A Foreign Policy of Fools

by , May 20, 2006

A shining city on a hill. A light unto the world. That’s what early Americans hoped their land would become. A beacon of liberty, beckoning others to follow. A place of refuge and hope for those fleeing tyranny or seeking opportunity. An oasis in the midst of conflict and chaos.

This once described the United States. But no longer.

Every day, America is more active in the world. At the same time, it is ever more alone.

Russia grows antagonistic. China prepares to break any containment efforts. India wins Washington’s acquiescence to a nuclear arsenal in part directed against Washington. Iran and North Korea cheerfully develop their own nuclear deterrents. Serbia ignores demands to turn over war criminals to Eurocratic justice. Latin America trends hostile.

Even traditional allies slink away from supporting U.S. policies. Turkey refused to create a second front in the Iraq war; anti-Americanism is rising precipitously. Young South Koreans say they fear Washington more than they do Kim Jong-Il’s North Korea.

Japan is preparing to bring its forces home from Iraq, following the Philippines, Spain, Thailand, Ukraine, and other members of the supposedly grand war coalition. Great Britain is cutting its forces on station by 10 percent. And no one is offering to replace those leaving.

Since 9/11, the day that supposedly changed everything, most NATO members have cut their militaries. Over the same period when Washington was upping the size of the U.S. military from 1.37 to 1.42 million people and hiking the percentage of GDP devoted to to the military from 3 to 3.7, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Turkey were cutting their forces and outlays.

The problem is simple: the Ugly American lives, and he’s not a loud, obnoxious tourist wearing Bermuda shorts. He’s one of an endless stream of well-coiffed U.S. officials traveling the world hectoring, lecturing, and threatening his counterparts. He’s an average Clinton or Bush appointee or member of the “loyal opposition.”

There seems to be nothing on earth upon which U.S. officials do not have a policy, let alone an opinion. Uncle Sam joins God in counting the hairs on everyone’s head, in between watching the sparrows fall to the ground. In contrast to God, however, Uncle Sam busies himself telling everyone else what to do about it.

To back up its directives, since 2001 Washington has increased military spending by more than a third. As a result, the U.S. now accounts for half of the world’s military outlays. America’s “defense” budget now equals that of the next 18 countries combined. American forces circle the globe via land, sea, and air. Old bases dot the countrysides of Asia, Mideast, and Western Europe while new ones emerge in the Caucasus, Eastern Europe, and especially Iraq.

This is madness. It is a foreign policy of fools.

The Bush administration and its neoconservative allies apparently see enemies everywhere, seeking to plunge the world into a new Dark Ages. Never before has America’s way of life been under such threat, they seem to think.

Yet they mistake anger for danger. Although disliked and increasingly hated, America faces no threat to its survival. No hegemonic enemies beckon, even on the distant horizon. Nothing that we face today looks remotely like the Cold War confrontation with the Soviet Union, armed with thousands of nuclear warheads and allied with a score or more unpleasant yet well-armed regimes around the world.

Grant that there are evil terrorists who would do us ill. Even if successful, they can only kill thousands. The Soviet Union was poised to murder millions. Anyway, terrorists are most likely to be defeated by effective international cooperation and intelligence, not promiscuous war-making.

Grant that over the long term China and India might become regional powers. Today, both remain poor and backward; neither is likely to challenge America where it matters most, the U.S. homeland. Disagreements, if they come, will be over America’s attempt to dominate, seemingly forever, all along their borders.

Grant that the world is a messy place, filled with petty despots and horrific conflicts. It always has been so. And America’s experience in Afghanistan, Haiti, Kosovo, Lebanon, Somalia, and especially Iraq demonstrates that there ain’t no easy way to create civil societies, generate tolerant political cultures, establish solid civic institutions, and leave stable, free countries.

Grant that much of the advice that American officials dispense is good – so good, indeed, that the U.S. government should follow it. Imagine real democracy with unregulated free speech and without abusive electoral districting, for instance. Imagine a real free-market economy in which farmers aren’t protected, industrialists aren’t coddled, and exporters aren’t pampered.

