The American foreign policy elite should learn something from the recent humiliating evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, Libya – amid the chaos of tribal civil war in that country – but probably won’t. Since World War II, this bipartisan elite has thumbed its nose at the traditional US foreign policy of strategic independence and military restraint overseas, which was initiated by the nation’s founders and lasted through the most of the republic’s history. Then the second great world conflagration demonstrated to the elite that new interdependence among nations somehow made that policy obsolete. Really?
Although advances in transportation and communication have made the world more interdependent in some senses after World War II, nuclear weapons, nationalism, and the proliferation of small weapons have made cross-border wars much less frequent. And if they are a threat to US security at all – which most aren’t – cross-border wars are more dangerous than now much more frequent internal civil conflicts.
Yet the United States has unnecessarily overthrown in regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that have led to internal civil wars and the spread armed Islamism into surrounding areas. Unbelievably, despite these debacles, some members of the foreign policy elite – for example, neo-conservative American triumphalists – want the US to get more heavily involved in other civil wars, such as the ones in Ukraine and Syria. No matter that these internal wars do not affect US vital interests and that the United States, with a more than $17 trillion national debt dragging a sluggish economy, can no longer afford to be the world’s policeman. If the United States continues to try to do so, it could eventually lose its great power status – as did the financially exhausted British and French Empires after being on the winning side in the two world wars.
In Libya, an extended passage from the Washington Post nicely summarizes the mess that US policy has created there:
The U.S.-dominated NATO military campaign that enabled rebels to oust longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi in the summer of 2011 was initially hailed as a foreign policy victory for the Obama administration. As the country has descended into chaos, and Islamist militant groups have taken root in the east, Libya has become among the most complex challenges in the region for Washington and its allies.
Officials said the United States remains committed to helping Libya. "We will continue to engage all Libyans and the international community to seek a peaceful resolution to the current conflict and to advance Libya’s democratic transition."
The United States remains committed to helping Libya? Because US actions led to the current anarchy in the country, I’ll bet the Libyan people are simply overjoyed at this American pledge.
But of course, being a superpower never means having to say you’re sorry. And as it has done in Afghanistan and Iraq, the US government in Libya simply blames the victims of US policy in the country for their plight. According to the State Department, "The Libyan government has not been able to adequately build its military and police forces and improve security following the 2011 revolution." The department further pontificated, "We reiterate that Libyans must immediately cease hostilities and begin negotiations to resolve their grievances."
So the US government, and the foreign policy elite that supports its interventionist policies, take no responsibility for popping the top off fractious, artificial countries and letting the resulting instability pour out into surrounding regions – in Pakistan, Syria and Lebanon, and Mali after the US overthrow of governments in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, respectively.
The best thing that the United States can do in all of these countries, the larger Middle East, and the world is to avoid the temptation to "save" humanity and let radical Islamist reactions to US meddling simply dissipate. More US interventions will merely make things worse.