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Monday, October 15, 2012

The Unraveling of American Foreign Policy

In the Vice Presidential debate conducted October 11, 2012, foreign policy occupied a significant portion of the discussion. Paul Ryan's flash cards for the debate preparation clearly must have included the word "unravel" because he managed to use it three different times in describing recent events in the Middle East and America's responses to those events by the Obama Administration.

Referring to the "unraveling of the Obama foreign policy," Ryan was clearly attempting to convert Americans' likely sense of confusion and uncertainty over the results of the so-called Arab Spring into an impression of confusion and uncertainty on the part of the Obama Administration. Ryan criticized the Obama Administration for failing to immediately and publicly throw America's unflinching support for protestors and militant rebels from Iran to Egypt to Libya and Syria. According to Ryan, America has missed a once in a lifetime chance to align itself with the "forces of democracy" emerging in those countries. In essence, Ryan was charging the Obama Administration with conducting a feckless strategy of foreign policy that has crippled America's leadership role in the world while exacerbating all of the problems in the world.

That's an important charge to make and really merits its own debate and analysis. A full debate on this single issue is never going to happen but it's still worth a review by American voters who might still be attempting to pick a lesser of two evils for President.

What's Currently "Raveled"?

If Ryan and the Romney campaign are going to claim America's foreign policy has become unraveled under the Obama Administration, it's first crucial to understand exactly what was "raveled" in American foreign policy prior to January 2009. Exactly what were America's key policies regarding democracy, individual rights and military intervention and how did those policies support America's long term security?

Any cursory review of American foreign policy since World War II would boil down to the following bullet points:

* containment of Communism supported by Russia and China and their proxies
* support of Israel's establishment and ongoing security in the Middle East
* support of regimes willing to support American energy interests
* support of regimes willing to support other American business interests

One can argue our policy of containment resulted in Russia spending itself into oblivion, backing the world up several minutes away from midnight on the doomsday clock. One can also argue our policies with China have led (tricked?) China into pursuing its long term goals using economic tactics very similar to our own (rather than a pure militaristic approach like the USSR). That has resulted in lots of cheap consumer goods for Americans (albeit with a much larger trade deficit) but also adds a unique risk to China's government as it tries to operate a modern market economy while still restricting political and personal freedoms, a task as challenging as surviving a walk through a TNT factory with a 4th of July sparkler.

The other bullets are all intricately knotted together with layers of inter-dependency few can explain and even fewer are willing to actually discuss. America has certainly helped a very determined Israeli people maintain a democracy amid a region that was a literal and figurative desert of democracy. Rightly or wrongly, American support of Israel has also generated continued hostility from countries throughout the Middle East who feel Israel's very existence and territory came at the expense of other peoples of other faiths / ethnicity already IN the region. At the same time, American administrations over the past sixty years have consistently supported regimes in the Middle East who either required assistance for oil production or were willing to act as American pawns in the proxy chess war with a Communist Russia. This support had zero strings attached to democratic principles and individual freedoms in those "client" countries. In fact, many of our friends were among the most repressive regimes in the world during this period.

Consequences of America's "Raveled" Foreign Policy

For a time, the core elements of America's foreign policy seemed to yield all of the intended goals -- virtually unlimited quantities of cheap oil and profits for American producers, an independent Israel that successfully thwarted multiple attempts by its neighbors to destroy it and relatively little turnover in the leadership of our clients in the region, giving American politicians and the American public a sense of stability.

That sense of stability came unglued in 1978 when Iran erupted into chaos and was shattered completely a year later when the Shah fled the country, leading to the establishment of an Islamic theocracy that was militantly anti-American. The reaction of most Americans at the time could probably be characterized as "Wow, why do those people hate us? We like the Iranians, they help us thwart the Soviets and sell us lots of oil." Most Americans had no clue that America had assisted with the overthrow of a democratically elected Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and the re-institution of Shah Reza Pahlavi, who continued to operate Iran as a brutal, secret-police state until the 1979 revolution.

Feelings of stability were further whittled away in 1981 by the assassination of Anwar Sadat in Egypt. Again, the reaction of the typical American at the time might have been "Wow, what is WRONG with these people? Sadat was a good guy, signed a peace deal with Israel, was an increasingly trusted ally of America. What's going on over there?" Few knew he used brutal repression internally to stifle the objections of his own population to the deal struck with Israel.

Things got worse when Iraq launched the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Initially framed as a border dispute, the war really reflected a battle between Iraq's fantasy of itself as a leader of some greater pan-Arabic union and Iran's fantasy of itself as a leader of some greater pan-Islamic force in the region. What was the reaction of most Americans at the time? "Hey, whaddaya know? Someone just declared war on those nasty, hostage-taking Iranian punks and wow, how lucky can we get, that country wants to swing from being a Soviet client to an American client, wants to buy weapons from us and has gobs of oil to replace the oil we used to buy from Iran. We lose one oil ally and immediately land another. We're Even Steven." We wound up arming Saddam Hussein, a man just as crazy and brutal as the new leadership of Iran, and supported a war that killed over a half million people because we thought the enemy of our enemy must be our friend.

