12 March, 2012

Thoughts on America's Foreign Failures


We live in a turbulent and effervescent time. This turbulence and effervescence is not limited to the borders of the United States, however; as recent events such as the Arab Spring and the South Sudanese secession have shown, it is a worldwide phenomenon that has, if anything, become more relevant over the past two decades. The United States operates in an increasingly globalized and increasingly interconnected web of international affairs, so it follows logically that we ignore these changes to our peril.
Equally perilous to any nation exercising statecraft in today's sociologically and economically influenced world of global politics is an ignorance of history, especially recent history. A nation which acts in a manner that is historically ill-informed will necessarily be unable to understand the cause-and-effect of its own actions. It will blunder about in the manner of a man trying to kill a butterfly with a hatchet, and will soon come to heel when the international community begins to recoil from such heavy-handed buffoonery.
It is my contention that The United States is just such a hatchet-man. Our foreign and diplomatic policies are bringing us closer and closer to international humiliation, and when combined with our military polices, are making us less secure and less free. Further, if our over-arching diplomatic goal is to serve as a model and example for the rest of the world- small developing nations in particular- and to spread democracy, then those goals are ill-served by our present stature and system of policy.

Concept: Blowback

Perhaps the chief lesson that our policy-makers must learn, vis-a-vis correcting the above noted ignorance, is the lesson we are taught by the (surprisingly intuitive) phenomenon which the CIA was the first to label. The name that 'The Agency' gave this phenomenon is both crudely descriptive and memorable, so it is the name that I shall use for the purview of this post: 'blowback.'
Indulge me, if you will, in a thought experiment. The United States, lets say, has just elected a new president in an open and fair election, and that president has broad support from a clear majority of American citizens.
This president is not, however, to the liking of the Canadian government. This new president-elect has promised to engage in policies which the Canadians find to be against their own principles. So the Canadians, acting unilaterally, send covert operatives to Washington to assassinate this potential threat.
Once they have done so, the Canadian government seizes upon the turmoil that follows in the wake of the assassination to install a puppet president of their choosing. They then begin to fund this puppet regime to support a vast military presence (perhaps even supplemented with Canadian troops) which would be used to police the nation, to the detriment of freedoms and rights of citizens all across the United States.
Imagine how you, as an American citizen, would feel. Imagine the resentment toward Canada that would well up inside you. Think of how such an intrusion would tend to foster rebellious and insurgent tendencies. Even if the puppet regime operated in such a manner that it benefited you; providing education, jobs, et cetera; imagine how you would naturally feel affronted and frustrated with the interference in your sovereign affairs by an alien, foreign power.
One could easily understand the motivations of, and perhaps even sympathize with the methods of, an American underground resistance movement in such a circumstance. A resistance which targeted Canadian presence and Canadian influence by actively disrupting military and government operations would be a logical consequent of the above described Canadian interference. The group may even go so far as to strike at the Canadian homeland in order to make a political statement about the solidarity of the American people.
Have you imagined this scenario thoroughly? If you haven't please do so before reading on. It is imperative that you understand that sensation of being occupied; the realization that your nation is no longer sovereign, but is instead a de-facto subject.
What does this have to do with blowback? Well, put simply, blowback means this: people the world over resent having their internal affairs muddled with, and when a powerful nation interferes with a weaker nation, that weaker nation's population will almost inevitably think of that interference as a belligerent and unwelcome presence, and will react accordingly. When a powerful nation attempts to manipulate smaller or weaker states, those states will tend to see those attempts as hostile, and will often react with hostility in kind.
It follows that any nation engaged in such activity must expect some sort of deleterious reaction from the indigenous peoples involved. Speaking in terms of concrete example, America cannot engage in the activity of managing foreign nations, especially by using force or coercion, without stirring up anti-American sentiment and, on occasion, anti-American actions.
There is an important counterpoint to be made here: the concept of blowback and the idea espoused above (that nations should be aware of the consequences of their actions in this regard) is most emphatically not to say that smaller nations (or groups therein) are justified in using whatever tactics they choose to cast off the imperialistic influence of or interference from larger nations. Again, to cite a specific example, regardless of the actions of the United States in the Middle-East throughout the latter half of the 20th century, the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center were not justified or vindicated in doing so.
That having been said, it should have been immediately clear to all Americans why they did what they did; and no, it wasn't because they hated our decadence and freedom or for any religious ideals (though I'll not deny that those were contributing factors). Primarily, and foremost, it was because of their political motivations in response to the perceived arrogance and belligerence of the United States in particular; the Western world in general. And we, in the United States, should be wary of undertaking the same sorts of actions which provoked (though, I repeat, do not not excuse) those attacks.

