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Making Gains Abroad 'Begins At Home'


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin.

There's been a lot of talk about a red line this past week and whether the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has crossed it. After U.S. intelligence reports came out saying with varying degrees of confidence that Syrian forces have used chemical weapons on rebels and civilians, President Obama said he is still weighing America's response.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I've been very clear publicly but also privately that for the Syrian government to utilize chemical weapons on its people crosses a line. That will change my calculus and how the United States approaches these issues.

MARTIN: Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says the response needs to be a measured one.

RICHARD HAASS: I would say the United States needs to limit its involvement in Syria. Our interest there are limited, which is not to say we should be totally hands-off. But given everything else we have to cope with in the world, the sort of open-ended involvement that we show in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan is exactly the sort of thing the United States needs to avoid.

MARTIN: Haass says it's President Obama is working through some kind of calculus about intervention in Syria, he needs to put another big factor into the equation: America's own domestic priorities like entitlement reform, improving our education, rebuilding our infrastructure. It's summed up in the title of his new book, "Foreign Policy Begins at Home."

You call your proposed doctrine Restoration. Let's just say, for the sake of argument, that you are invited, Richard Haass, to the Oval Office and President Barack Obama grants you five minutes to convince him that this is the way to go. How do you pitch this?

HAASS: I would say that the United States needs to focus here at home. That's the only way we will restore the foundations of American power. We can fix America's society. We can strengthen our economy. We can restore historic rates of economic growth. Plus, we will put in place our ability to deal with the world.

MARTIN: This is a fairly unusual argument for a foreign policy guy like yourself to make...


MARTIN: ...that a domestic agenda trumps a foreign policy agenda.

HAASS: Oh, you're absolutely right on that. There are days I think I may be tossed out of the foreign policy fraternity.


HAASS: But all comes out the strategy and priority. In the long term we've got to be economically strong, if we're going to be diplomatically strong and militarily strong. This is not an isolationist argument. That would be folly in an age where borders don't count for a lot. But we do need to ensure our capacity to do what will be expensive things. So we've got to fix what is wrong here.

We've got to make ourselves competitive. We've got to make ourselves strong. And if we do that it's not simply good for American society, it will enable the United States to continue to lead the world which is a good thing, 'cause there's no one else who is positioned to lead it.

The alternative to an American-led world is not a China-led world or an India-led world or a Europe-led. It's a world that no one leads. It's a world of chaos. And that's a world that will not simply be bad for the seven billion people out there but will also be bad for the United States. And only the United States is in a position to prevent this coming about.

MARTIN: You were anticipating some criticism for your argument as being isolationist. But the number of countries out there that rely heavily on U.S. foreign aid, on U.S. military assistance - Israel, Japan - are you suggesting that for a period of time, the United States let these countries fend for themselves for a while we take care of things at home?

HAASS: Not at all. Even more, I'd say if you're worried about U.S. ability to be supportive of all these countries around the world, then you should embrace exactly what I'm calling for. Unless we do sort ourselves out, unless we bring our economy back to historic levels of growth - which were nearly twice the level of the last five years - then we're going to have increasing battles here about guns versus butter; about domestic versus foreign; about doing things abroad or doing things at home. That's what we're already seeing under the sequester.

So the argument for the next five or 10 years, the United States should focus somewhat more at home and somewhat less abroad, is not an isolationist argument. It's not an anti-foreign policy argument. It's just the opposite. Unless we do this we're not going to position ourselves for a long-term role of international leadership. So we can and we have to do somewhat less now.

MARTIN: We are almost a couple of weeks out from the bombings at the Boston Marathon. I wonder how the threat of terrorism fits into how you look at the world, and specifically this doctrine that you're proposing - this idea of a restoration.

HAASS: Terrorism is a real and continuing threat and it's not going to go away. What Boston shows is how small numbers of individuals, inspired, say, by the Internet, with access to their local hardware store, can do real damage. So what this tells me is there's not a foreign policy solution to this. We can't occupy the world and try to make sure there's no terrorists coming at us.

We ought to see what we can do to prevent the radicalization particular of young men. We ought to look at ways in which communities can try to delegitimize this kind of action and cooperate with the authorities when they see it developing. But also we've got to be realistic about it. It's just like you can't live a disease -free life where you never get sick. We're going to have to, as a society, make sure that were strong enough to respond, to bounce back, to recover if and when terrorist enjoy tactical successes.

MARTIN: Richard Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. His newest book is called "Foreign policy Begins at Home." Mr. Haass, thanks so much for taking the time.

HAASS: Rachel, thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.