Boxed In: The Constraints of U.S. Foreign Policy

In his keynote speech to the Republican convention, the chairman used most exalted words. After reviewing the record and achievements of the administration, he asked sonorously, “When have we rested more secure in friendship with all mankind?”

One of the tests English undergraduates have to endure is the “gobbet,” an unidentified passage of literary or historical significance, whose date and author the examinee must guess. Maybe the arresting sentence just quoted will have stumped readers, but no one can possibly have dated that particular gobbet as 2008, or supposed that it was uttered by anyone at the last GOP convention in Minneapolis. John McCain and Sarah Palin, Lindsey Graham and Tom Ridge, could have said many other things. They might have boasted that the United States is the greatest nation on earth, or that it had never been more powerful, or that “We are winning,” which is what Graham did say—but “friendship with all mankind”?

Those words were in fact spoken at the Republican convention in Chicago in 1904 by Elihu Root, then Theodore Roosevelt’s secretary of war, soon to be his secretary of state, and subsequently winner of the 1912 Nobel Peace Prize thanks to his work for international conciliation (not that it proved much use two years later when the greatest war in history broke out in Europe). His words can only seem utterly haunting today. Whether or not America is winning—in Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere else—is a matter of debate. What is beyond dispute is that the United States has rarely rested less secure in friendship with all mankind.

To be sure, it’s the last superpower standing, whose military capacity dwarfs that of most other countries combined. For all the economic strength of Europe (which may be waning) and of China (which is certainly waxing), the United States is still immensely and unprecedentedly rich, while military might and economic strength are combined with a matchless cultural dominance. And yet everyone knows that something is missing: this hyper-power is an object of suspicion at best and hatred at worst. By the time the administration of Bush the Younger crawled off the stage of history, a great wave of relief swept the world, and there was something like rapture when his successor was elected. On that extraordinary night, it seemed that there wasn’t anyone alive who didn’t yearn for President Barack Obama (apart, presumably, from the 60 million Americans who voted for McCain).

A year later, Obamania has fast faded, as the president wrestles with intractable domestic and foreign problems. For many who had reposed such high hopes in Obama, the bitterest disappointment of all has been in the Holy Land (to use that convenient, old-fashioned expression). It’s not just that what is forlornly called the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has completely stalled: as one Western ambassador told the BBC in early November, the president and Hillary Clinton, his secretary of state, had “driven the peace process into a ditch.”

Some had foreseen that failure. Anatol Lieven is one of the shrewdest of foreign policy writers. When he returned to London, as a professor at King’s College, following a long American sojourn, he offered Obama some advice just after he was elected, but added these somber words: “Eight years in Washington left me with considerable pessimism about the capability of the U.S. policy elites—Democrat as well as Republican—to carry out radical changes in policy if these required real civic courage and challenges to powerful domestic constituencies or dominant national myths.”

One might say that Obama’s difficulties since then reflect exactly these: national myths in the case of Afghanistan, and powerful domestic constituencies in the case of the Holy Land. After the failures of previous administrations, this problem looks as though it might be systemic and permanent, to the point where a graver question still presents itself. Can the United States actually have a rational foreign policy?

As that great historian and political essayist Tony Judt has said, several possible bases exist for American policy, all of them internally coherent. There is Wilsonian idealism: We wish to make the world a better place, so we shall work in and with the world. There is traditional isolationism: We do not wish to share the woes and burdens of a wicked world, so we shall leave the world alone. And there is Kissingerite realpolitik: We have our interests and objectives, we know that others in the world have their own interests and objectives, so let’s cut deals.

Each of these makes sense in its own terms. What does not is the unilateral interventionism that was practiced by the Bush administration and urged by the neoconservatives, and which assumed, quite wrongly, that brute force was enough, that the United Nations was contemptible, that Europeans were mostly wimps, and that there was no need at all to worry about what the Declaration of Independence in its quaint way called “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.”

But there has been more continuity between administrations than some may care to recognize, notably in the form of Secretary Clinton. She supported the Iraq War, idiotically proposed that the Nobel Peace Prize should be given to the prime minister of Georgia, and said she would “totally obliterate” Iran if needed—the kind of unreflective rhetoric that sends shudders down the backs of America’s friends, let alone its foes. Moreover, she chose as her deputy James Steinberg, who four years ago coauthored an Op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “Preventive war, a useful tool,” in which he observed, “It would be unfortunate if President Bush’s doctrine of preemption were a casualty of the Iraq war.”

