Nationalism in many countries prompts their governments to trumpet foreign-policy successes while sweeping disappointments under the rug. The inclination toward such biases may only be human nature, but democracies should also take the difficult step of heeding and analyzing the failures—that is, if they want to embrace truth and avoid the path to authoritarianism.
Because American nationalism is especially strong, the U.S. government regularly attempts to take maximum credit for events such as the fall of the communist bloc and the killing of terrorist Osama bin Laden—while forgetting about profligate blunders that have made America and its citizens less secure, a failure in the most importance function of government.
Although communism did fall, in most such societal revolutions, domestic factors usually overwhelm external influences. Although Reaganophiles give that president almost sole credit for toppling the communist bloc, an unviable economic system is what ultimately brought down the Soviet Union and its communist allies.
As for killing Osama bin Laden, it took the gold-plated U.S. intelligence community, which probably spends as much on intelligence as the rest of the world combined, a decade and a half to neutralize him. Moreover, the CIA’s greatest triumph has been its greatest failure; its encouragement and funding of radical Islam, including the Afghan “freedom fighters,” as a counterweight to Soviet communism helped create al-Qaeda in the first place. Moreover, the U.S. government’s unneeded meddling and military presence in the Islamic world motivated bin Laden to attack the United States and continue to fuel Islamists’ anti-American attacks—for example, the nation-building occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq inflame Islamic jihadists worldwide. Because many anti-American jihadists in Iraq came from eastern Libya, American provision of the air force for the Libyan rebels may replicate the unintended threat-creation experience of U.S. aid to Islamists in Afghanistan. And getting rid of Moammar Gadhafi—whom Ronald Reagan originally demonized and attacked but who had more recently given up his nuclear-weapons program and made nice with the West—won’t enhance U.S. security very much.
But such reckless behavior should not be surprising. The U.S. government has made or strengthened enemies before. Recent examples are in Somalia, Lebanon, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, and Iran. In Somalia, the U.S. government recently trumpeted the killing of Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, a leader in both the Somali Islamist Shabaab movement and al-Qaeda. Yet the Islamists had little support in the moderate Islamic country of Somalia until the U.S. government began supporting corrupt, violent warlords there. And Somali support for Shabaab against foreign influence really spiked during the catastrophic U.S.-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia in 2006. The Bush administration’s encouragement—with weapons and advisers—of a Christian-led Ethiopian government’s invasion of a Muslim country further stoked the fires of radical Islam, coming in the wake of the post-9/11 U.S. invasions of Muslim Afghanistan and Iraq.
In Lebanon, the Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah—which formed during the 1982 invasion of Lebanon by U.S.-backed Israel and which enhanced its reputation by throwing Reagan’s forces out of Lebanon soon thereafter—now dominates the Lebanese government. This result was made possible by Israel’s second invasion of Lebanon in 2006, which again enhanced Hezbollah’s reputation by demonstrating its ability to withstand an attack by a stronger power.
In Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban did not try to attack targets in the United States—the attempted Times Square bombing—until the United States began to kill Pakistani Taliban fighters with drone attacks in Pakistan. Similarly, Islamist militants in Yemen did not try to attack targets in the United States until our government escalated military involvement in Yemen.
In Iraq, the United States helped bring Saddam Hussein to power, made him the dominant power in the Persian Gulf by supporting him in his successful war with Iran, and then demonized him and fought two wars against him.
Finally, creating an enemy in Iran goes way back to 1953, when the CIA helped overthrow the elected anti-communist government of Mohammed Mossadegh because he had nationalized British oil interests. The United States restored the autocratic shah, who allowed U.S. companies to have some of Iran’s oil, oppressed his people with the secret police, and spent too many of the country’s resources on U.S.-made weapons and not enough on economic development. He was overthrown by a Shi’ite Islamist regime, which has always been predictably hostile to the United States.
Throw in the expensive and pointless Korean and Vietnam Wars, the reckless and failed invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, and the resulting near incineration of the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis for no American strategic gain, and post-World War II U.S. foreign policy doesn’t look so successful after all.