The Rise of Terrorism,  Through The Lens of Blowback

The last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st has become, to any but the most disinterested of observers, the age of the terrorist in the same way that the gilded age was the era of the tycoon and the 1950s post-war period belonged to the Communists. Terrorism has become the great evil that defines our time; the scourge against which what seems like our entire national effort is directed. International terrorism has become the bogeyman hiding in our collective closet- and closet is an apt metaphor here, for we as a nation insist on looking away from the problem as if shutting it out of our minds or responding to it with crude force is enough to make it go away.
Yet perhaps Frankenstein's monster is a better metaphor to use when talking about terrorists. And the metaphor holds further, for just as when young Victor tried to create a beautiful new life he instead breathed existence into a hideous monster hell-bent on tormenting its naive and misguided creator, today's terrorists are the perverted and misshapen result of our best efforts at breathing new life into nation-states around the world. Just as Victor was insufficient as a man to play the role of God, so are we as a nation insufficient for playing the role of arbiter of the world's geopolitical landscape.
If we look at what are today the hotspots of terrorism around the world, we inevitably find that in the recent past, those were areas of intense Western (in particular, American) intervention.
In the 1950s, when Iranian revolutionaries overthrew the oppressive (and pro-Western) Shah and installed their own popularly elected leader, we went in and covertly removed him and re-installed a repressive regime, only to have that regime once again overthrown in 1979. This was, of course, followed by the now infamous capture of the US Embassy's staff who were then subsequently held hostage. While we feigned surprise at this action, the Iranian students who carried it out knew precisely why they did it, and they were happy to tell anyone who asked: they did it because of our constant interference in their affairs, and the very real grievance that we had propped up a murderously repressive government in their land.
Subsequently, we funded the war effort of a bellicose young dictator named Saddam Hussein in his bloody war against Iran all throughout the 1980s, providing both money and materiel to keep his sustained offensive going. This war cost many Iranian lives, a fact that certainly no Iranian is going to forget. Yet we seem to be genuinely nonplussed when confronted today with an Iran who is vehemently and avowedly anti-American.
Since the 1940s, we have supported a government in Israel which has been nothing if not antagonistic toward the entire Middle-Eastern region, Iran being a part thereof. We seemed to waver between outright support of at best, and mere indifference to at worst, the acquisition of nuclear weapons by a nation (Israel) who has subsequently threatened to use them against Iran (among other nations) should the need arise, while at the same time our opposition to Iran's own nuclear program is unreserved and unyielding, even going so far as to consider strikes against Iran to prevent them from furthering it. Yet we wonder why it is Iran is so willing to harbor and fund known terrorists with such a violent anti-Western and anti-American streak.
Now, I'll not go so far as to say that Iran is justified in doing anything that it has done (or that it will be justified in doing whatever it plans to do). I'll not say that Iran's actions (and the actions of those harbored by Iran) against the West and America are morally correct. In fact, if anything, Iran displays a moral culpability by housing murderous terrorists, etc. However, for us to view Iran's actions as unprovoked is quite simply wrong.
Whether what Iran does is moral or not, though, is neither important to the point that I am making nor to the application of realpolitik in today's international climate. What is important, however, is that we understand that our actions today influence the reactions of tomorrow; that our belligerence and heavy-handedness today inspire the revolutionaries and reactionaries of tomorrow. We cannot continue to cross our fingers and hope for the best- not all revolutionaries are liberal and not all reactionaries are benign.
As if this were not evidence enough, I now quote the infamous Osama bin Laden in his 1998 fatwa entitled Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders (Crusaders being a radical-Islamist term for Westerners) on his reasons for wishing to attack the United States:
"First, for over seven years the United States has been occupying the lands of Islam in the holiest of places, the Arabian Peninsula, plundering its riches, dictating to its rulers, humiliating its people, terrorizing its neighbors, and turning its bases in the Peninsula into a spearhead through which to fight the neighboring Muslim peoples.
If some people have in the past argued about the fact of the occupation, all the people of the Peninsula have now acknowledged it. The best proof of this is the Americans' continuing aggression against the Iraqi people using the Peninsula as a staging post, even though all its rulers are against their territories being used to that end, but they are helpless."
No more needs to be said. In his own words, the man who masterminded the World Trade Center attacks clearly states his primary reason for doing so: American intervention in his homeland, the Arabian Peninsula. We have been hoist upon our own petard. We have empowered those who already wished to destroy us with the reasons they could then give others to inspire those people to help them do so.