Although Obama hinted at a return to a Wilsonian, work-with-the-world path, his determination to stay the course in Afghanistan has an increasingly unilateral feel to it, a policy one of whose likely effects is that the United States may run out of allies. Quite apart from alienating Afghans and Pakistanis, the war is deeply unpopular in most European countries. In contrast to the heroes’ welcome for returning GIs in the States, German soldiers who have been in Afghanistan are frightened to wear their uniforms in their own country, as they are likely to be ostracized at best and attacked at worst. And the rationale, recited yet again in November by Gordon Brown, that the Grenadier Guards are in Helmand to make the streets of British cities safer, is so obviously absurd that it might even have swelled the poll figures shortly after he spoke, which showed that 71 percent of British voters by then favored withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Looked at more closely, the American case in Afghanistan is connected with Lieven’s “dominant national myths.” The United States is the indispensable nation, as Madeleine Albright memorably (if hubristically) insisted. Its values are the right values—not only for itself but for all other nations—and they can be exported, by force if necessary. When it comes to nation-building and democratization, Obama believes “Yes we can!” as much as anyone.

Eight years ago the case for an operation in Afghanistan seemed clear enough: it was legally justifiable after the September 11 attacks, militarily feasible if the objectives were limited, and, in any case, politically inevitable. But the invasion should have been mounted with the greatest speed and ferocity, to root out al-Qaeda, beat up the Taliban, find bin Laden, and come home. Donald Rumsfeld was right (words you don’t often read nowadays): Go in fast and get out fast.

Instead of that there has been a most curious form of mission creep. We were there to destroy al-Qaeda, then to stabilize the whole country, then to eradicate the drug trade, then to bring democracy to the Pashtuns. But if a punishment mission sounds brutal, those objectives are barely sane. Peter Viereck saw this. The great conservative writer died not long ago in his ninetieth year, but he had lived to see—and damn—the Iraq War and, above all, the idea that democracy can be introduced from outside: “Where are the roots? How can you have a democracy without roots? England had the roots. Switzerland had the roots. Holland had the roots.” And, as Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations says of Afghanistan, “A country known for its tribal fragmentation, absence of credible authority, and fiercely independent population is hardly an ideal place for America’s nation-building projects.”

Most of the interminably debated parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are misleading, but there is one disturbing echo. Dean Rusk was secretary of state in the first years of the Johnson administration, when the war rapidly escalated at a speed that proved too fast for the Vietnamese. “Somehow we must change the pace of the way these people move,” Rusk said. And he had an answer: “Pervasive intrusion of Americans into their affairs.” Isn’t pervasive intrusion exactly what has been attempted in Afghanistan, with such disappointing results?

Despite its overwhelming military might, the United States was unable to win in Vietnam, and is now experiencing grave difficulties in establishing its hegemony in western Asia. It wasn’t likely, or even necessary, that the Americans would be greeted with open arms in either Afghanistan or Iraq, but the problems facing the United States are almost unprecedented. Whatever critics of imperialism may say, all successful empires have been ruled with some degree of consent. They may have been conquered by violence, and sometimes savagely disciplined thereafter, but for long periods they have been governed with a light hand, with some display of justice, and with a measure of power devolved to helpful locals.

That was true of the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. It is not and cannot be true of the new American imperium, because the United States has denied itself that possibility, in profoundly irrational fashion. No one has put the problem more pithily than Aaron David Miller, a sometime State Department official who spent years engaged in that forlorn peace process in the Holy Land, about which he has written an excellent—and aptly titled—book, The Much Too Promised Land.

One way or another, Miller says, the United States finds itself “trapped in a region which it cannot fix and it cannot abandon.” And he has a still more brutal assessment of the American presence throughout the vast reach of people and countries from the Mediterranean to the Indus Valley, including what we misleadingly call the Middle East, in which whole region America is “not liked, not feared, and not respected.”

What makes it more frightening is that many American politicians and commentators (or “analysts,” as we now call them) have yet to grasp this reality. Such ignorance is evident in the bizarre notion—current long before George W. Bush took the oath of office—that America not only can and should spread democracy, but that this would be in the American national interest. Why did anyone think this? If the United States is not liked or respected throughout the Arab countries, why on earth would Americans want to democratize them?

