In crisis mode, U.S. foreign policy deals more in fears than facts, more in rhymes than reason. After ten years, it’s hard to still cloak 9/11 in its early patriotic garb. It’s been a decade of needless and prolonged wars, of exaggerated expenditures on national security bureaucracies, of being mesmerized by a world America believed it could dominate, and of neglecting an America drowning in debt and political irresponsibility. There was 9/11, and then Afghanistan, Iraq, Afghanistan again, and yes, even Libya.
This is part of an American historical pattern. Calling it the arrogance of ignorance doesn’t quite capture its complexities, nor does labeling it fatal overreaction. Responses to attack or threat or crises usually begin well, in a shower of patriotism and unity. Then, with the help of revenge seekers, the country flies into a political and policy rage, followed by rash actions in and toward countries about which our leaders and experts know little. Inevitably, the wrong lessons are learned.
Take the Korean War. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower rightly responded and wisely settled for a stalemate rather than risk wider, even nuclear war. Eisenhower’s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, however, believed this was not nearly good enough. He concluded that mere containment of communism was defeatism and called for “rollback.” One consequence among many was the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, triggered by Hungarians who were deceived into believing that Washington would defend them if they rose up against Soviet rule. Thousands were killed.
Other fiascos and confrontations between Moscow and Washington ensued—prime among them the Cuban missile crisis. From that dramatic confrontation, America’s best minds learned the lesson that if Washington were tough enough, Moscow would yield. But the truth, hidden by the Kennedy White House, was that the worst was averted only when President Kennedy agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey in exchange for the removal of Soviet missiles from Cuba. Compromise, not further confrontation, had kept the peace. Fortunately, both sides were so traumatized by the proximity of nuclear war that they avoided such confrontations in the future.
Then there was Vietnam, a strategic spot whose people and history were virtually invisible in Washington. One American faction drew the lesson that the United States should never again fight an Asian land war, especially a guerrilla war that requires nation-building. The other faction, the one that usually prevails in Washington, concluded that the “loss” was due to weakness and lack of will at home to “stay the course.” Apparently, these hawks were prepared to continue warring indefinitely. Their argument has never disappeared.
All these mislearned lessons prefigured those of President George W. Bush after 9/11. Beyond argument, he was right to dispatch forces to clobber the Taliban government in Afghanistan for harboring Al Qaeda. But to jump from deserved retribution and punishment to a sustained land war with 20,000 troops and no clear goals was beyond reason. Bush had only to remember that 115,000 Soviet troops had tried that, only to scamper from Afghanistan in full defeat. Then President Obama compounded Bush’s costly commitment with his vision of Afghanistan as “a war that we have to win.” And with this in mind, he upped U.S. forces to 100,000.
To achieve his aims in Afghanistan, he had to reduce the U.S. presence in Iraq, the other bizarre war started by Bush. There was a lot for Obama to unravel in Iraq. Bush had deployed 150,000 forces to that sorry and divided country for a new goal: to promote democracy. The rationale for this went right back to terrorism; the best way to stop terrorism, the Bush pack reasoned, was to transform dictatorships into democracies. Bush married American fears of terrorism to an American missionary dream of democracy creationism. It can be said on Obama’s behalf that he did not get ensnarled in this democracy trap, for which neoconservatives constantly shame him.
There was to be another consequence of the Iraq and Afghan wars: Since Bush and Obama asked for NATO forces to join the Iraq and Afghan battles, it gave NATO a claim on the White House. They exacted that claim over Libya, and compelled Washington to join them in that “war.” Obama did so despite the United States having no vital interests in the venture, let alone in attempting to oust Moammar Gadhafi. But Obama felt he couldn’t say no. Thus, the “war on terror” gained another war.
The “war on terror” has proved to be perhaps the most wasteful, unnecessary, self-destructive, and frighteningly costly of all America’s foreign-policy mistakes. But it is not an aberration. It shows the pattern: impatience, incoherent debate, intolerance of others’ views, exaggeration of enemy threats and strengths, and inevitable pressures “to do more” to preserve American credibility and to “win” in order to cover up mistakes.
And the pattern includes the reality that every time, war advocates roll right over opponents and skeptics. It’s mostly Republicans pushing Democrats around because the public trusts them more on national security. It’s also that Republicans are more ready to do political battle, while Democrats hesitate and pull punches for fear of looking weak. Indeed, Democrats are sometimes so eager to avoid appearing weak on national security that a few of them (then-Senator Hillary Clinton on key war issues, then-Senator Obama and John Kerry on Afghanistan) often jump to the Republicans’ right.
The historical pattern, especially after 9/11, also reveals a flawed American tendency in foreign affairs. First, our leaders and thinkers never know very much about the countries they propose to invade—their history, culture, politics, leaders. That’s because, second, they assume that whatever another country’s problems, the United States of America has the power to solve them—to build nations in our own image and defeat the enemy. Third, they also appear to treat the United States itself, its internal problems, as incidental to world affairs. The national security clan almost always considers fighting Vietnamese Communists, Saddam, and the Taliban as more important than focusing on our domestic needs, especially the economy upon which America’s world power rests. Even as the home front falls into disrepair, no expense is spared for wars abroad. Since 9/11, U.S. leaders have nearly doubled the Pentagon’s base budget (not counting the almost $2 trillion expected to be spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars) and almost tripled spending on intelligence, to say nothing of the establishment of the Rube Goldbergian and wasteful Department of Homeland Security.
The overriding lesson is inescapable: The protectors of good, old-fashioned American common sense must make their fight up front, before wars begin. Either we do battle at that moment, or we have to wait another four years for a hearing. At that pre-war dawn, we have to shout: Show me that this place is vital to our security, worth fighting and dying for. Show me how we actually have the power to win at reasonable cost, in reasonable time, without having to transform the country we’re trying to save. At the same time, the common-sense crowd has to demonstrate that war isn’t the only choice, that in most cases, there are more effective, far less costly, and sensible ways to combat threats.
To stand up to the war avalanche requires more than guts and political skill. Eloquence will not cure the problem, nor will wishes for the self-transformation of American politics. Nor can we expect that politicians and experts will abandon their ideological teddy bears. But if there’s a shred of national interest remaining in our politics, our leaders might agree not on a new set of policies but on mandatory procedures before going off to war in the Mideast again or settling on a new direction toward a major power like China.
The focal point of such new procedures has to be Congress, as messy a place as it is. Legislators could agree to the following: hold one or two weeks of hearings before a joint foreign affairs and armed services committee; convene panels of experts, generalists, and specialists to assess the causes and costs of the potential conflict; and create a set of questions that must form the basis of the hearings: Is the matter at hand vital? Something the country can’t live without? What are achievable objectives? Alternatively or in addition, the media might be induced to stage its own such debates. These changes won’t eliminate the usual nonsense and hyperbole, but they will narrow the verbal muscle flexing and establish a bedrock of common sense.
Inevitably, political concerns and job fears drive politicians and experts alike to back wars and hard-line policies. They won’t abandon their self-interests, but perhaps legislators who put the national interest first—like Senator Richard Lugar and Representative Howard Berman—might be willing to lead and shame their brethren into some kind of standard and serious congressional examination of policy. If not, we will have to rely on our coming economic weakness to save us from folly abroad. What a tragic end for a country that remains the last best hope for world leadership.