in highly trained and multi–lingual diplomats, and we have fallen behind. Stateside, the organization of the Department of Homeland Security is, at best, a work in progress.

The Department of Defense has its problems as well. It faces the daunting challenges of conducting three wars, the restoration of America's military capabilities around the world, and managing enormous budgets, manpower, resources and complex weapons systems.

The Pentagon must sharply improve acquisition practices, program management, and systems engineering skills. To provide examples, “quality problems” in the development of an amphibious tank have cost tax payers $750 million alone, and in Iraq the Pentagon has simply lost track of millions of dollars worth of rocket–propelled grenades, armored vehicles, ammunition, and other supplies because of bad management.

Such reckless spending also reflects the inability to effectively manage our military's structure and its missions abroad. We have spent lavishly on high–tech weapons systems, with new tanks, ships, and planes, but lack the necessary ground forces for low–intensity conflicts, peace–keeping and nation–building.

We simply have to get much better at realizing our goals. We must be prepared for rapid and coordinated responses that require security assistance, diplomacy, nation–building skills, civil reconstruction, as well as military force. Peace and security cannot come solely through military strength but only through carefully designed policies that we effectively integrate and skillfully implement.

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)