For years past, some of us tried shyly to explain to any Americans who would listen that, in present circumstances, free elections in Iraq, or Palestine, or Iran, would have outcomes highly unpalatable to Washington. Even now, at regular intervals, politicians on Capitol Hill and writers on Op-Ed pages will scold Cairo because it has denied democracy to the Egyptian people. But everyone who knows Egypt at all agrees that, if democratic elections were held there next month, they would be a landslide for the Muslim Brotherhood. Is that what those pols and pundits really want?

Not that Egypt is alone. In his learned new history of the Arabs, Eugene Rogan says that in “any free and fair election in the Arab world today, I believe, the Islamists would win hands down,” and that for certain the “inconvenient truth about the Arab world today is that, in any free election, those parties most hostile to the United States are likely to win.”

This is connected, in turn, with Lieven’s “powerful domestic constituencies”—or with what Theodore Roosevelt said in 1915:

The one absolutely certain way of bringing this nation to ruin, of preventing all possibility of its continuing to be a nation at all, would be to permit it to become a tangle of squabbling nationalities, an intricate knot of German-Americans, Irish-Americans, English-Americans, French-Americans, Scandinavian-Americans, or Italian-Americans, each preserving its separate nationality, each at heart feeling more sympathy with Europeans of that nationality, than with the other citizens of the American Republic.

A more than plausible case could be made that, since Roosevelt spoke those words, every single political intervention by a hyphenated lobby has had a deleterious effect on American interests.

During the Great War, Czech-American pressure on Woodrow Wilson led to the destruction of the Habsburg monarchy, the disruption of central Europe, and a misconceived reordering of the Balkans, with the ultimate consequences of which Washington was still wrestling as the century ended (by which time the state called “Czechoslovakia” had ceased to exist, along with the state called “Yugoslavia”). At that same time, Irish-American pressure led to the creation of an autonomous Irish statelet, whose neutrality during the next war was seriously damaging to the Allies and delayed the defeat of Germany.

For half a century, the Cuban-American lobby has demanded an embargo that has not only hurt ordinary Cubans but may well have helped keep Castro in power. One of the reasons for the lamentable—and utterly irrational—decision to expand NATO eastward after the collapse of the Soviet Union was an ingratiating promise Bill Clinton made to Polish-Americans in Chicago. And, more recently, Congress was on the point of condemning Turkey for the massacres of 1915 at the behest of Armenian-Americans, until it was realized that to enrage one of the only large and militarily formidable Muslim countries in any way sympathetic to the United States might not, at this particular juncture, be the brightest thing to do.

All the same, there is one special case. Writing in the New York Times Magazine recently about J Street, the new liberal Jewish lobbying group whose purpose is to counteract the harder-line AIPAC, James Traub mentioned the resentment aroused by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s article, “The Israel Lobby,” which “infuriated many readers by its air of conspiratorial hugger-mugger; by its insistence that Jewish neoconservatives had persuaded President Bush to go to war in Iraq in order to protect Israel.”

But Traub then concedes that Mearsheimer and Walt “made one claim that struck many knowledgeable people as very close to the mark: The Israel lobby had succeeded in ruling almost any criticism of Israel out of bounds, especially in Congress.” That’s such a statement of the blindingly obvious that Traub’s the-truth-can-be-told tone is revealing in itself. What concerns us here is the consequences of that uncritical support on Capitol Hill.

For many years, American friends of Israel have tried to make a pragmatic case, in terms of shared interests. Hyman Bookbinder, of the American Jewish Committee, says that he and his colleagues “bend over backward to help people understand that help for Israel is also in America’s strategic interests.” Even Michael Kinsley, an honest commentator who bravely raised the question of Israel in connection with the coming Iraq War, in the fall of 2002, said that “the president’s advisors, Jewish and non-Jewish, are patriotic Americans who sincerely believe that the interests of America and Israel coincide.” And, he added, “What’s more, they are right about that.”

In truth that is a very dubious proposition. Israel has from the beginning defended herself against the Palestinians on the good old principle Oderint dum metuant: Let them hate us, so long as they fear us. And it must be conceded that this has worked, so far. But can the United States hold sway over hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims likewise on the basis of sheer force and fear? It seems an awfully big task—and yet it is an ineluctable consequence of the Israeli alliance.

