The following essay is adapted from Antiwar.com editorial director Scott Horton’s statement in his October 4, 2021 Soho Forum debate with William Kristol, director of the Foreign Policy Initiative and editor of the Bulwark.
The resolution was, "A willingness to intervene, and seek regime change, is key to an American foreign policy that benefits America."
Thank you Gene, and hello to Mr. Kristol. As some of you know, Mr. Kristol was Chief of Staff to Dan Quayle – who I consider to be the best vice president of my lifetime so far. … Eh? Just think about who the other ones were for a second.
America is in real trouble. For the last few years, my opponent has been at the forefront of those warning against the death of modern liberalism and that right-populist Trumpism is taking this country in a very dangerous direction, towards authoritarianism, even dictatorship.
But Mr. Kristol, you and David Brooks promised us National Greatness. You said Americans needed to be called to their "grand destiny," "nationalism." We needed "national strength and moral assertiveness abroad … advancing the cause of freedom around the world." We needed a big project we could all do together! As Brooks’s friend Christopher Beam wrote, invading Iraq "suited his quest" (and yours) for this Greatness.
In his 1996 article, "Toward a Neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy," arguing for "Benevolent Global Hegemony," my opponent wrote that John Quincy Adams was wrong that the U.S. should not go abroad seeking monsters to destroy. "Why not?" he asked. For the exact reasons that Quincy Adams delineated:
Our principles would turn from liberty to force. We would become the dictatress of the world, but no longer the ruler of our own spirit, he said.
Adams was right. Wars did not make America great.
3,000 people were killed on September 11th, 2001. As Paul Wolfowitz admitted, the main reason Osama bin Laden cited for attacking America was the U.S. military bases left in Saudi Arabia for the so-called "dual containment" policy against Iraq and Iran in the 1990s after Iraq War I, the Persian Gulf War.
Bin Laden’s plan was to provoke the United States into invading Afghanistan so he could replicate the mujahideen’s earlier success against the USSR, with U.S. support, in the 1980s, this time against us; to bog us down, bleed us to bankruptcy and to create a "choking life" for the American people under the tyranny of our security state.
And after the last 20 years of war in Afghanistan and across the Middle East, we have less influence there than ever before, a 30 trillion dollar national debt, an increasingly invasive surveillance state and militarized police state, almost 7,000 dead troops – 37,000 if you count those who killed themselves in the aftermath – and the worst partisan political, racial and other social division of my lifetime anyway. I’m 45.
So much of this crisis is directly due to the costs, financial and otherwise, of America’s Middle East regime change wars.
Let’s review some recent regime changes and their consequences:
(Note that in neoconservative doctrine, democracy absolutely must be spread to Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and Syria, but not Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, Oman, Egypt or Pakistan. And if there’s a democratically elected government that our government doesn’t like, the U.S. won’t hesitate to try to overthrow it, like Algeria in 1993, Gaza in 2007, Egypt in 2013 and Ukraine in 2004 and 2014.)
The regime changes:
First on our list is Presidents Carter and Reagan’s support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s to overthrow the Communist regime there. This led directly to the rise of Haqqani, Hekmatyar, the Taliban and al Qaeda.
Carter and Reagan’s support for Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its 1980s war to overthrow the Ayatollah in Iran also backfired. It solidified the Mullahs’ power in Persia and led directly to the so-called Gulf War, after Iraq invaded Kuwait in a dispute over debts from the war against Iran. As mentioned, America’s first Iraq war, launched to restore the Kuwaiti monarchy in 1991, lead directly to the "dual containment" policy against Iraq and Iran from military bases in Saudi, and al Qaeda’s war against the United States.
The Kosovo War of 1999 (the war was in favor of a secession, regime change of a sort): This war put bin Laden’s friends in the Kosovo Liberation Army in power, including Hashim Thaci, the convicted organ thief and gangster, and guilty of persecuting and cleansing the Serb minority there in the inverse of the lies they told to justify starting that war. Bill Clinton and the Weekly Standard claimed 100,000 civilians had been killed. When the war was over, the FBI found a few thousand graves of fighting aged males and went home after two weeks when the alleged mass graves containing the 100,000 killed were proven to be non-existent. Kosovo is permanently dependent on the U.S., where we still maintain a massive military base, to this day.
After failing to deploy enough reinforcements to capture or kill bin Laden at Tora Bora or allow the Delta Force to pursue him into Pakistan, the Bush administration instead sought regime change against the Taliban in Kabul, whom Bill Clinton had supported just a few years before in their own regime change against the mujahideen warlords whom Presidents Carter and Reagan had supported against the Communists in the 1980s. This led to 20 years of war — including a massive so-called "surge" escalation halfway through, for absolutely nothing — and leading to the Taliban walking right back into power as the U.S. withdrew in the summer of 2021.
