By Barry Rubin
Something very bad is happening with the U.S. foreign policy debate. Aside from all of the specific problems and bad appointments, the whole discussion is being conducted on the wrong assumptions and context.
There is nothing easier than to argue about obsolete issues simply because we’ve become so used to the reality of those that have been around for decades. The first step is comprehending that we are dealing with entirely new categories.
In the old days, at least supposedly, the battle was between those who wanted a high level of U.S. intervention and activism–including a relative willingness to use military force–and those who wanted to do less and were horrified either by the use of force or by recent experiences where that strategy had failed. For the last decade, this argument is most symbolized by President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. In theory, conservatives were and are gung-ho for American unilateralism and intervention; liberals were and are more circumspect.
Who would you vote for if the elections were held today?
First, that wasn’t entirely true. It was John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who took the United States into Vietnam. Kennedy also ordered the covert invasion of Cuba. Moreover, liberals often favored a different kind of intervention into the affairs of foreign states, pressing for more democracy (Jimmy Carter in the shah’s Iran) and opposing coups (notably in Latin America), for instance.
On the other side, it was the Nixon Doctrine which first made official policy the idea that the United States should not try to be the world’s policeman but instead back friendly regional powers so war-fighting and intervention by America could be reduced.
Second, most of these kinds of debates were in the context of the Cold War. Liberals and conservatives both wanted to counter Soviet expansionism or influence but proposed different ways of doing so at times. To show how varied were these tactics, to more effectively fight that Cold War, Richard Nixon normalized relations with the Peoples’ Republic of China.
Liberals often supported a “third way” approach. They’d say: We don’t want Communist regimes and we don’t want right-wing dictatorships either. The best thing is to have moderates, liberals, pragmatic reformers in power. But if that option didn’t exist, liberals generally opted for a realpolitik status quo that combatted the Communists and pro-Soviet regimes even at the price of supporting old-fashioned dictatorships. Those liberals, however, would not have regarded revolutionary Islamists as being in the desirable category.
In effect, the Obama argument is this: In the past, the United States has been a bully. It has supported bad governments for the people living in those countries. Now, however everything is going to be different. We are going to support bad governments that not only hurt the people in those countries but also hurt U.S. interests! And we are going to give such radical, dictatorial-oriented forces preference over helping moderates, liberals, and pragmatic reformers!
Today, in a post-Cold War world, the ill-conceived “neo-conservative” strategy has now become a left-wing doctrine of spreading democracy ironically, more often than not, by backing anti-democratic forces. The process has become more important than the result.
Nor is intervention as such avoided. Bush’s basic concept has been adopted by the Obama Administration and its supporters. Obama’s intervention in Libya was more popular than Bush’s in Iraq simply because American soldiers weren’t killed, far less money was spent, and forces were not tied down in fighting for years. Yet in substance the two interventions were based on the same concept.
The debate now is not whether the United States should go around the world spending billions of dollars and fighting wars, at least outside of a debate over whether the United States should attack Iran if that country gets nuclear weapons. The fact that there is no chance of this happening (it’s true, there isn’t) underlines my point. Everybody serious recognizes the limits on American resources, the priority on domestic issues, and past failures with such over-extension.
Nor is the debate between isolationism and international engagement.
Nor is the issue to pretend that America has little influence in the world. Obviously, there is a limit. But the United States could ‘definitely had a major effect, for example, on the direction of Egypt’s political change in January-February 2011 and the same holds for the post-Assad regime in Syria today.
And it isn’t even about whether to increase or diminish American power or to act unilaterally or multilaterally.
The issue is what the United States does with the influence and leverage that it does possess.
For example, the United States gives billions to Pakistan. This is a bad big-spending idea. The United States doesn’t even need to keep troops in Europe any more. (Now there’s a good money-saving idea!)
To critique Obama foreign policy is not to say that more intervention or starting wars is good. It is to raise the question: Who do you help and support when you intervene on any level, even in the words of a speech?
Helping allies indirectly–even verbally–is a way of avoiding direct intervention. There isn’t a single case I can think of that calls for sending U.S. troops or spending massive amounts of money. On the contrary, it is when American leaders ignore current threats will the country end up fighting more wars and spending more money later.
The real questions revolve around things like these:
- If you have some money appropriated in Egypt to spend on training people politically who do you give it to, Muslim Brotherhood or moderates?
- If you are going to put together a Syrian opposition leadership and direct weapons–paid for and sent by others–to Syria who do you favor being the leaders and getting the guns?
- Do you call for the overthrow of the Bahraini government knowing that even though the Shia majority has genuine grievances this might result in an Iranian satellite regime?
- When Americans are attacked by terrorists in Benghazi do you rush to their defense or find ways to blame America for the assault?
- Do you send armored personnel carriers to a Lebanese army under Hizballah-Syrian control?
- Do you make a speech saying that Iranian dissidents are heroes or do you rush to send a congratulatory letter to Ahmadinejad after a stolen election?
- Is it smart to dispatch billions of dollars to a Pakistani government that gives safe haven to al-Qaida terrorists, supports the Taliban against American forces in Afghanistan, and sponsors terrorism to murder Indian civilians?
- Do you see Colombia or Venezuela as the good guy? In other words, do you hold up Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez as a role model or denounce him as a corrupt dictator?
- Is it better to make a Turkish Islamist prime minister your hero or hope that the opposition gets it together to stop their country’s fundamental transformation?
- Do you keep your promise to the Czechs and Poles to put defensive missiles in their countries—after they agree to do so at considerable risk–or try (and fail) to make Russian dictator Vladimir Putin happy?
- Do you cheer on the brave people of Georgia (country) defend themselves when they are attacked by Russia or do you blame them as being allegedly provocative because they shot back when they are fired on?
- Are you rooting for Israel or apologizing and saving Hamas?
- Even if you try to maintain normal relations with an Egyptian government dominated by the Brotherhood are you saying among yourselves: This is bad. We cannot trust these people at all and we must limit the damage. Or do you say: We must be nice to them and make them like us and they will be more moderate.
- Do you accurately inform the American people or do you feed them misleading ideas about what’s going on in the world?
Obama could reduce the level of U.S. spending abroad, cut back on intervention (he intervened in Libya and is intervening in Syria, for example, and sent troops to sub-Saharan Africa for reasons no one can explain), and bring home American troops. That is not the problem. We are no longer engaged in the debates of a half-century ago in this regard.
Similarly, no one is calling for America to be the world’s policeman. Not only are the resources and will lacking but there is no need to play such a role. And, besides, who wants a policeman who says the Mafia isn’t a threat?
We are not talking about isolationism versus engagement, multilateralism versus unilateralism, or military responses versus diplomatic efforts.
The issue is simply this one: When you say something or do something or spend something whose side are you on?
No matter how active or inactive you are and no matter how much or how little money you spend, the key question is who you want to win, who do you see as your friends and who do you see as threats.
This Obama team is on the wrong side.
Let me put it in (American) football terms: We’re not arguing about whether you should pass or run the ball but which end zone you are heading for. If you are going the wrong way, you are only helping the other side and will end up in (soccer) football terms with an “own goal.” And there is no safety in that!
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest book, Israel: An Introduction, has just been published by Yale University Press. Other recent books include The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). The website of the GLORIA Center and of his blog, Rubin Reports. His original articles are published at PJMedia.