The United States of Emotions
Why U.S. foreign policy has such a mixed record, in the Middle East and beyond.
May 28, 2016
The United States has been pursuing an audacious project to fashion a global system according to its specifications and under its tutelage since the Cold War’s end. Alas, in the political/security sphere, the American project has faltered badly.
Nowhere is this more visible than in the Middle East. There, the pressure cooker of our own creation has exploded, leaving a mess that covers the entire region, with the further risk of spreading beyond it.
Every major American initiative in the region has failed – and failed ignominiously. Iraq has fragmented into factions – none of whom are reliable friends of Washington.
Once a forbidden zone for Islamist Jihadis, the U.S. intervention has spawned the most dangerous movement yet – ISIL, while inspiring al-Qaeda and its other spin-offs.
Syria, where the United States has dedicated itself to unseating the still internationally recognized government, is embroiled in an endless civil war. Its main protagonists on the anti-Assad side are ISIL and al-Qaeda/al Nusra & Assoc.
In other words, the Obama people – no radicals they — have still managed to put themselves in the position of feeding arms and providing diplomatic cover to groups who were America’s No. 1 security threat just yesterday. That’s quite an achievement.
Loyalty to Saudi royals
On top of that, we refuse to confront Turkey which has provided invaluable aid, comfort and refuge for both groups. Nor do we call out the Saudis for their succoring with money and political backing.
Washington’s deference to the Saudi royals has reached the extremity of its participating in the Saudi-organized and Saudi-led destruction of Yemen. We let this happen despite the cardinal truth that the Houthis, the Saudis’ enemy, is not a foe of the United States.
As if all of that weren’t bad enough, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made extensive gains as a result of the war (and ISIL has succeeded in implanted itself there as well).
For these contributions to the War on Terror, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry effusively thanks Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman – the author of these reckless Saudi policies – for the fulsome contribution the kingdom is making to suppress Islamic extremism.
Why the effusiveness? American diplomacy is locked into the idea that it must reassure the Saudi royals of our loyalty in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
Hence, we embrace an obscurantist autocratic regime whose self-defined interests are antithetical to our stated objectives. If anything, the Saudis’ behavior highlights the hypocrisy of America’s trumpeted crusade to promote democracy and to protect human rights.
American subservience to Saudi Arabia has the added effect of vitiating any chances to engage Iran pragmatically to deal with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria.
Fifteen years ago, the United States launched its Middle East wars to make us secure from terrorism and to politically transform the region.
Instead, we face a greater menace, we have destroyed governments capable of maintaining a modicum of order, we have registered no success in nation-building or democracy building, and we have undercut our moral authority worldwide.
That’s quite a record of “accomplishments.” To wash our hands of the mess we created, we now blame the Europeans for not having engaged early enough in the Middle East. If they can be blamed for one thing, then it is that they did not stand enough in our way as we galloped headless from one “grand” design to the next.
Next: Pivoting away from the Middle East
Conveniently, our leaders now talk of “pivots” away from the turbulent Middle East. The outgoing President, in his waning days, voices an ambition to demilitarize foreign policy.
Yet, the reality resulting from his stewardship is that today there are American troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya with no prospect of those conflicts concluding.
The most stunning, and noteworthy, reaction at home to this unprecedented record of unrelieved failure is the lack of reaction. All the elements in America’s fantastic views of another, post-Cold War American Century not only survive.
They exercise near total influence over our foreign policy elite – in government and outside it. The learning curve is flat. The number of places where are militarily engaged grows rather than diminishes.
The definition of “terrorism,” of security, of American national interest broadens rather than narrows. The defense budget points upwards rather than downwards. The contradictions multiply. How to explain this perverse pattern?
Ultimately, it is the inevitable result of our national penchant to populate the strategic map with good guys and bad guys whose identification never changes whatever the evidence says.
Hence, the “white hats” (aka “good guys”, I kid you not) include the KSA along with their school of GCC minnows, Erdogan’s Turkey, and of course Israel.
Shades in Syria in Libya
The “black hats” (“bad guys”) include: Iran, the Baathist regime in Syria, Hezbollah, Hamas, certain Shi’ite factions in Iraq (Moqtada al-Sadr), and whoever opposes our sponsored, obedient would-be leaders in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, or wherever (think Latin America).
