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Home Ruminations

Foreign Policy

Here are my thoughts on some specific foreign policy issues (you might also be interested in my thoughts on some specific domestic policy issues, or things that seem common sense to me, or perhaps my thoughts on making our government better).

The Primrose Path ?

In his book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism, Andrew J. Bacevich sketches our actual current foreign policy as cohering around these four core convictions:

  1. History has an identifiable and undisputable purpose.
  2. The United States has always embodied, and continues to embody, freedom.
  3. Providence summons America to ensure freedom's ultimate triumph.
  4. For the American way of life to endure, freedom must prevail everywhere.

About this pithy summary he says Bush's main achievement has been to articulate that ideology with such fervor and clarity as to unmask as never before its defects and utter perversity (after also saying that ... the president has for the most part operated within the framework that has defined basic national security policy for decades).

The very simple statement invites very simple reactions. I for one am deeply ashamed to have some part in supporting whatever springs from those four core convictions. If asked which ones I agree with, honesty would compel me to answer that I'm zero for four - I disagree with each and every one. Mr. Bacevich isn't the only one that thinks this core of the USA's current foreign policy is at best distasteful and at worst crazy.

He goes on to say Implicit ... is the assumption that a different chief executive with different advisors open to advice and counsel from a different quarter ... would have followed a different course and achieved notably better results, and further Paradoxically, the belief that all (or even much) will be well, if only the right person assumes the reins as president and commander in chief serves to underwrite the status quo. Although he doesn't say so in an explicitly quotable way, he suggests that the current Republicrat concensus is not good for our country.

Military-Industrial Complex

In his farewell speech in 1961, Dwight Eisenhower said In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

It's conventional wisdom that we've done a good job of heeding that advice, and that what Ike termed the militaryindustrial complex doesn't have much relevance any more. We're used to congratulating ourselves on meeting and dispatching that threat.

But in fact the evidence for this view is rather thin. More likely a dispassionate evaluation of our reality would determine that in fact Ike's warning continues to be relevant - that the influence of the militaryindustrial complex is winning. It has infused our foreign policy so deeply that we're no longer even aware of our significant tilt toward militarism.

Towers Of Islam

After the attack on the twin towers in NYC, I began trying to understand what was going on by studying about Islam and about the Middle East. I was disappointed that most of my reading didn't help me place attitudes and events in any kind of context. Most books concentrated just on very recent times --mostly just the past five years. Many took one large step back through history to touch on U.S. support to the Afghan mujaheden. Beyond that the strides grew impossibly long, skipping all the way to the battle of Vienna in the 17th century and the founding of Islam by Muhammad in the 7th century. I was also disappointed that a sort of alumni teach in seemed to hint that real issues existed but didn't define them clearly.

After over a year I finally discovered several critical keys to understanding the situation. One is something called the clash-of-civilizations hypothesis. That discussion went on among the foreign policy elite several years ago and I was blissfully unaware of it. Events gave it new relevance, and many current discussions assume it as background and don't make sense without it. A second is the possible importance of the Sunni/Shi'ite Muslim division. Although the distinction has very recently seemed less important as an international organizing factor, it explains many policies and events. The third is the central place in much U.S. foreign policy of Iran and the Iranian Revolution, which has been so strong that the Islam problem has been equated to the Iran problem.

One book did more than all the others together for me to put Islam and the Middle East into context. It's the somewhat obscure America and Political Islam: Clash of Cultures or Clash of Interests? by Fawaz A. Gerges.

Although published in 1999 toward the end of the Clinton presidency, America and Political Islam sheds a lot of light on the attack on the twin towers in 2001. Focussing on U.S. foreign policy toward various aspects of the Muslim resurgence and how it has changed both through time and in different places puts recent events into a broader context that is sorely missing from many analyses. The book's investigation begins with the Iranian Revolution and covers four presidencies: Carter, Reagan, Bush I, and Clinton.

It tackles head on the climate after the end of the Cold War, noting that an over-easy replacement of the red menace of Communism with the green menace of Islam explains surprisingly much. It also tackles the tendency to conflate the Iran problem with the Islam problem which has often led to inappropriate responses to situations.

