For at least the last sixty years, the United States has tried to put out the grease-fire that is Middle East governance by splashing it with water. With each splash, the fire spreads; and yet we keep going back to the sink. However, the American voter, sparked by the failures of the Bush administration, is realizing that this is the wrong strategy. America’s entanglements, particularly those in Iraq, paint a stark picture of our failings when it comes to our role in the world. It is time to rethink our foreign involvement.
The Marshall plan was America’s last success in statecraft. The Second World War left Europe in tatters; America remade nations, and those we remade are now firmly committed to liberal democracy.
Our subsequent attempts at nation building have mostly failed. In 1948 the U.S. and other powers promised the same strip of land to both Palestinians and European Jews. There has been no trace of peace in Palestine since. The Wars in Korea and Vietnam were predicated on the “containment” of the Soviet threat. Korea was a back and forth battle that technically continues to this day, and Vietnam is rightly considered one of America’s greatest foreign policy failings. Reagan carried out regional military forays in Latin America that overthrew democratically elected leaders and caused mass destabilization. Iraq’s history since 1957 has been one largely of U.S. intervention, and it is currently facing the threat of minority genocide and the formation of the caliphate.
Liberal interventionist philosophy is the rotted root behind these failures. Leaders in the strand of Wilson, Kennedy, and Hillary Clinton believe that it is our job to promote democracy and liberal values around the world. This policy may be noble sounding, but it has a poor record.
Iraq is the most alarming example of interventionism gone wrong. The infamous bad-guy Saddam Hussein began receiving support from the C.I.A. as early as 1957; he gained power in Iraq in 1963. In 1980 the Iran-Iraq war began and the U.S. publically funded Hussein and the Iraqis, arming them with chemical weapons. Secretly, however, the U.S. sold arms to Iraq’s enemy Iran (and used the proceeds to fund right-wing rebels in Nicaragua in order to overthrow a government that we also funded).
The problem with instituting governments abroad like we did in Iraq, of course, is that sometimes we won’t like what those governments become. In the early nineties, Saddam Hussein annexed U.N.-member Kuwait; we had to carry out a massive siege to end the annexation (meanwhile we had effectively annexed Panama). Eight years later Bill Clinton spoke about the imminent need to overthrow Hussein because he was slaughtering Kurds in northern Iraq. Four years after that, Bush invaded Iraq and ousted him; there was a subsequent election which Nouri al-Maliki won. Maliki engaged in policies of Shia partisanship that in part sparked a Sunni uprising; enter ISIS, genocide, and chaos.
The current situation in Iraq certainly demands action: ISIS poses a real threat and is attempting to carry out genocide. Barack Obama is correct in carrying out limited operations and in arming the Kurds (although, as an illustration of our preposterous stopgap dealings in Iraq, we are arming the group who is fighting the group who took arms away from the other group that we armed) but in order to avoid the mistakes of his predecessors he must clearly define his strategic goal. Discerning judgment must be exercised in every specific case, but a new ideological framework – one decidedly different from liberal interventionism – is necessary as America moves forward. Daniel McCarthy of the American Conservative in his article “Why Liberalism Means Empire” defines conservative realism:
“The conservative realist is a realist… in recognizing the bitter truth about liberalism and its imperial character. The conservative realist knows that… liberal democracy requires a delicately balanced system of international security upheld by an empire or hegemony… Judgment must be exercised to discern essential conflicts (like the Cold War and World War 2) from absolutely inessential ones (like Iraq)… Liberal democracy grows by evolution and osmosis; active attempts on the part of great empires to transform other regimes are usually counterproductive.”
“Conservative realism” strikes an excellent balance. For America to continue to be the world’s leading power we must continue to encourage liberal and protected trade the world ‘round; we must also refrain from putting fruitless wars on the national credit card.
A contemporary example of intervention that is well within the bounds of conservative realism is the Clinton administration’s measures that led to the end of ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia. Stopping genocide is a perfectly legitimate reason to exercise our national power abroad, and both Eastern Europe and America are better for this particular case. The United States’ role was limited enough to promote liberal democracy without attempting statecraft.
To many, it is clear that America should begin to adopt a more self-conscious view of its role in the world. Our recent attempts at intervening in the Middle-East (especially Iraq) have been ham-fisted and unsuccessful; often we exacerbate the problems that we set out to solve. It is time to let liberal interventionism slowly and quietly die as we resolve our current forays responsibly and let our foreign policy ebb into conservative realism.
McCarthy, Daniel. “Why Liberalism Means Empire: Democracy Isn’t the End of History, It’s a Product of Power.” American Conservative 16 July 2014. Print.
Image Credit: US Air Force via Wikimedia Commons