I am quite sure that the title to this posting caused some of you to gasp or express outrage over the idea that something as inherently evil as American (and/or Bush or Obama etc) Foreign Policy could be too moral but I would ask you to hear me out.
My original post was prompted by the fact that I was watching a series of programs on the Military Channel which cover the lead-up to World War One and the war itself while at the same time listening to an audio-book about the Paris Peace Conference. These events have caused me to ponder the question above.
If you look at US entry in that war, it is reasonable to say that from any objective standpoint we had more-than-sufficient reason for doing so. In the short-term, the Germans were sinking American ships and killing US citizens on the high seas. In the long-term, the German Empire posed a substantial and material threat to our national security.
The main basis of the threat dealt with the concept of the security of the open seas. Our economy was dependent on having open and safe trade routes. Our industry depended on them to export their goods to markets all over the world, our farmers needed those same routes to ship out their product. On the other end of the process we needed both the ability to export raw materials for our industry and also the revenue provided by tariffs (indeed they provided most of the income for the US government).
Given that the Germans had made it clear they would close down trade routes and that we did most of our trade with the British and the French. we had a clear basis for entering the war on the side of the Allies. If we did not do so. there was a real chance our economy would be strangled and that would have been a disaster for the people.
So there was a solid reason for US entry into the war, but it was a largely self-centered one founded on economics and trade. This would probably have been acceptable to many nations at the time but, for the US, it wasn’t good enough. We didn’t like the idea of going to war for money, we had to have some sort of grand moral crusade to fight for and thus was born the ‘War to End All Wars’ or the ‘Crusade For Democracy’.
As a result, while the war itself was won in a relatively short time (18 months), we found ourselves saddled with all of the promises made to reform the world which led to the disaster of the Paris Peace Conference. In the case of Germany, the people didn’t have much background in democracy and as we all know things didn’t work out as well as we had hoped.
This is not to say that trying to bring Democracy to the world was not a good thing or that we could not have tried to make it part of the process, but by making it the key to the entire war, we in many ways doomed ourselves to failure.
I couldn’t help thinking that we placed ourselves in a similar situation with regard to the war in Iraq. We can debate whether or not it was a good idea to enter into this war (I have serious doubts on that point) but the fact is there were perfectly good reasons for us to do so.
Iraq may not have had anything to do with 9/11, but Hussein was a long-time supporter of terrorism in the Middle East with particular emphasis on Israel and the Intifada. He was a destabilizing presence in the region and might well have continued to threaten Israel. He repeatedly flaunted the international community and had a record of abuse against his neighbors and his own people
He was also a threat to the oil supply and, while we can debate the merits of weaning ourselves off of foreign oil (I for the record am in support of the idea), right now we do need a stable supply and Iraq did pose a threat to that supply. I am not sure his brutality alone was enough of a threat to justify war, but there were enough reasons to justify it (obviously there are equally good arguments against that premise, but my point is there was at least some reason for the war).
But of course, we couldn’t fight a war just for oil or for our economic security and thus was born the need to ‘free the people of Iraq’. Again this is a perfectly noble goal but not one that should be the primary focus of our policies, rather it should be a potential side benefit.
Had we stuck with a primary focus on simply removing Saddam from power then things might very well have gone differently. For all the flaws in our policy in Iraq, the fact is that our conquest of the nation went rather smoothly. Had we gone in with that sole goal and then turned things over to the Iraqis, it might still have been a mess but one that would not have cost so many US lives.
Even though if we’d limited ourselves to that goal I’m not sure it would have worked out, since the mess following his removal is probably as bad as the prior situation, at least from our own point of view.
Looking to the situation in Libya, I think we may be wisely learning a lesson from past failures, even if they had noble goals. The idea of liberating a nation and bringing them to democracy is a good one but when we think that we have images of a new George Washington popping up to establish a western style democracy.
I’m just not sure that is realistic. When we established our own nation 200 years ago things didn’t exactly go well, there were many problems and even today we have not gotten it entirely right. This was after we’d had a long history of at least some forms of democracy (going back to Magna Carta).
By contrast the people of the Middle East simply don’t have that history, and I don’t think it is at all disrespectful to say they can’t be expected to go from thousands of years of dictatorship to freedom overnight. Getting ourselves mired in that is a mess we just don’t need. This is what happened in Iraq and I fear it may reflect what will happen in the rest of the Middle East (though I of course hope I am wrong there).
Again, looking back I think in the long term it would have been best to avoid Iraq altogether (although that leads us to the possibility that the problem was indeed as bad as the solution) and I think that we almost certainly are best served by keeping our nose out of Syria. As discussed above in Iraq there was at least a plausable argument that he posed a threat to regional security or our own while Syria is relatively quiet and not much of a player.
On the other hand, continued instability in the Middle East has already resulted in spiking oil prices and that is a potential threat to our economy, as well as to the simple day to day lives of everyone reading this blog, from higher gas to higher food costs and so on.
Overall I think things would be much easier if we accepted the fact that the bottom line is our foreign policy needs to focus on the OUR part, doing what is best for us first and taking the rest as it comes. This doesn’t mean we don’t work to help freedom around the world or to stop genocides, but in the end if it is a choice between my family and the other guys, I have to pick mine.