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 used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.