Nation Parenting, National Security, and Failure

Clearly there seems to be an incentive for the West to engage in the manipulation of the internal affairs of other states. Interestingly enough, America in particular has been rather lucid in detailing its motivations.
First, according to America, they seek to spread liberal democracy 'round the world, providing all peoples with the liberties of self-determination and 'human rights.' When asked to justify America's global interventionism, those who defend her policies often cite this goal as chief among many. In this view, America is a generous entity, taking on the role almost that of a parent, chastising the adolescent spasms of nations around the world and correcting their behavior with the end-state of betterment as the desired outcome. 
Second, and today almost as commonly cited as the first, is the maxim that America must retain an overseas influence in order to remain secure against threat in her homeland. America must, so the story goes, actively counter and thwart any (potential) threat against her before it materializes into an actual strike. To advocates of this strategy (if it can be called that), the best defense is a good offense.
Though there are many other rationales, I will focus on these two alone because, together with being the ones most commonly referred to, they are the two with the most important rebuttal in terms of adjusting our current national policy, since they are the two which inform it the most. Both of these claims would be valid justifications for America's present national foreign policy where they true, yet unfortunately for the supporters of global interventionism, they are palpably false.
The first is an example of a logical conundrum. When America interferes with a foreign state to influence it's government, it is always to the end of fashioning that foreign government into a facsimile of our own. The local people are only give a modicum of real choice and latitude in determining their own fate; one need look no further than the regimes propped up in Iraq and Afghanistan to see that. Just as Henry Ford once (supposedly) said, "you can have the Model T in any color so long as it's black," American intervention seems to tell struggling states around the world, "you can have any form of self-determination you want, so long as that self-determination looks just like ours." Further, the newly forged micro-Americas are expected to be not only reliant upon America's foreign aid (the better to retain control over them!), but also to genuflect before American national goals and policies. They are not, then, truly sovereign, but closer to puppet-states or colonies, in all but name. If that sounds like self-determination and the spread of true democracy to you, then you are profoundly deluded.
The second is morally abhorrent. It implicitly seeks to sustain a policy of perpetual prophylactic war. Let us not delude ourselves; war is death. War is misery. War is always a terrible, impoverishing, wasting, destructive, and murderous affair. Sometimes, there are worse things than war; it is then, and only then, that war is justified. We do not execute citizens who might become murderers; we ought not wage war against those who might one day attack us. We certainly should not use war as a tool for forwarding our national agenda in the way that we currently do - it is morally reprehensible that we send our troops around the globe and engage in preemptive strikes. But all of this begs the question. If we've engaged in a policy of prophylactic war aimed at keeping us safer here at home, and we have, then has is been successful?

Are We Safer Now?