Washington’s costume department does not stock grey hats.
The GWOT notwithstanding, this casting makes us Americans friends of ISIL’s and al-Qaeda’s friends and enemies of their enemies. No intellectual effort is evident to make the reconciliation.
In extreme circumstances, one resorts to outfitting with white hats whatever bunch of guys you can round up through Central Casting.
That is exactly what we currently are doing in cobbling together an odd lot of stray Libyans into an ersatz “government” which Washington and its more obedient allies literally escorted into a bunker outside of Tripoli last month where they are offering themselves as national saviors.
This so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), which no significant body of Libyans had asked for, is meant to supersede the democratically elected government whose parliament is seated near Benghazi and engaged in a multi-party civil war with an array of sectarian and tribal formations.
This seven-man GNA controls no territory, but has entered into tacit alliance with a variety of Islamist militias attracted by the money and arms which the United States and partners have transferred to them from official Libyan accounts abroad. You can detect the shades of Syria, circa 2011 -2013.
Operation Eternal Effort
What about Afghanistan? There, too, the final whistle hasn’t blown. There is no time limit – 48 minutes, 60 minutes, or nine innings – or 15 years. Operation Eternal Effort.
To make progress, we expand Special Operations and send teams of various sizes into scores of countries to take on the bad guys. More demonstrably, we make it known that our nuclear deal with Tehran notwithstanding, we are ever ready to go one-on-one with the mullahs who just aren’t our sort of people.
The ultimate expression of this psycho-mentality is to pick a fight with the really big guys: Russia and China. We know them from the last movie – and everybody remembers how we whipped the Russians’ ass – to use the hard-nosed parlance favored around Washington.
The extreme hostility toward a more assertive Russia and Vladimir Putin personally goes well beyond any realpolitik calculus. It has an emotional side.
This is foreign policy by emotion, not by logical thought. It is rooted is the psychological reaction to the hopelessness of the U.S.’s post-Cold War grand design.
It stems as well from the unpalatable experience of being unable to live up to the exalted self-image that is at the core of Americans’ national personality.
And it is intensified by the need, compensating for heightened insecurities, to prove that America is Number One, always will be Number One, and deserves to be Number One.
That maelstrom of emotion was almost palpable in Obama’s last State of the Union Address where he declaimed:
“Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close!”
So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than crowds of troubled and frustrated Arab demonstrators shouting “ALLAH AKBAR!”
Perpetuating a national myth of exceptionalism
Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act – nor even impart information – are just puffs of wind. They are affirmations of self rather than communication.
As such, they are yet another avoidance device whereby bluster substitutes for a deliberate appraisal of how to adjust to the gap between aspiration and declining prowess.
A complementary device for perpetuating a crucial national myth of exceptionalism and superiority means distorting the achievements of other nations.
Currently, we are witnessing the unfolding of an almost clinical example in the treatment of China. The emergence of the PRC as a great power with the potential to surpass or eclipse the United States poses a direct threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism.
The very existence of that threat is emotionally difficult to come to terms with. Psychologically, the simplest way to cope is to define it out of existence – to deny it. One would think that doing so is anything but easy.
The China situation
After all, China’s economy has been growing at double-digit rates for almost 30 years. The concrete evidence of its stunning achievements is visible to the naked eye.
The current signs of economic weakness and financial fragility have generated a spate of dire commentary that China’s great era of growth may be grinding to a halt.
The implied suggestion is that China cannot boom again until its leaders have seen the error of their ways and taken the path marked out by America and other Western capitalist countries.
To engage the Chinese on the strategic plane, require statesmanship of a high order. An America – and its leaders – who are tied into psychological knots by their inability to view reality with a measure of detachment and self-awareness never will muster that statesmanship.
US diplomacy is locked into the idea that the United States must reassure the Saudi royals of its loyalty.
US leaders have implied China will not be allowed huge growth again unless it follows a US-prescribed path.
In the global post-Cold War political/security sphere, the American project has faltered badly.
Michael J. Brenner
Professor Emeritus of International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh [Texas, United States] Michael Brenner is Professor Emeritus of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh and a Fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS/Johns Hopkins. He was the Director of the International Relations & Global Studies Program at the University of Texas. Brenner is […]