Getting Beyond the Usual Suspects on Foreign Policy

Late last week I was asked to write a short response to the question, “Is American foreign policy too ambitious?” In an opening line that was edited out of the final article, I wrote, “I’m not sure who else will answer this question, but I hope an Afghan and an Iraqi are among them.” I continued:

Given the tens of thousands dead, wounded, and displaced in Afghanistan and the millions dead, wounded, and displaced in Iraq since 2001, I wonder how an Iraqi or Afghan would answer this question. So too, I wonder how the family of a dead or maimed member of the U.S. military would respond?

The person organizing the online forum for Los Angeles’ Zócalo Public Square told me that she had tried unsuccessfully to get such a commentator. Despite her best efforts, the four writers, whose responses were linked to an event for Peter Beinart’s new book The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, were exactly the people one would expect opining about U.S. foreign policy: They were, from all appearances, white, relatively elite men like me.

With few exceptions, these are the people who have long dominated foreign-policy debates as pundits, politicians, military brass, think tankers, and academics. While discussions of any kind about foreign policy have been rare of late (with General McChrystal’s public insubordination representing a recent opportunity), a longer-term question remains about how to expand the diversity of those deemed foreign policy “experts” beyond the usual suspects.

Of course there are aberrations from the white-male-elite norm, with important voices speaking out on foreign policy from, among others, Code Pink, Iraq Veterans against the War, and a recent letter asking President Obama to begin peace talks with the Taliban. The millions in the United States and globally who took to the streets to protest the invasion of Iraq likewise represent an unprecedented degree of public involvement in foreign policy.

The question remains how to further democratize debates and directions on war and foreign policy? Although I’ve never been there in person, Zócalo’s public square, like FPIF, seems to offer one small model for inspiring greater public involvement. Clearly nothing will take the place of masses of people getting into the streets. But part of the answer also lies in changing the faces of more of the experts, in disqualifying the expertise of some of those who have led us into two deadly and unnecessary wars, and in making the usual suspects on foreign policy more reflective of the nation’s diversity.