In Somalia, Bush started supporting warlords to hunt down supposed al Qaeda terrorists before the end of 2001, including the son of Mohammed Adid, the bad guy from the Black Hawk Down catastrophe of 1993. Those warlords made life miserable for everyone until the people came together to form a new government, the Islamic Courts Union, to force them out. Bush then supported the Ethiopian invasion of 2006, which traded the harmless Islamic Courts Union for the much more dangerous al Shabaab insurgency. In 2008, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice decided that ICU Sheik Ahmed Sharif could be the leader of the country after all, just within the form of the new government the U.S. had created for them. Nevermind the last two years of killing. But al Shabaab kept fighting, and the U.S. drone war against them there has continued ever since. As soon as the U.S. ceases support, the government it has created in Mogedishu will surely fall like Kabul.
Saddam Hussein in Iraq War II: When David Wurmser wrote his "Clean Break" plan for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s first government in 1996, he acknowledged that targeting secularist dictators Hussein and Assad for regime change in Iraq and Syria could further fan the flames of Islamist anti-American terrorism, but he said the solution to that problem would just have to wait until after the war against them was over.
Maybe in 1996 this was somehow understandable, from a hawk’s perspective at least. According to Richard Shultz in the Weekly Standard, in the 1990s, the Pentagon Joint Staff would repeat as cliché that, "Terrorism is a small price to pay for being a superpower." But after the African embassy bombings of 1998, the USS Cole attack in 2000 and September 11th, which killed nearly 3,000 people in New York and at the Pentagon, it was… less understandable. Yet the neoconservatives, led by Mr. Kristol, persisted.
The neocons’ best laid plans to empower Jordan and compliant Shi’ites to take over Iraq failed. The American invasion of 2003 empowered Iran’s favored factions among the Shi’ites, the Supreme Islamic Council and Da’wa Party. In fact, it was King Abdullah of Jordan who coined the phrase "Shi’ite Crescent," to describe Iran’s newly enhanced power just after the invasion. Clean break, nuthin.’
This American-Shi’ite alliance pushed their Sunni Arab enemies out of Baghdad and into the arms of al Qaeda in Iraq, which did not even exist before the war, adding thousands of hardened fighters to Osama bin Laden’s movement, including thousands of foreign fighters who traveled there to fight against the U.S.-Shi’ite alliance. Many of these same men later went home to Libya, Syria and Yemen to get ready for the next wars there. The U.S. took their side in all three.
In Libya the hawks said they had to intervene and overthrow secular dictator Gaddafi to protect the poor civilians. But, at the very least, tens of thousands of people have been killed in endless fighting in that country in the decade since. Bin Ladenite groups, veterans of the second Iraq war, led that revolt and have thrived in the meantime, as civil war has raged for years. Some warlords brought back literal chattel slavery of sub-Saharan Africans. Thousands of refugees drowned in the Mediterranean. The war spread from Libya into Mali, Chad, Niger, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Nigeria.
Obama’s and allied support for the bin Ladenite revolt against the secular government in Syria – an attempt to weaken their ally Iran after the Iraq war had done so much to empower them – led to the rise of the Islamic State so-called Caliphate in eastern Syria and western Iraq, and then the third Iraq war from 2014 to 2018 to then destroy it on behalf of those same Iranian backed Shi’ite groups the hawks wished they hadn’t fought the second one for.
No the U.S. should not back these dictators, like so-called President Sisi in Egypt. That’s part of what got us attacked in the first place. But we sure as hell should not be supporting bin Ladenite insurgencies against them either.
Hillary Clinton and Saudi Arabia’s installation of Mansour Hadi when they co-opted the Arab Spring revolt in Yemen in 2011 and 2012, led straight to the next phase of the war, which broke out in 2015. For the last six and a half years, the U.S. has backed Saudi Arabia and UAE in a war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and also strengthened al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula beyond belief.
There have been no successes in the war on terrorism, unless you count winning two Iraq wars for Shi’ites who despise us and continue to insist that our troops leave their country immediately. I don’t.
There are now something like 30,000 bin Ladenite fighters in the world, and Iran and Russia, who intervened to save Assad from al Qaeda and ISIS, are more influential in the region than ever. This is not how it was supposed to be.
Speaking of Russia, it isn’t just the Mideast wars. In Georgia, the U.S. supported the Rose Revolution of 2003 and the installation of Mikhail Saakashvili, who almost got us into a war with Russia when he attacked their peacekeeping forces in South Ossetia just 5 years later and Vice President Dick Cheney tried to convince George W. Bush to strike Russian forces crossing the Caucuses Mountains.
The U.S. also helped to overthrow the government of Ukraine twice, in 2004 and 2014. In 2014, they used actual Nazis in a street putsch against the elected government. It was supposed be easy to get away with while Putin was distracted with the Sochi Olympics, but instead the new Ukraine coup junta lost Crimea to Russia, and started a brutal war in the east which has killed more than 10,000 people and unnecessarily ratcheted up tensions with the other most powerful nuclear weapons state on the planet.
