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In the case of Iran's nuclear program, the U.S. would use or support the use of armed force only if it determined that a military strike could destroy much of Iran's relevant capacity, that doing so would not reduce the chances of meaningful political change inside Iran, that the costs of likely retaliation by Iran were sustainable, that a nuclear Iran could not be confidently deterred and that the proliferation aspirations of others could not be managed.
President Obama appeared to cast his support for a doctrine of restoration in his June 22 remarks announcing the beginning of troop reductions in Afghanistan. "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home," he famously said. But the glacial pace of the drawdown from Afghanistan, along with the decision to intervene militarily in Libya, is inconsistent with a doctrine of restoration, which would limit foreign policy to what matters most.
Restoration is not just about acting more discriminating abroad; it is even more about doing the right things at home. The principal focus would be on restoring the fiscal foundations of American power. The current situation is unsustainable, leaving the U.S. vulnerable either to market forces that could impose higher interest rates and draconian spending cuts or to the pressures of one or more central banks motivated by economic or conceivably political concerns.
Reducing discretionary domestic spending would constitute one piece of any fiscal plan. But cuts need to be smart: domestic spending is desirable when it is an investment in the U.S.'s human and physical future and competitiveness. This includes targeted spending on public education, including at the community-college and university levels; modernizing transportation and energy infrastructures; and increasing energy efficiency while decreasing dependence on Middle East oil. Spending cuts should focus on entitlements and defense. Further deficit reductions can be achieved by reducing so-called tax expenditures such as health care plans and mortgage deductions. The goal should be to reduce the deficit by some $300 billion per year until the budget is balanced but for interest payments on the debt.
Adopting a doctrine of restoration for several years would help the U.S. shore up the economic foundations of its power. It would also put the U.S. back in a position to lead by example; one of the most important foreign policy strengths this country possesses is the demonstrated success of its economy and political system. Both are now tarnished, a reality that makes other countries much less likely to adopt open economic and political models and instead opt for more statist systems.
Restoration takes into account this era's domestic and international realities. That said, there would still be elements of democracy promotion, counterterrorism and humanitarianism as either opportunities or exigencies arose. Indeed, one of the many virtues of a doctrine of restoration is that it improves prospects for one day implementing a doctrine of integration, the approach that continues to make the most sense for a world dominated by global challenges. But the U.S. will arrive at the point of being able to lead the world only if it first puts its own house in order.
Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations