A Policy Chasing Its Tail

Remember how we were supposed to leave Iraq in 2011? Indeed, a great many people think we’ve already left, what with that official “withdrawal” announced by the Obama administration and its media amen corner in August of last year. Recall that MSNBC breathlessly reported the “end of the US mission” and even interviewed what was purported to be the last US fighting brigade on its way out of the country. Of course it was all just public relations theater: the 50,000-plus troops still there were simply redefined as “non-combat” troops – a linguistic fig leaf for a logical impossibility.

And now, we have Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Pentagon hinting very strongly that we’ve changed our minds and aren’t leaving after all. The Iraqis aren’t too happy about this, with some of them going out into the streets and demanding the US live up to its agreement and go already.

Obama’s much-heralded withdrawal announcement was, in short, a lie, one promulgated with the full knowledge and cooperation of Ms. Administration Shill Maddow and MSNBC “News.” For some reason, I doubt they’ll be “reporting” on this sudden reversal, since there are, after all, more important things happening in the world – like the unmitigated evil of those nasty old Republicans, who insist on cutting the budget because we’re, you know, bankrupt.

Oh, but never mind that – that’s old news! Here’s some new old news: the Egyptians are back in Tahrir Square, and the sainted Egyptian army is shooting at them. Not only that, but they’re arresting bloggers again – this time for failing to show sufficient respect for the armed forces. And it looks like the Libyan rebels are again on the defensive, with Gadhafi’s forces on the road to Benghazi and due to arrive at the city gates any minute….

All of which leads me to fear Nietzsche was right: that we do, indeed, live in a nightmare world of eternal recurrence, a universe where US troops are always “withdrawing” from Iraq, only to change course at the last moment. Where the Egyptian military invades Tahrir in perpetuity, and repeatedly drags bloggers away in chains. Where the Libyan rebels are in jeopardy unending, always on the cusp of defeat – and the US and its allies are permanently poised to plant boots on the ground to save them from certain annihilation.

Which means the neocons will be eternally calling for a US invasion of somewhere-or-other – and that there will always be neocons. This last is bad news indeed: it’s like a cancer diagnosis, except there’s no relief in the form of death. Just pain that goes on … forever.

If I’ve painted a dreary picture, well then there’s no sense blaming the messenger: this is our lot, and we just have to learn to live with it. It is, in short, the human condition, which seems mostly to be a condition of forgetfulness, a kind of historical Alzheimer’s in which we have no recollection of our past errors – and, indeed, no memory of historical events beyond the last presidential election. Americans wake up every day tabula rasa, with no more knowledge of the lessons of history – especially their own – than a newborn babe.

How else to explain the persistence – nay, immortality – of error? We keep doing the same thing – invading new territories in the name of spreading “democracy” even as our older satraps rise up in rebellion against the lack of … democracy. Stretching all the way back to the dawn of the American empire, when Teddy Roosevelt and his crew of “progressive” imperialists planted Old Glory on battlefields from Cuba to the Philippines, the pattern of US overseas intervention has repeated itself down through the years. We “liberate” a foreign people from the bonds of what we regard as tyranny, only to find that the presumed beneficiaries of this policy are lacking in gratitude – and blame us – us! – for their subsequent problems. Although, you’ll note, that doesn’t stop them from seeking aid and assistance from the US Treasury: in fact, it encourages them. Since we’re the source of all their problems, we must also be the source of their potential redemption.

This pattern repeated itself recently in Libya, where the rebels first demanded Western intervention – and then complained when NATO-inflicted “collateral damage” took out a few of their own. The complaining didn’t stop there: the air strikes, they contended, weren’t enough. They are demanding weapons, training, full aid and assistance, diplomatic recognition – and if all this isn’t immediately forthcoming, well then their blood is on our hands. Either we accede to this ethical blackmail, or else Gadhafi will march triumphantly into Benghazi, behead the entire population, and stand atop the bodies, beating his chest and howling in bloody triumph.

Was there ever a war more suited to irritating the liberal guilt gland of the Western “intellectual”? No wonder our “progressive” Deep Thinkers are falling all over themselves hailing it as a triumph of human charity. It’s a hard sell marketing war as an act of altruism, but once you get over that initial hump, and the willing suspension of disbelief kicks in, it’s relatively smooth sailing as far as selling the war to self-described “liberals.”

