The Toxic Pathologies of American Foreign Policy

On foreign policy, the distinction between Democrats and Republicans is a lot smaller than many people like to think. There is a lot of political science explaining why, but I tend to see it as coming from two broad areas: the action bias (whereby taking action is always better than not taking action regardless of context), and a determined, deliberate ignorance of recent history.

The problem with these two impulses is that they combine in an especially toxic way when the great mass of the commentariat feels strongly about some tragedy unfolding somewhere (say, Syria) but can’t think of anything specific to do about it. The result is an endless fusillade of demands to “do something,” since action is always preferable to inaction, without any specifics about how that something will actually accomplish something constructive. That these ideas, no matter over how many years they are repeated, always come down to a half-baked version of regime change.

Libya was a great example of this, and the first major military offensive that was purely the decision of the Obama administration to begin. As I’ve detailed previously, the intervention in Libya was founded on technically good intentions but quickly morphed into a big lie. After expressing concern that a massacre was imminent in the city of Misrata was about to be slaughtered on a massive scale — which required accepting what both a tyrant and rebels, equally bombastic in their florid displays of exaggeration, were both correctly predicting a massive war crime larger than Srebrenica — the U.S. finagled enough security council votes to authorize NATO intervening in the war.

The text of this resolution explicitly forbade things like massive arms transfers, an escalation of the war, and the decision to collapse Gaddafi’s government. NATO, led by the United States, chose almost immediately to discard those provisions of the UNSC Resolution and arm the rebels, expand the war on the rebels’ behalf, and (mealy-mouthed objections notwithstanding) explicitly worked toward regime change.

As a result of NATO lying about their intentions in the Security Council, Russia, which had abstained from voting on the resolution but did not block it, has since vetoed every single Security Council resolution meant to address the crisis in Syria (which is a Russian ally). The intervention in Libya was almost directly targeted at Russian interests there; it should be no surprise that Russia has since decided that even abstention from Security Council votes on future interventions is too risky (even if officials naïvely pretended that this was perfidy on Russia’s part, rather than a rational reaction to American perfidy).

The high-minded impulse to intervene in Libya has had other disastrous consequences. The Gaddafi regime voluntarily dismantled its nuclear weapons program in 2003 (something for which George W. Bush does not receive enough credit). Then, years later, the U.S. famously restored diplomatic ties with the Gaddafi regime. To then summarily dismantle the Libyan government in violation of International Law, especially once it had voluntarily relinquished one of the only trumps cards that prevent American intervention and normalized relations, set a horrible precedent for future nuclear disarmament negotiations (including with Iran).

Even human rights groups, which normally abhor war or only accept it in extremely limited scope, began publicly announcing their desire to use the cause of human rights as a way to achieve regime change. Few seemed to think of or really care that this would create a cloud of suspicion around future humanitarian crises.

So the NATO intervention into the war in Libya had the perverse effect of delegitimizing, in the eyes of many governments, two important pillars of the liberal international order: the Responsibility to Protect (or even, more broadly, the idea of humanitarian interventionism), and the cause of human rights. Both got subsumed to the western goal of regime change through force.

That would be bad enough but as we have seen in Syria the consequences of this drastic overstepping in Libya have been far reaching. Part of the promise of the Arab Spring was that the masses could peacefully assemble to demand the ouster of their governments; with the exception of Tunisia this simply has not happened. In Bahrain, Yemen, and Egypt, U.S.-allied and armed regimes brutally crushed democratic uprisings; other U.S. allies (namely Saudi Arabia) exacerbated those crises by brutalizing the civilians responsible for it. And Libya? Well. It’s not really a state anymore.

But the great commentariat, which demanded forceful action to depose a despot in Libya, has been almost entirely silent on these outrages. What they choose to focus on instead is Syria, another country where, for once, non-U.S. allies intervened on behalf of a brutal and despotic regime. When a U.S.-aligned government slaughters hundreds of people, or a U.S. ally deliberately bombs hospitals, this crowd of polemicists is silent about the need to intervene on behalf of innocent civilian victims. But if Iran gets involved, then it is a moral imperative so great that inaction by the White House is tantamount to President Obama personally dropping barrel bombs (I’m not kidding: one very respectable academic literally made that argument).

The reasons for White House inaction in Syria are numerous: the precedent set in Libya, exhaustion over both Iraq and Afghanistan, the absence of genuinely good choices, no good partners on the ground, a desire to avoid even an indirect war with Iran or Russia, and I’m sure many others. Crying that Obama is somehow responsible for the millions of dead and displaced Syrians now occupying our social media feeds is based on a lot of pathologies that currently cripple our discourse on national security, but it also gives the actual killers in Syria a pass on their behavior by assigning agency to the White House instead of the people ordering mass slaughter.

The neoconservative-levels of deception that accompanied the R2P mission in Libya remains something very few people want to talk about, in part because it happened in the past. But it is nevertheless clear that R2P, as a doctrine, is dead. That is why the U.S., France, and UK did not get materially involved in the war in Syria based on some body count, but rather because of the rise of ISIS (itself a direct consequence of American intervention 12 years ago in Iraq). It is why, when Hillary Clinton announces her plan to intervene in the Syrian conflict, she has dropped the appeals to humanitarianism that once animated her calls for military force and now just wants to raise proxy armies to go kill terrorists (I wrote about the extremely troubled history with American proxies here).

The problem with all of this circular advocacy for war is that it is a heads-I-win, tails-you-lose logic: if violence subsides, then we must get involved to sway the outcome toward our preferences (as many argued in 2012), but if violence spikes then we must get involved to go after the bad guys and save civilians. No matter what, the argument for the use of force is key, and you will find liberals and conservatives arguing it until they’re blue in the face.

And yet, at the end of the day, you will still not find policymakers or influencers who are willing to sit down and calmly grasp the chain of events that bring us to this point: The previous decades of American intervention seem to be immaterial to the slobbering war mongers currently competing for the White House, and that’s a real pity: I feel like we could learn a lot of lessons for what not to do next time if they would just take a few steps back and think for a bit.

joshua.foust
Joshua Foust is a writer and analyst who studies foreign policy.