Even so, other countries would resist Washington’s interference, just as America bridles at criticism from abroad. Friendly forces are discredited by their identification with Washington. And coercion almost always backfires.

Perhaps Woodrow Wilson can be excused. His vision of gunboat humanitarianism had not yet been repeatedly tried and abandoned. Utopian social engineering had not yet stretched around the globe, with disastrous consequences and millions of dead left in its wake.

Today, however, this policy of global empire is madness. It is dangerous and foolish. It is inexcusable and unforgivable.

The costs of America’s policy of empire have become obvious to everyone except those charged with selling and implementing it. The most obvious is cash. Military spending is the price of one’s foreign policy.

And the bill is high: Next year America will officially devote some $440 billion to the military. Toss in the costs of the Iraq war (routinely funded by “supplemental” appropriations), nuclear programs installed in the Energy Department, health care provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs, and aid payments to various foreign clients and dependents, and the total climbs inexorably past the half-trillion mark.

The policy of promiscuous interference and intervention makes war, at least war with America, more likely. If China attacks Taiwan, if Russia battles a former dependent, if Middle Eastern neighbors tangle, Washington promises to be there. Threatening war with America might discourage the parties from risking a fight, but if conflict comes the U.S. will be in the middle.

Moreover, America makes often ancient quarrels harder to solve by encouraging friendly parties to be more recalcitrant. After all, Washington always inserts itself as an ally of one of the parties, never as a disinterested observer. And why deal if you have a superpower at your side?

Although America would be unlikely to lose any such war, the consequences nevertheless would be horrendous. And as 9/11 demonstrated, the U.S. homeland no longer is sacrosanct. Americans once presumed that they could bomb without consequence. In the cases of Serbia, Iraq, Haiti, Panama, Somalia, Grenada, North Korea, Iraq again, Vietnam – and even Germany and Japan (other than Pearl Harbor, the Aleutians, and a few balloon bombs) – the U.S. did the bombing. Other nations got bombed. Such a world made empire seemingly easy, if not cheap.

But no longer. Which is what makes the prospect of an Iranian bomb so frightening. Not that even the mullahs are stupid, crazy, or addled enough to believe they could attack America without being destroyed. They could pass off their technology to groups more than willing to marry terrorism with WMD, however, groups that are angry enough to use such weapons because of U.S. policy.

For despite the nonsense emanating from President George W. Bush, his neocon acolytes, and what passes for Democratic foreign policy experts, terrorists seek to kill because they believe that America is at war with them. They didn’t fell the World Trade Center because they disliked the Bill of Rights, attack the Pentagon because they detested Disneyland, or plot the destruction of the Capitol because they abhorred free elections in America. Rather, they sent the simple message: you want to be an empire? You’ll pay the price for attempting to enforce your edicts on the rest of us.

Finally, and perhaps most ironically, attempting to be a democratic empire ensures that we will be less democratic – or certainly less free, to be more accurate – at home. The Bush administration’s nomination as CIA head of Gen. Michael V. Hayden, former director of the National Security Agency and responsible for the Bush administration’s illegal warrantless spying program, is emblematic.

Empire abroad can be sustained only by empire at home. The national security state must grow, individual liberties must diminish. We spy on you, search your bodies and cars, restrict what the media can tell you, and, of course, mislead you and lie to you. But it’s in the cause of making the world democratic, so don’t worry, be happy.

The madness continues.

Washington waves its sword at Iran. Officials mull putting troops in Sudan. The U.S. mumbles threats against North Korea. Ambiguous warnings are made to China over Taiwan. The military constructs permanent bases in Iraq while administration officials promise eventual withdrawal. The vice president tells Russia how to run its affairs. Washington orders Mexico’s president to block his administration’s own legislation to decriminalize drugs. American officials seek to organize Latin American states against the pathetic crackpot Hugo Chavez. Washington fusses over the results of the latest Ukrainian elections. Nowhere in the world does a hair go unnumbered by an American policymaker nor a sparrow fall without a lecture from an American official.

This is a foreign policy of fools. It is expensive and dangerous. And it will continue until the American people displace the American elite in making foreign policy.

Read more by Doug Bandow