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The Holiday From History Is Over

Why it is not only smart, but mandatory for mature powers to stop being overly ambitious in the field of foreign policy.

October 11, 2016

Credit: Harvepino -

The “holiday from history” of the 1990s was christened by George Will in a column on September 12, 2001, the day after the 9/11 attacks.

In retrospect, those attacks should have represented less of a transition than appeared at the time. True, the U.S. mainland had been subjected to several Islamist terrorist attacks in the 1990s.

As early as 1993, it was clear that Islamism was the major remaining U.S. challenge now that the Soviet system had fallen.

However, the number and intensity of attacks did not increase significantly after 2001. It is only recently, in the last year or so, that there appears to have been a stepping up of them.

Al Qaeda got very lucky

The 9/11 attacks thus simply represented Al Qaeda getting very lucky indeed (and, of course, New York and Washington getting very unlucky).

With the benefit of hindsight, there were a number of points at which U.S. authorities should have been able to stop the attacks, or at least to have limited them.

Needless to say, the massive superstructure of bureaucracy and invasions of civil liberty built up by President George W. Bush is on the whole less likely to stop such attacks in the future.

That certainly is what we have seen in the last year. (The much better solution would have been to remove political correctness and incompetence from the bureaucracy and controls we already had).

Moreover, instead of recognizing that the attacks were a very unlucky freak occurrence, Bush abandoned his carefully thought through “modest” foreign policy of limiting U.S. intervention.

Throwing any caution and circumspection to the wind, he began an activist approach to disturbances in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Lesson from Bush: Machoism doesn’t work

Bush Jr. also referred to North Korea, Iran and Saddam Hussain’s Iraq as an “Axis of Evil” in the 2002 State of the Union address.

That speech was a piece of childish, ill-conceived rhetoric with little basis in reality. Worse, it left no incentive for better behavior from Iran in particular, a country which at that point in time was run partly by moderates.

Bush’s invasion of Iraq was in retrospect a disaster, not so much because of its conception but because of the way it was implemented.

Removing Ahmed Chalabi, the Iraqi whom the U.S. government had identified as a potential future leader, and instead imposing a clumsy direct rule followed by suspect elections was in retrospect a huge mistake.

The U.S. government should have been out of there within a year of imposing a new leader on the country, however dubiously democratic and corrupt, to take the place of the despot it had overthrown.

Obama: Still in Bush’s tracks

President Barack Obama has not improved matters. The “Arab spring” welcome to the Egyptian uprisings was obviously naïve and foolish at best. Meanwhile, the intervention to remove Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was criminally incompetent, both in conception and execution.

In Syria, not only did the United States intervene ineffectively, but it intervened on the wrong side, supplying arms to rebels against an established government.

Experience in Iraq (not to speak of the Troppau Protocol principles that should guide all foreign policy) should have taught us that in the Middle East, the devil you know (in the form of Bashar al-Assad) was very much better than the devil you don’t.

In case anyone still needs real-life evidence, the chaos caused by a civil war between the two devils was very much worse than either.

At a minimum, the U.S. government should recognize that any attempt to do the Saudis’ nefarious bidding in the region is bound to backfire.

From a position of strength, in which its word was undoubted in Syria, the United States has now descended to a level in which it cannot usefully intervene on either side in the Syrian civil war.

Moreover, the U.S. government is now despised by the Russians who have craftily taken its place.

U.S. paying the price for past failures

The United States is now paying the price for Bush’s interventionism and Obama’s ineptitude. It has gotten itself into a very difficult situation indeed.

Not all the difficulties stem from U.S. incompetence, some of them stem from EU feebleness and incompetence.

The refugee crisis, in particular, was kicked off by the displacement of Syrians by the U.S.-caused civil war in that country. However, it has been made much worse by Angela Merkel’s moral preening.

Europe has its own troubles

The euro would have worked fine if it had been applied to a modest group of fiscally disciplined countries in Northern Europe (which, given the need for fiscal discipline, would not have extended to France).

But it turned into an unmitigated disaster when the new currency was applied by overly ambitious as well as financially illiterate politicians to the profligate countries of the Mediterranean (and to the only partially restructured economies of the former Eastern Europe).

Similarly, the Schengen Agreement would have caused only moderate angst if the EU had first ensured that the union was fully in control of its external borders.

In view of these clear-cut policy failures, the chances of a break-up of the EU (beyond Brexit) are significantly more than zero.

To European leaders’ chagrin, the chances of a break-up of the EU may also be significantly larger than of the EU playing the important role in world affairs which its size and economic strength would warrant.

Toward a peaceful multi-polar world?

Despite all this, there is a future waiting for us of a peaceful multi-polar world, if we can only get there. In such a world, as in the system set up by the Quadruple/Holy Alliance in 1815-22, the major powers would be fundamentally cooperative even though their interests diverged and they competed economically.

When in doubt, opt for the status quo

These powers would intervene, under the Troppau Protocol principles, when unrest in an area such as the Middle East threatened global peace.

In such cases, as status quo powers, they would generally intervene to prop up the existing regime rather than overthrow it. (There might be the occasional exception to this principle, perhaps North Korea, but they would be very rare indeed.)

Such a world would not only be generally peaceful, it would also be generally stable, since the downside risks of nuclear war to any of the major participants would be utterly unacceptable.

This is the important way in which such a situation today would differ from that before 1914, when the participants did not know what lay ahead.

Lest we forget, the 1914-18 war destroyed the governments of four of the six major European participants and wrecked the economies and morale of the other two – only the United States, not part of the European balance in 1914, came out ahead.

Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the True Blue Will Never Stain blog


The 9/11 attacks simply represented Al Qaeda getting very lucky (and, of course, the US getting very unlucky).

Bush’s Iraq invasion was a disaster not because of its conception but because of the way of implementation.

The United States is now paying the price for Bush’s interventionism and Obama’s ineptitude.

The chances of an EU break-up are significantly larger than of it playing an important role in world affairs.

We could still have a peaceful multi-polar world, if major powers were cooperative despite divergent interests.