The largest contribution the book makes is in sketching out how much U.S. foreign policy is constrained by Congress and public opinion. Our presidential administrations would probably have made much more nuanced, relevant, and accomodationist responses to various situations related to Islam if they had not been cornered by powerful congressmen with simplistic black and white views of the world. A secondary contribution is pointing out the very many places where the U.S. in dealing with Islam says one thing but does something different.

A second book that supplied a whole lot of background is The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq by Kenneth M. Pollack. While I disagreed with the book's obvious conclusion, I found the information it provided invaluable for making sense of the situation. Published several months before our military action, it discussed many things that came to pass --such as difficulty getting past vetoes in the U.N. Security Council and the very lukewarm and subdued reaction of Iraqi civilians to troops-- and makes it clear they were not (or should not have been) surprises.

The book gives two rationales for invading Iraq, neither of which was discussed hardly at all in public previous to the invasion (although they were emphasized later) by the people who brought us war. (I disagree with the reasons but was happy to see them presented much more clearly than our public officials have.) One is the good guy reason that the Iraqi regime was so horribly repressive of its own people that a change of governments would be a great net benefit to the average Iraqi. The other is the self interest reason that the regime was crazily unstable and was hell bent on obtaining nuclear weapons, making it necessary to respond to the threat before nuclear weapons were actually obtained. (Although chemical and biological weapons are also classed as weapons of mass destruction they are not as threatening or as significant as nuclear weapons.)

Even during its most pointed arguments for the conclusion I disagree with, the book presents a reasonably balanced view by describing other issues that should be considered. As examples here are some quotes from the book:

Moreover, the United States is not some rogue superpower determined to do what it wants regardless of who it threatens or angers. If we behave in this fashion, we will alienate our allies and convice much of the rest of the world to band together against us to try to keep us under control.

For the moderate Arab states, European and Asian participation would be important to legitimize the operation in the eyes of their people; lighted peace symbol in window the more the operation was seen as having broad international support, the more legitimate it would seem to arab populations, while the less international support it had, the more it would be seen as an anti-Arab scheme cooked up by the United States, its Arab puppets, and (they will insist) Israel.

The author, Kenneth M. Pollack, however had high profile second thoughts after our invasion. In the article Spies, Lies, and Weapons: What Went Wrong (which may no longer be easily available on the web) in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine, he says that prewar intelligence about Iraq, particularly that related to weapons of mass destruction (WMD), was way off base.

The photo shows what my window looked like at the outset of our warring on Iraq. (I can no longer display anything in that large window since the owner replaced it with smaller paned windows, supposedly because of rotten wood in the window frame.)

A Rational Foreign Policy

Pressures on our elected leaders to do the wrong things are unfortunately quite strong. Joel Kline in a book review titled Obama on the World Stage: What Power Means said:

Gelb is at his best describing the three demons that render America's politicians congenitally foolish and unable to project power creatively — our tendency to turn principles into dogma, domestic political pressures, and the delusion that America can do anything. George W. Bush was badly boggled by all three. His Freedom Agenda, which wantonly promoted democracy, led to disasters like the rise of Hamas in Gaza (after Bush forced elections that neither Israel nor the Palestinian Authority wanted). Bush also played domestic tough-guy politics disgracefully: his opponents were inevitably soft on terrorism. And he played the darker avenues of domestic politics as well, allowing ethnic pressure groups like the Israel and India lobbies too much sway. Finally, his feckless battle plans in Afghanistan and Iraq were the result of his reflexive belief in American omnipotence and an underestimation of our enemies' intransigence.

(This review of the book Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy by Leslie Gelb was dated Thursday, March 26, 2009 and appeared in the in April 06, 2009 edition of Time Magazine.)

A Humble Foreign Policy

I have become quite concerned about our national politics, although I'm unclear how I can participate meaningfully. As a resident of New England with its history, I'm hyper sensitive to reappearances of the puritan ethos. Unlike the Puritans, our leadership should have a sense of humor. Taking oneself or the job too seriously is a strong hint of an excessively narrow worldview.

Although the U.S. defense budget is only around 4% or 5% of its GNP, the U.S. spends more on its military than any other nation or civilization ever has in the history of the world, an amount that even though significantly reduced from several decades ago, graph of countries' military expenditures was still greater than the combined amounts spent by the next 12 nations in 2003 (14 nations in 2010). Good intentions and a high moral tone are no excuse for this nation's level of violence. I don't accept that in order to get what we need, it's necessary to blow up somebody else's livelihood.

Our foreign policy should be more aware of history. For example Rashid Khalidi in his book Resurrecting Empire: Western Footproints and America's Perilous Path in the Middle East points out that Fallujah was the starting point of the Iraqi revolt against the British in the 1920s. What happened there in spring 2004 may have had as much to do with history as it did with current events.

This excerpt from The Fifty-first State? by James Fallows in the November 2002 issue of The Atlantic Monthly (possibly no longer easily available on the web) expresses well my misgivings about our occupation of Iraq:

When British administrators supervised the former Ottoman lands in the 1920s, they liked to insinuate themselves into the local culture, á la Lawrence of Arabia. Typically, a young man would go there in his twenties, would master the local dialects, would have a local mistress before he settled down to something more respectable, Victor O'Reilly, an Irish novelist who specializes in military topics, told me. They were to achieve tremendous amounts with minimal resources. They ran huge chunks of the world this way, and it was psychological. They were hugely knowledgeable and got deeply involved with the locals. The original Green Berets tried to use a version of this approach in Vietnam, and to an extent it is still the ideal for the Special Forces.

But in the generation since Vietnam the mainstream U.S. military has gone in the opposite direction: toward a definition of its role in strictly martial terms. It is commonplace these days in discussions with officers to hear them describe their mission as 'killing people and blowing things up.'

In a later article in the Jan/Feb 2004 issue of the same magazine Blind Into Baghdad (possibly no longer easily available on the web), James Fallows views our postwar handling of Iraq as deeply flawed although the invasion itself was a success. Here's the magazine's summary of his article: The U.S. occupation of Iraq is a debacle not because the government did no planning but because a vast amount of expert planning was willfully ignored by the people in charge. The inside story of a historic failure

The policy of preëmption seems now to have been discredited. Theoretical arguments about whether preëmption is a good idea or a bad idea could go on endlessly. But now we've actually tried it, and we've seen how it turned out, and it wasn't so good.

More importantly, it became clear that winning the peace was much more difficult than winning the war in Iraq. Restoring order and creating a non-violent stable political climate (while at the same time disproving that one is an occupying power or came for the oil) turned out to be devilishly difficult. Our management of Iraq went quite badly for several years. Toward the end there was a drop in violence, but a suspicion at the time was people who wished to resurrect the old political order with its Ba'ath party were just waiting for us to leave. The sharp uptick as soon as we left in signs of sectarianism, corruption, and especially internecine conflict, is indeed worrying.

The biggest lesson to the U.S. should be that we should be extremely reluctant to start any wars because they're so hard to bring to a controlled end. The old measure twice, cut once aphorism might be rephrased think ahead a dozen times, make very few wars. (For more in-depth comments about thinking ahead before starting a war, see Descent into War is a One-Way Trip.)

Churchill For Our Times

The decision to enter Iraq drew strong parallels to Churchill and WWII, including lots of talk about appeasement and Munich. (The decision was just a particular example of the general neocon focus on appeasement and Munich.) But Munich was three querters of a century ago. And even back then the thoughts of world leaders were more ambivalent than the current conventional wisdom allows.

The world isn't the same as it was in 1939. Surely something as important as our foreign policy deserves more original and more relevant thinking. And some others think similarly. To quote extensively from the introduction to Churchill, Hilter, and the Unnecessary War by Patrick J. Buchanan:

There has arisen among America's elite a Churchill cult. Its acolytes hold that Churchill was not only a peerless war leader but a statesman of unparalleled vision whose life and legend should be the model for every statesman. To this cult, defiance anywhere of U.S. hegemony, resistance anywhere to U.S. power becomes another 1938. Every adversary is a new Hitler, every proposal to avert war another Munich. Slobodan Milosevic, a party apparatchik who had presided over the disintegration of Yugoslavia—losing Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia, and Bosnia—becomes the Hilter of the Balkans for holding Serbia's cradle province of Kosovo. Saddam Hussein, whose army was routed in one hundred hours in 1991 and who had not shot down a U.S. plance in forty thousand sorties, becomes 'an Arab Hitler' about to roll up the Persian Gulf and threaten mankind with weapons of mass destruction.