Imperialism was considered a forward-looking “progressive” project in Teddy Roosevelt’s time: the news accounts of the day are full of descriptions of the numerous cultural “uplift” projects and their unmitigated success in the American-occupied Philippines, where water-boarding was practiced on recalcitrant natives who somehow resented our tender ministrations. That this was just a thin ideological veneer for more commercial considerations is pointed out by Murray Rothbard, in his Wall Street Banks, and American Foreign Policy, wherein the late great libertarian theorist relates a history that seems oddly contemporary:

“In February 1895, a rebellion for Cuban independence broke out against Spain. The original U.S. response was to try to end the threat of revolutionary war to American property interests by siding with Spanish rule modified by autonomy to the Cubans to pacify their desires for independence. Here was the harbinger of U.S. foreign policy ever since: to try to maneuver in Third World countries to sponsor ‘third force’ or ‘moderate’ interests which do not really exist. The great proponent of this policy was the millionaire sugar grower in Cuba, Edwin F. Atkins, a close friend of fellow-Bostonian [Secretary of State] Richard Olney, and a partner of J.P. Morgan and Company.

“By the fall of 1895, Olney concluded that Spain could not win, and that, in view of the ‘large and important commerce between the two countries’ and the ‘large amounts of American capital’ in Cuba, the U.S. should execute a 180-degree shift and back the rebels, even unto recognizing Cuban independence. The fact that such recognition would certainly lead to war with Spain did not seem worth noting. The road to war with Spain had begun, a road that would reach its logical conclusion three years later.”

Substitute Egypt for Cuba, and you have a capsule description of current US policy in North Africa and the Middle East: co-optation as a strategy to deflect the revolutionary upsurge shaking the region. In Cuba, US intervention brought on the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the brutality and general sleaziness of which led to the Cuban revolution – and the totalitarian austerity of Castro’s Cuba.

In Egypt, and Libya – and god knows where else – what demons will US intervention inspire? What monsters lurk just beneath the radar of our narrative-driven “news” media, waiting to surface in troubled waters? We cannot know in advance – except that there’s monsters in those currents, and it’s best to stay well out of them.

But no: as Rothbard points out, in the Cuban case certain commercial interests – those ever-aggressive entrepreneurs whose trade is investment banking – were intent on cashing in, at least in the short term. And besides that, Cuba has its uses as a hemispheric outcast, and ever-present “danger” to be quarantined and guarded against – a constant reminder that, yes, even right here in “our own” hemisphere, the Enemy is present, and a threat.

Today, too, certain commercial interests are in the drivers’ seat when it comes to US policy in North Africa and the Middle East, in addition to the key influence wielded by Israel in the region. These factors, and not fear of the unintended consequences of our actions, define US interests for American policymakers, and that is the essence of what Walter Russell Meade would call a “Hamiltonian” foreign policy, one largely modeled after the British Empire at its height.

Despite all the “pragmatic” pretensions of this administration, there is nothing at all practical about this sudden US role-reversal, where Washington and its allies are now supposedly leading the charge against despots they formerly supported. One can see how it would be convincing to a guilt-ridden Western liberal, who somehow thinks he’s making up for the crimes of US imperialism – and much less convincing (indeed, laughably unconvincing) to someone who actually lives in North Africa or the Middle East.

Our Cuban switcheroo gave us Fidel Castro: will our North Africa adventure in partner-swapping pave the way for his Muslim equivalent – or worse?

To anyone the least bit familiar with our own history, US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa – and, more generally – is a policy forever chasing its tail. Forever cleaning up its own messes and those of its allies, and undoing the unintended consequences of policies designed to benefit some domestic pressure group. At this point, the tangled web of failed initiatives and grandiose “visions” has become so complicated, and fragile, that the whole structure of the “international order” we’ve created is threatening to come down around our heads. And even then, we persist in making the same mistakes, like robots wired for self-destruction.

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Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo is editor-at-large at Antiwar.com, and a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He is a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and writes a monthly column for Chronicles. He is the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].