Unconditional support for Israel may not be the only reason for the dislike and disdain felt for the United States, but it is a defining or crystallizing reason—and it makes complete nonsense of democratizing the Middle East. In 1995, the Senate passed the Jerusalem Embassy Act, a measure so incendiary that even the Israeli government at the time had private reservations. In the summer of 2006, when Israel was bombing southern Lebanon and Beirut, the House of Representatives passed, by 410 votes to 8, a resolution of total support for Israel, despite pleadings from those who knew the region. At the beginning of last year, while Israel was bombarding Gaza, the new Senate had no sooner assembled than it passed unanimously, on a hand vote, a motion of “unwavering commitment” to Israel.

But there was something missing. Those votes should have been followed by another congressional resolution, insisting that the United States will in no circumstances permit any kind of democracy in the Middle East. If the American legislature goes out of its way to inflame the hatred against the United States of every living Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim, it might be right to do so, but in that case it is simply crazy to let those people vote. What are the senators and congressmen thinking? Are they then really surprised by the haunting reality summarized in the New York Times headline “U.S. Promotes Free Elections, Only to See Allies Lose”?

We have just been marking the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of European Communism, celebrated with a complacent self-congratulation that overlooked how much has gone wrong since 1989, which history will surely see as two decades of tragically missed opportunities. And it was hard not to feel that many mistakes came about because the wrong lessons were drawn from that momentous year. Wasn’t ’89 a true annus mirabilis? Of course. Didn’t the democratic West have reason to take pride in it? Maybe, but not at all in the way that was supposed.

How the Cold War was won is a question which historians will never stop debating. But it was precisely not the use or even threat of force that lifted the Iron Curtain, nor yet Ronald Reagan saying, “Tear down this wall!” What actually happened was that the Soviet Union imploded from within, partly because, after one of the longest and bloodiest experiments in history, it was conclusively demonstrated that the socialist central command economy simply didn’t work. The Soviet state had long been predeceased by Marxism-Leninism as an ideology anyone actually believed in. The rulers lost the will to rule, and once Mikhail Gorbachev openly renounced the use of force, the game was up. As John Lewis Gaddis, the eminent historian of the Cold War, points out, “The Soviet Union collapsed, after all, with its military forces, even its nuclear capabilities, fully intact.” And all this happened in a way that was completely opposite to American actions in Asia.

Violence sometimes works, and is sometimes necessary, even if it is resented. What is resented still more is a claim of indispensability—and moral superiority. President Obama says he reads Reinhold Niebuhr, the wisest American voice of the past century. Has he properly understood him? It is more than fifty years since Niebuhr spoke of the great new American age of empire, “however frantically we deny it.” And it is almost sixty since he wrote that “We are the most powerful nation on earth. We are also sufficiently virtuous to be tempted to the assumption that our power is the fruit of our virtue.”

To this day, Americans deny that they are an imperial power, even when—well, during one of the World Series games last fall, at the patriotic seventh-inning stretch, with the cameras turned to soldiers and sailors among the fans, Derek Jeter of the Yankees said on behalf of the players that those guys were the real heroes, and the commentator said that their thoughts were with all the brave American men and women of the armed forces, in the 175 countries where they are based.

How many? There are 192 member states of the United Nations. To have troops stationed in more than nine of every ten countries on earth is beyond the wildest dreams of any previous imperial power. Yet Americans continue to believe that this must be the fruit of virtue.

What makes it more poignant is that much of the world does like and admire the United States—within its own borders. America can exercise enormous influence when it remembers Samuel Johnson’s saying that example is always more efficacious than precept, and desists from bossing or bullying other nations, let alone trying to impose American values by force. It was by example, not precept, let alone force, that European Communism was defeated. Is it really impossible to apply the same principle elsewhere?

“Obama—earn your Nobel!” said the placards held up by embittered Palestinians as the peace process shuddered to a halt in November. They were right. In his first year, Obama did little in practice to earn the prize. It is just possible that he may yet do so, but only if he changes course and recognizes that a policy that would make America rest more secure in friendship with all mankind is not only rational but essential.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft is an English journalist and author. His books include The Strange Death of Tory England, Yo, Blair! and The Controversy of Zion.

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