Then-National Endowment for Democracy head Carl Gershman even threatened regime change in Moscow itself in the Washington Post in October 2013.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously blessed the Honduran coup of 2009, leading directly to the rise of murderous drug cartels in that country and a massive child refugee crisis at our southern border.
The American establishment had its so-called "unipolar moment" at the high water mark of U.S. influence to lead the world into the brave new future at the turn of the millennium, and they blew it.
The US government has spread not liberty, but the tyranny of the majority; not free markets but corrupt crony contracting; not peace and security, but mass sectarian violence and destabilization.
This has led to an increased support for left- and right-wing socialism around the world in reaction. Liberalism and democracy, in the broadest sense, have been discredited as meaning nothing more than supplication to American demands or cheap excuses for our violent intervention.
The economic crisis and refugee crisis resulting from our Middle East wars has led to the rise of the populist right in Europe, where they are ascendant in the European Parliament; the UK has left the EU and the unraveling of the entire so-called liberal international order, even in the West, has begun.
In your 1997 "National Greatness" piece in the Wall Street Journal, you wrote that the universal principle at the heart of the American ideal is a mandate to "advance freedom" around the world, apparently by any means necessary, for the world’s own good. But means determine ends. And even if somehow waging violent coups and regime change wars across the planet could guarantee freedom for those people, it would necessarily come at the expense of those whose lives and liberty our government is actually sworn to protect: ours.
No wonder that here in America as well, people are moving to the socialist left and nationalist right since the disastrous consequences of militarism and regime change are what passes for liberalism in the center. The backlash from Bush’s disastrous wars and the devastating economic crash of 2008 — a direct result of the Fed’s militarism-friendly easy-money policy in the preceding decade — led to the disruptive and destabilizing presidency of Barack Obama. His disastrous wars and the so-called "K-shaped" economic recovery of his time in office – meaning bankers and think tankers paid by defense contractors did great while the people on the bottom three-quarters of the economic ladder remained stuck in 2009 – led directly to the election of Donald J. Trump, running as an economic populist and war skeptic, over W. Bush’s brother and Barack Obama’s Secretary of State. His election was a reaction against the military and economic legacy of the preceding 15 years and its centrist liberal establishment champions, including the neoconservatives. And who? A guy who built his political capital proclaiming on talk radio that Obama was a secret pro-terrorist Muslim from Kenya. In other words, your nemesis Trump was exploiting your movements’ previous cultivation of this sort of illiberal sentiment among Republican voters back when it was still useful to your ends: building support for the wars.
Now that the anti-Muslim chauvinism of the American right is no longer as useful, you claim the right itself is the greatest threat to American democracy. If so, this is the nationalist movement the neoconservatives have done so much to cultivate and promote, for bin Laden and his friends were few, but would-be enemies, who happened to be Muslim, were many.
So Bush and the neocons supported the worst sort of right-wing populist nationalism in America, especially with their wink and nod approach to the Muslim-hating hacks on AM talk radio. It was central to Karl Rove’s plan for his permanent Republican majority.
That was a big part of why my opponent was so determined to bring Sarah Palin on board with John McCain in 2008: she could get the rubes excited and afraid and convince them to continue to support the McCainian-neoconservative doctrines behind the Long War in the Mideast.
It’s why your friend Frank Gaffney pretended to believe that a small Sufi mosque in a building down the street from the old World Trade Center site was supposed to represent the Muslim Enemy’s triumph over America or that the 50 states needed to pass emergency legislation to protect us all from enslavement under Sharia law. This deliberately deceptive campaign did much to make the right worse.
Now centrists are terrified of the populist right, accusing them all of being neo-Nazi white supremecists – including many tens or hundreds of thousands of men and women who are resentful veterans of the wars you lied them into. And in turn the populist right is terrified that the war on terrorism is now being turned against them as the Department of Homeland Security redefines "violent extremism" to mean almost any political activity outside of the two major parties. The people in return resent the power of the establishment which so despises them even more.
And now the average guy is supposed to believe that the last quarter century’s greatest proponents of American empire, such as Mr. Kristol and Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz, herself an avowed hawk and promoter of torture, are the last principled defenders of the old republic they destroyed.
Who’s buying that?
"Engagement." "Leadership." "Primacy." "Preeminence." "Hegemony." These are just euphemisms for World Empire, with the U.S.A. in the position of the hated British that our forebears had led the world in overthrowing. The doctrine that the middle part of North America should be or could be the dominant military and political power in Eurasia – and indefinitely – is crazy on its face.