With troops stationed in nations around the globe, with the Pentagon's yearly outlays increasing with no end in sight, with new and more terrible weapons constantly under development, and with the wars of the past two decades, each billed at least in part as a step toward a more secure world for America, are we safer now having done all of it?
The short answer is, to little surprise, no.
Look at what has happened where we have exerted the greatest national effort, in money and in lives, over the last 10 years and you'll see my point:
In the time that we have been in Iraq, we have caused the deaths of thousands of Iraqis, combatants, non-combatants, and 'other' alike. The government cobbled together is corrupt and ineffective, broken by sectarian strife and civil grievances alike. For the duration of our combat presence there, what would otherwise have been marginal groups have found the popular support they needed to carry out civil terrorism all throughout Iraq.
In the decade (and more) that we have been in Afghanistan, we have done far more damage. Al Qaeda continues to draw popular support in Afghanistan and in neighboring nations (such as Pakistan) because of our military presence there. As is the case with Iraq, the government we inflicted on the Afghan people is totally incompetent at providing basic services (which still must be provided by the "coalition" military forces), and reeks with corruption from the provincial level on down.
Because of these blunders and missteps, those who seek to portray America as an evil power bent on taking over the world have had to do little work in convincing their neighbors. Anti-American sentiment has not decreased since our invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, they have increased. More Americans have died in the mountains of Afghanistan and the sands in Iraq than have ever died from terrorist attacks on American soil, and a great many more have had their lives forever altered by misshaping, mutilating injuries and the terrible demons of PTSD. Point blank: the cost in lives, money, and materiel that we have given ourselves far outstrip anything that terrorists have ever done to us. 
Further, our continued presence in the Middle East is assuredly empowering the leaders of groups like Al Qaeda and others who can now point at current events as an 'I-Told-You-So' in their polemic anti-American rants. Even as you read this article, the next generation of terrorists are training to attack America, and plans are most certainly in the works to carry those attacks out. Our blowback is coming.
Just as our ham-handedness in Iran led inextricably to the situation we now face with them, our crude and blunt military occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq are informing and arming the terrorists and rogue-states of the 2020s. We are today laying the foundations that the demons of tomorrow will use to prop up their scaffolding of backwards ideologies, radical Islam, jihad, and hate.
We are more vulnerable, more at risk, today than we ever have been because we insist on prodding the hornet's nest again and again. The terrorists thwarted our best efforts to curtail them in 2001; they will do so again whenever they have been provoked enough.

Changes In America's Global Position

All of the mistakes I have detailed above, combined with our explicitly stated national intention not to change radically the foreign policies that induced them, have led to a standing in the world that has diminished greatly from just a century ago. In some ways America retains a hegemony; our economy is still (for the time being) the world's strongest and our military still ostensibly the world's most effective. Yet in the 'hearts and minds' (to shamelessly borrow the phrase with tongue planted firmly in cheek) of leaders and citizens around the world, we are a tarnished nation on the descent.
In the past century, our nation has gone from being a creditor to being a debtor, in hock to China, among others, to an degree that would embarrass any other sensible nation. It has gone from a position of moral eminence and from an ethical high-ground to being a perpetrator of nearly endless war and death, raining our bombs on brown people the world over for the slightest offense. It has gone from being a place of refuge for the disaffected and oppressed masses the world over to being an imperialistic world-cop supporting brutal regimes whenever it serves convenience or expediency.
We have castigated ourselves on the global stage and our conduct in the past 50 years ought to be a cheek-reddening humiliation to anyone who loves this nation, as I most certainly do.
As a nation, what is imperative now is that we begin to curb our offenses as immediately as we possibly can, that we might work toward regaining some of our once immense credibility. Our list of allies and supporters is growing thinner by the year, and that is naught but our own fault. We must cease our morally terrible and strategically damning policy of global interventionism now, lest we stand alone as a hated and reviled has-been shell of a nation, an outcome most certainly not too far over the present horizon.


As we have seen, our current policies are neither strategically desirable nor ethical. They do not serve our national interests and, in fact, by turning away our allies and creating resentful new enemies, they precisely counter what is good for us as a nation both in the short term and in the long run.
Our fling with interventionist world policing has failed utterly and terribly. We are now beginning to reap the harvest we have sown: our total national debt is now greater than our yearly Gross Domestic Product, thousands of Americans have been put into body-bags and as many family have been destroyed as a direct result of our actions, money and resources that could have been used to fix our ailing Midwestern region, hit so hard by the recession, have instead been invested in the failed attempt to fix the Middle East. We cannot sustain our present course for much longer.
I leave you, dear reader, with this thought:
"[In war,] the best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed...
...The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school building in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. 
This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road we have been taking.  
This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron."
The man who spoke those words was no peace-loving leftist liberal campaigning against the invasion of Iraq, nor was it a counterculture hippie from a protest against the Vietnam War, though it serves the purposes of both. It was Dwight D. Eisenhower. 
We must change. Now.


