US Foreign Policy Discussions Need a Colossal Dose of Humility

The title of an article posted yesterday at Foreign Policy blares that “The Saudi-Iran War is America’s Fault”.  Hmm, yes, probably so, given the endless flow of money and weapons the US has gifted to Saudi Arabia over the decades, as well as the endless provocations directed at Iran.  Washington is looking for any reason to launch an attack against the Islamic Republic, or have an ally do the dirty work.  The political class would love a war between the two, because it could then pile in behind the Saudis, handing out the latest in Military/Industrial Complex war toys to the Saudis to use on Iranian civilians.  US intel and strategy would be provided gratuitously to the Saudis, in the same way they’ve given aid to the Desert Kingdom in their assault on Yemen’s civilians, but orders of magnitude greater.

The subtitle of the article, however, is quite a bit less heartening: “And now it’s Washington’s job to make sure it doesn’t spin out of control”.  Is it, really?  Why so?  Shortsighted interventionism got us to this point where we have to point out that yes, it probably is the fault of the United States for the state of affairs between the Saudis and Iran, but does that mean anything we do could somehow fix the situation?  What incentive does Washington have to prevent the conflict from spinning out of control?  There are surely plenty of pro-war demagogues who would love to see Iran receive the same treatment Yemen is taking right now.

Kim Ghattas, author of the Foreign Policy piece, writes under the impression that not only is it our responsibility to clean up a situation that we created, but that it is possible to successfully micromanage dealings between states and somehow achieve something other than the utter chaos that US foreign policy has unleashed across the Middle East.  From the article:

“The United States cannot ignore or choose to stay out of the brewing rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia.  It is not a purely religious feud, and it is not someone else’s civil war – it’s a hornet’s nest in which Washington poked its finger by pursuing a nuclear deal with Iran.”

Well, yes, it is someone else’s civil war.  The US government should, and does, have better things to do than insert itself into every far-off conflict or “rivalry”.  Dipping our fingers into affairs of foreign governments that subsequently go south does give the impression that we have a responsibility to fix it, which is a good reason to not intervene in the first place.  Of Iraq it has been continuously said that “we own it”, which means that we have a responsibility to “fix it” somehow.  Do people not see that “fixing” a country through force of arms has the effect of making the situation worse?  Did the “nuclear deal” foment the rivalry, as Ghattos claims?  Perhaps.  But that stemmed from previous meddlesome behavior, namely not allowing Iran their right to peaceful nuclear power, which stemmed from the interest in maintaining Saudi and Israeli dominance in the region.  Intervention, and the mayhem wrought by intervention, is never-ending.

According to an apocryphal Russian proverb, it’s easy to turn an aquarium into fish soup, but much harder to turn fish soup into an aquarium.  The US political class has served up plenty of fish soup over the past decade, and much of it was created in the belief that each aquarium just wasn’t good enough without our help.

A prime example of US-created fish soup would be Iraq.  It’s a steaming bowl of it, and no amount of firepower is going to change that.  Societal cohesion was destroyed, it’s not something that can be put back together through force of arms.

US foreign policy has been a series of ad-hoc interventions for a while now, each subsequent intervention sold as repairing whatever collateral damage was inflicted during the previous intervention.  And after each foreign policy failure, the architects of fish soup get medals, honorary degrees, and their opinions are still heeded.  But why do they get any respect at all, while the idea of nonintervention is ignored as not worthy of discussion?

Untangling the mare’s nest of interventions that the US committed over the years should be done, because it’s important to fully understand the folly of our foreign policy, so as to not make the same mistake in the future.  But to draw from this knowledge that we didn’t intervene enough, or that there is something that we could possibly do fix the chaos, is the height of arrogance.  It’s the same hubris that set in motion the interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and elsewhere, a hubris that will never admit that doing nothing is a better option than “doing something”.  “We” shouldn’t “do something” about every conflict that flares up across the Middle East.  To “do something” means to “do something with bombs, bullets, and military occupation”.  It means to put our stamp of approval on a situation that we have no business being a part of, and when it spirals into a bloodbath, we’re expected to fix it.

What’s needed is a large dose of humility when speaking of the ability of the US to successfully intervene in foreign affairs, especially in the face of such obvious failures as Libya and Iraq.  A realization that certain problems have no solution, that certain situations cannot be reversed.  A foreign policy of saving face is a recipe for disaster.

Shane Smith lives in Norman, Oklahoma and writes for Red Dirt Report.