And plus, the whole thing is really just a racket. As the soldiers call it, a "self-licking ice cream cone" – in other words, a government program creating its own disasters it must then attempt to solve. No nation on earth threatens the United States. As Ron Paul once told the Washington Post, "We could defend this country with a couple ’a good submarines."
Are there any real benefits for the American people from America’s policy of global domination, including regime change?: perhaps access to oil and minerals?
Certainly not. Roger Stern, an economic geographer at Princeton University, published a study in 2010 which determined the U.S. had "misallocated" $8 trillion between 1976–2007 protecting the sea lanes in and out of the Persian Gulf when oil’s safe transport was never really under threat. We’ve spent a few more trillion since then. This is far more than Americans even spend consuming Middle Eastern oil.
Even if we could somehow just scoop up all the oil and walk away with it, as Donald Trump seems to believe, it could never be worth the cost in blood and grief, or the opportunities lost when people turn away from America for acting in such a ruthless manner. Elon Musk celebrated the coup against a popularly elected government in Bolivia in 2018, crowing on Twitter that it’s great because he needs their lithium for his Teslas. His company may have played zero role in the coup for all I know, but the U.S. government quickly moved to support it. So it still raises the important question: what is America’s national interest over the long term? And is it good for the rest of us when selfish narrow special interests justify violent intervention in other people’s countries for their own good in the short term?
And let’s just presume that the financial gains far outweigh the costs when companies like Freeport-McMoRan are able to run off with West Papua’s gold, even accounting for the taxpayers’ cost for U.S. government involvement there?: What shall it profit a nation, if they gain the whole world, and lose their own soul – you know, by committing horrible, deadly sins against helpless people?
Part of the problem here is that the neoconservatives and their neo-liberal counterparts never really understood what liberty was about in the first place.
It’s a great way to finance a PNAC, but Pentagon contracting is not the free market, it’s corrupt crony capitalism.
Due to the economic deformations of America’s permanent war system, the most wealthy counties in the country now are not here in New York City but in the suburbs of Washington D.C., where our supposed public servants live and work.
And the richest in this city, as all Americans and the rest of the world know, are all market-proof due to the so-called "Greenspan Put." They get bailed out by Congress and the Federal Reserve System every time they make a few trillion dollars worth of bad bets. Regular working schmucks blow their own brains out trying to carry Wall Street on their back through the recessions these banks and firms help cause and remain completely immune from. Their sons come home from the war, unable to find good work, unlike all the promises. This is another major reason for the current crisis of confidence by the American people in our supposed betters who rule us.
So, no the nation as a whole does’t benefit financially or otherwise from acts of violence and coersion by the American government. Read NSC 68. Paul Nitze did not understand economics. The whole imperial project is a fool’s errand.
The U.S. Constitution does not authorize this posture of global dominance. The people of the world do not want it. The American people’s costs are in the trillions, and our gain is nonexistent. We suffer the terribly destructive, inflation-generated boom-bust cycle and endlessly rising prices. The feds rifle through our internet and phone records. Our sheriffs’ deputies act like special operations forces at war in our neighborhoods. Our soldiers and marines come home maimed physically and mentally, and more and more terrorists are motivated to attack the United States.
There is a widespread feeling in America that liberty, justice, fairness under the law, and cooperation and compromise through little-d democracy is now untenable. Hatreds between sectors of society have become much more solidified. More people speak of secession and separation. The people are finding out the hard way that you cannot have it both ways. There is no such thing as a limited, constitutional world empire. There cannot be a balanced budget, a free and prosperous economy, independent major media or rule of law in a state of permanent war.
We Americans are losing our freedom in the name of forcibly spreading it to the rest of the world.
Enough already. Let’s defend America first; end all aggressive wars and covert interventions in other nations, abandon our empire and put the protection of liberty in our own country at the top of our political priorities. Then, shed of all this violent hypocrisy, we will be able to lead the world in the only legitimate way we can, by the benign sympathy of our example.
Scott Horton is editorial director of Antiwar.com, director of the Libertarian Institute, host of Antiwar Radio on Pacifica, 90.7 FM KPFK in Los Angeles, California and podcasts the Scott Horton Show from ScottHorton.org. He’s the author of the 2021 book Enough Already: Time to End the War on Terrorism, the 2017 book, Fool’s Errand: Time to End the War in Afghanistan, and the editor of the 2019 book, The Great Ron Paul: The Scott Horton Show Interviews 2004–2019. He’s conducted more than 5,500 interviews since 2003. Scott’s articles have appeared at Antiwar.com, The American Conservative magazine, the History News Network, The Future of Freedom, The National Interest and the Christian Science Monitor. He also contributed a chapter to the 2019 book, The Impact of War. Scott lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, investigative reporter Larisa Alexandrovna Horton. He is a fan of, but no relation to the lawyer from Harper’s. Scott’s Twitter, YouTube, Patreon.