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The Five Deadly Sins of U.S. Foreign Policy

Is the United States starting to resemble the Middle East?

August 25, 2014

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London on September 9, 2013. (Credit: U.S. State Department)

It is never a good thing if the leading world power acts like a sorcerer’s practice. That is all the more troubling if that power – the United States – is now almost three quarters of a century into the job of leading the world. And yet, here we are.

Sin #1: Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

The events in Iraq and the wider Middle East make it plain that the United States is not capable of handling all the elementary forces that it has awakened.

Worse, U.S. foreign policy in the region is breathless at best. It can only be understood as an endless series of obsessions over whatever the latest issue of the day is. Factors that were totally unheard of even a couple of weeks ago all of a sudden claim front-page, above the fold headline space. The Yazidis, tragic though their situation undoubtedly is, are only the latest example in a long chain of events.

While Americans fancy themselves, Hercules-like, as single-handedly holding up the entire world edifice, they really suffer from ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The deadly sin of U.S. foreign policy that this points to is that it is impulse-driven and event-driven. Under such circumstances, no nation can travel on a rational course or pursue a policy path that is credible even from the perspective of its own allies.

The U.S. media, especially television, act like a disastrous force multiplier in that regard. They monomaniacally seize whatever is the “next” topic or angle with which to titillate the fearsome American masses. From the media’s perspective, this effort is doubly legitimized: First, as part of the desperate ratings game. And second, as an effort to give the viewers “what they want.”

That such breathlessness does not lead to deeper insight into a more rational policy is self-evident. Regardless, it seriously undermines a rational process of U.S. foreign policy making.

That is the first deadly sin of U.S. foreign policy making.

Sin #2: Money – Not a good predictor of outcomes

As President Obama just confessed over the weekend, even he – the Commander in Chief – was surprised by the rapidness with which ISIS grabbed hold of Iraq. That, though, is not his deficiency – nor is it due to a lack of resources. The U.S. intelligence apparatus, measured in pure budgetary terms, is by far the costliest in human history.

Unfortunately, that does not mean that it is the most effective or most insightful. If anything, staffing levels and budget volumes are in an inverse proportional relationship to quality and outcomes.

Being over-resourced in terms of personnel and financial resources represents the second deadly sin of U.S. foreign policy making.

In fact, at times one has to wonder whether the real purpose of U.S. foreign policy isn’t to enrich all the vast legions that serve as consultants and service providers to the U.S. government, U.S. military and “homeland” security bureaucracies. This despicable trend has certainly built many a villa in Washington’s leafy suburbs.

Sin #3: Who’s toppling the dominoes now?

How about the third deadly sin of U.S. foreign policy? It is essentially about practicing yourself what you have long blamed others for doing.

To comprehend the full irony – and yes, the disastrous path – which U.S. foreign policy has traveled in the Middle East, it is important to recall the domino theory. From the 1950s onward, successive U.S. administrations used that concept during the Cold War era to justify the need for American intervention around the world.

In the 2000s version, under George W. Bush, the official explanation for marauding around the Middle East was the promotion of freedom and democracy. Of course, that was the polar opposite of what the United States had practiced until then in its dealings with virtually all the regimes in the region with which it had been friendly for decades (and even now, considering U.S. dependence on Saudi Arabia).

Today, we live in a reverse domino world. It is decidedly not the specter of communism that is letting regimes topple. Rather, it is the reckless machinations of U.S. foreign policy that is a key factor. The invasion of Iraq – American-made, not a creation of Putin’s – is the key element (domino) that unbalanced the entire Middle East.

Sin #4: Strategy = tactics?

To make matters worse, there is method to the madness. This concerns the fourth deadly sin of U.S. foreign policy. I still vividly remember the days when I arrived in Washington, D.C. to study foreign policy at Georgetown University’s venerable School of Foreign Service.

A new arrival from Europe, I was thoroughly confused by my American graduate school classmates’ liberal mixing up of the terms tactical and strategic. When asked where the difference was between the two terms, which they seemed to use interchangeably, they responded there was a big difference: Tactical was everything, say, until six weeks – and strategic everything beyond that.

I should have known back then that this would spell trouble down the road, all the more so as the school’s graduates were destined for the U.S. Foreign Service as well as the intelligence agencies.

Sin #5: A negative sum game

You can only understand the true purpose of U.S. foreign policy making – and much of Washington, the U.S. capital, as well as the process of “deliberations” on Capitol Hill – if you see all these theaters really as opportunities to conduct legal, and preferably prosecutorial, spectacles.

The overall point in these battles, you see, is not to come up with a solid policy – or any form of consensus. No, given the fact that lawyers account by far for the largest group of all members of Congress, everything is turned into a trial proceeding. It is about raising charges and attacking, with very loose rules for evidence of any kind.

That such viciousness is ultimately self-destructive escapes the attention of these representatives. Unfortunately, they are representative of the American people in one regard – that ever more of them live in their own reality, with their own likes and, yes, downright hatreds – rather than endeavoring to have any shared experiences or creating any kind of consensus.

For some, especially Republicans, it is more important to blame Barack Obama than to get a grip on the Middle East. In that torched earth endeavor, they are remaking the United States ever more in the realities of the Middle East.

Now, that is a surprising sort of convergence. America, so President Bush et al. always claimed, was there to lift down-trodden Middle Eastern countries out of their divisiveness and self-destructiveness.

As things stand now, the reverse has occurred: Politics in the United States is becoming ever more vicious and mutually recriminating. In that sense, it is the United States that has become more like the Middle East.

Who would have expected that? Maybe it was that sense of extreme divisiveness at home that attracted the sorcerer’s apprentice to get ever more deeply involved in the Middle East.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published by, on August 22, 2014.


Perhaps the real purpose of #USForeignPolicy is to enrich the legions of consultants to the US government

Politics in the #US is becoming ever more vicious and mutually recriminating

The 3rd deadly sin of #USForeignPolicy – practicing what you have long accused others of doing