This mind-set led us to launch a seventy-eight-day bombing campaign on Serbia, a nation that never attacked us, never threatened us, never wanted war with us, whose people had always befriended us. After 9/11, the Churchill cult helped to persuade an untutored president that the liberation of Iraq from Saddam would be like the liberation of Europe from Hitler. We would be greeted in Baghdad as our fathers and grandfathers had been in Paris. In the triumphant aftermath of a 'cake-walk' war, democracy would put down roots in the Middle East as it had in Europe after the fall of Hitler, and George W. Bush would enter history as the Churchill of his generation, while the timid souls who opposed his war of liberation would be exposed as craven appeasers.

(A couple of excerpts from the main text of the same rather contrarian book are also interesting:

Historians today see in Hitler's actions a series of preconceived and brilliant moves on the chessboard of Europe, reflecting the grand strategy of an evil genius unfolding step by step: rearmament of the Reich, reoccupation of the Rhineland, Anschluss, Munich, the Prague coup, the Hitler-Stalin Pact, blitzkrieg in Poland, the Rommel-Guderian thrust through the Ardennes, seizure of the Balkans, and Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. This is mythology. While Hitler did indeed come to power with a vision of Versailles overturned and a German-dominated Europe, most of his actions were taken in spontaneous reaction to situations created by his adversaries. Hitler 'owed all his successes to his tactical opportunism,' wrote Sir Nevile Henderson.


Nor was Chamberlain alone in this conviction. While appeasement is today a synonym for craven cowardice in the face of evil, appeasement as a policy predated Chamberlain. As Andrew Roberts writes in his biography of Halifax, 'Although today it is considered shameful and craven, the policy of appeasement once occupied almost the whole moral high ground. The word was originally synonymous with idealism, magnanimity of the victor and the willingness to right wrongs.

Henderson described appeasement as 'the search for just solutions by negotiation in the light of higher reason instead of by resort to force.' Eden, a four-year veteran of the trenches and the toast of the League of Nations Union, who had lost two brothers in the war, described his policy as 'the appeasement of Europe as a whole.' By appeasement, Eden meant

what liberal opinion has endorsed since Versailles—the removal of the causes of war by the remedy of justified grievances. Thus Eden acquiesced in Germany's remilitarization of the Rhineland in 1936. True, it was a violation of the Versailles Treaty—but who now defended its one-sided and obsolescent provisions, denying Germany full control of its own territory? True, it had been achieved by force—but who wanted to take back from Hitler what would otherwise have been conceded to him across the conference table with a handshake from a smiling Eden?

I'm interested in responses that fit the current reality, not in squeezing every reality into some old schematic called Munich. I've become so disgusted with what seems to be nothing more than an attempt to replay the events of an arguable mistake several generations ago that my frequent reflexive response is precisely the opposite: whenever I hear the word Munich I automatically disregard everything that person recommends.

In Summary...

Our military action in Iraq was strongly linked to terrorism. But the real strength of that link is questionable. Although the historic links between Sadaam Hussein and al Qaeda may have been stronger than was widely reported. most likely they were nevertheless not very strong, were perhaps more in the past and not so much in the recent few years, and were certainly not related to any specific operation such as 9/11. Unfortunately the link between Iraq and terrorism was both the focus of a turf war and a political football, so we may never get a nuanced picture of just how weak or strong they were. These and other disagreements led us to take actions in Iraq that, according to Jessica Stern in How America Created a Terrorist Haven, made our situation worse instead of better.

More generally, it seems to me that the U.S. needs to swallow its pride a bit. We need to recognize that our way isn't always necessarily the best way or the only way. It's both highly arrogant and doesn't work to help others by encouraging them to develop like us, for example building California-style Lanai open-plan houses in unpredictable violence-prone Afghanistan (then wondering why the locals continue to prefer their existing walled compounds). And filtering the desires of others through a prism of our values —rather than working to understand their own values— sucks us in to crazy-quilt decisions and actions.

Here's Garrison Keillor's We're Not in Lake Wobegon Anymore which expresses my opinions well.

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