  1. While I will not argue that change is needed or that our polices have been largely in error I feel that I must play a bit of devil's advocate if only to illustrate that things may not be so simple. Also I'm afraid that I must leave many points untouched in the interest of brevity.

    While certainly blowback is a legitimate concern and is in no small part to blame for the current standing of the US. in the international arena, it can not in every case be mitigated so easily. Permit me to illustrate my point with a hypothetical as you have illustrated yours. Let us say that an international corporation that was founded in the US and is primarily run from here is setting up new locations in a developing country. While the cooperation may feel that it is an excellent location as they will have a large advantage over any local competitors and may even feel that the arrangement will be mutually beneficial as it actually beings operations it starts putting that local competition out of business. Now the locals see this as a bunch of Americans that have come and taken their jobs and are calling for the US to reign in the company. Now the US will certainly see blowback from this. Should we tell that company that it's practices in the other country need to be halted. Does the government even have the right to tell a company what it can do in a different country? The point being that no matter what we do, either through action or inaction we it will have consequences in other countries. Lets look at a real example now. There is a recent video calling for US. intervention in suppressing a rebel leader in Uganda. We have even sent troops to help advice the Ugandan government on how to deal with him. However we must not forget that the government of Uganda has a dictator who has been pretty ruthless to his people. If we do nothing many will see us as not helping people like we didn't help in Rowanda. If we help the government the abuses by the dictator may become worse and we are culpable for some of those damages. If we would help the rebel leader overthrow the government we would be supporting a man that is using children as weapons. Blowback no matter what we do.

    Now, I may disagree with your stance on never committing to a preemptive strike that is not the next objection I would wish to put forth. Instead I wish to question your suggestion that the invasion and war in Afghanistan was in fact a preemptive strike. We were able to positively identify where the organization that had attacked us on September 11 were hiding and the government of Afghanistan clearly were offering them needed support. I would put forth that this was in fact not preemptive but very much so a retaliatory action. The wisdom of the action may be questioned along different lines but it seems patently false to say it was preemptive. Also more distinction between the two wars would be nice as treating them as the same tends to lead to this kind of mistake.

    The final point I would like to make is that it was not only US action that emboldened and furthered extremist in the Middle-East though it very much has. Al Qaeda was very much encouraged by our lack of response to earlier actions like the attack on the USS Cole and the Embassy bombings of the 90's. It gave them the idea that we were as was said in their own communications that we were a paper tiger unable to defend itself and chose to attack to cover this weakness. Again this goes back to the idea that ever decision has consequences even when that decision is to not act.

    Like I said at the beginning I agree in general and I agree with many specific points that you have raised. We are less safe now and it is a result of our actions. However, the case on what to do in the future or what we should have done in the past is not so clear cut.

    1. Perhaps I was unclear with regard to the Afghanistan war; you're right, it is a poor example of a pre-emptive conflict. The war in Iraq, however, IS a clear example of a pre-emptive strike, and it is that war to which I was referring.
      You're likewise correct that the motives behind the attacks on the World Trade Center (as with everything that everyone does ever) are more complex than a single dimension. Clearly, Al Qaeda had, and has, more reasons for doing what they did/do than just a retaliation against foreign (American) intrusion. However, it is my contention that blowback constitutes the most prominent reason for their actions, though not the only reason.
      The reason I chose to focus on it for this post, in addition to it being the most prominent among their motives, is that it is the one which has allowed them to recruit new terrorists into their organization. The ringleaders of Al Qaeda and organizations like it tried for years to organize their groups on purely theological grounds, and were met with little success. Once they shifted their rhetoric toward a more 'defense of our homeland' tack with some religion thrown in, however, young men came in droves.
      Thank you for your thoughts!