America's support for Iraq exploded in our face in 1990 when Saddam Hussein, as a continuation of his fantasy of himself as the leader of a wider pan-Arab force of the world, decided he also had a dispute with Kuwait, partly based upon oil production quotas and partly based upon a claim that, in fact, Kuwait belonged to Iraq prior to British borders drawn after World War I. Tensions escalated through the year until July 25, when Saddam Hussein met personally with April Glaspie, America's ambassador to Iraq, who stated that America had no position on "internal" Arab / Arab conflicts. Saddam interpreted that as a green light and invaded Kuwait on August 2, 1990.

America led the assembly of a coalition that attacked Iraq in January of 1991 and drove Iraq out of Kuwait by February 27. By February 28, the Bush Administration declared a cease fire rather than pursue the ouster of Saddam, citing a lack of support among coalition members to exceed the original goals and the lives such an effort would cost. America not only failed to defang Saddam, it also failed to rationalize communication to opposition forces inside Iraq by broadcasting messages of support for rebels. Would-be rebels emerged from cover to fight Saddam, no support or even air cover was provided by America, and Saddam quickly slaughtered them in large numbers. Wow. It really pays to trust American statements of support.

Foreign Policy in the Obama Era

Paul Ryan's debate critique of foreign policy as practiced by the Obama Administration seems to boil down to the following points:

* America didn't IMMEDIATELY express support for "pro-democracy" forces in Iran in 2010
* America didn't IMMEDIATELY express support for "pro-democracy" forces in Egypt in 2011
* America didn't IMMEDIATELY express support for "pro-democracy" forces in Libya in 2011
* America didn't IMMEDIATELY express support for "pro-democracy" forces in Syria in 2012
* America didn't LEAD military support for rebel forces in Libya
* America has yet to provide any military support for rebel forces in Syria

These are all certainly factually accurate complaints on the surface. However, all of them are completely without merit given America's past 60 years of foreign policy, the consequences of that foreign policy, and the current economic and military demands crippling America.

Declaring support for an emerging opposition in Iran in 2010 would have made it too easy for Iranian leaders to point to another attempt by American imperialists to control the country in an effort to distract Iranians from the complete meltdown of their economy. Over the last 32 years, our isolation from Iran has made it almost as much of a mystery regarding its internal politics as North Korea. We know next to nothing about any "legitimate" budding opposition forces and their true goals. If the Iranians are going to topple their theocratic regime and have any chance of replacing it with something more amenable to basic human rights, the effort will have to come from within.

Declaring support for "pro-democracy" forces in Egypt at the onset of demonstrations in January of 2011 would have posed identical problems as those in Iran. Our support of Mubarak for thirty years helped him suppress opposition within the country while isolating America from any meaningful contact with any opposition forces. We knew (and still know) virtually nothing about the true aims and power structures of the various factions now struggling to operate their fledgling democracy. All we know now is that free elections have resulted in leaders dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood controlling the government who are still walking a tightrope between past goals of adopting Islamic law and adopting enough democratic reforms to take control back from the Egyptian military.

Declaring support for democratic forces in Libya was equally unviable. Libya was another "outlaw" nation operating without any direct American relations for over forty years, leaving American policymakers with ZERO insight into possible opposition groups and their capabilities and goals. America did use its unique air power capabilities to create no-fly zones that prevented Qaddafi from attacking civilians from the air, drastically reducing casualties and weakening Qaddafi's command and control facilities. Given the circumstances, that was probably the most effective military and political action America could have taken. Even now, we know little about any factions within the country and how some might be partnering with external forces such as al Qaeda to know who we can trust.

The conflict in Syria is a near re-run of that in Libya. Syria is a former-Soviet / now-Russian client state, it operates as a brutal, secret-police state, partners with Iran to support Hezbollah terrorists throughout the region and uses fear of the repressed Sunni Muslim majority population to stoke support among a small minority of Alawite sect Muslims who fill most positions of power within the regime. Like Libya, America knows NOTHING about any possible opposition groups within the country, foreign organizations they might be partnering with and how those partnerships will affect the long term outcome. We know al Qaeda allied forces are operating in the country, we just don't know where they are and which internal groups are partnering with them. This is not the intelligence, political or military environment for which the correct solution to the problem is "drop hundreds of millions of dollars worth of weapons into the country and watch who emerges when the gunfire stops."

In addition to all of the "soft" strategic concerns with political and military intervention outlined above, a single crucial "hard" practical concern also affects American options. America's military personnel and equipment have been worn out and stretched too thinly after ten years and two wars. America's economy is already at the breaking point due to underfunding of those two longstanding wars and a decade of financial corruption. We simply have nothing left in the tank to back more saber rattling in North Africa, the Persian Gulf and the Middle East. If it wasn't already apparent to our enemies in these regions, it might become very apparent if we begin more saber rattling then have to put the saber away after the American public screams "ENOUGH" and forces our politicians to stop defending their own manhood with another generation of American men and women and another trillion dollars in debt.

What's the Opposite of Feckless?

If Ryan wishes to imply current Obama Administration policies are somehow "feckless", one has to assume the Romney / Ryan ticket presents a choice of some "opposite" policy that isn't "feckless". What exactly would that be?

Maybe the Romney / Ryan Doctrine amounts to supporting any group claiming to be "pro-democracy" anytime and anywhere. Even in countries with no recent history of democracy or institutions remotely capable of supporting democratic principles. Maybe it amounts to deploying the American military first, then asking questions later after the dust settles, assuming it ever settles.

Didn't we already try that in Iraq? How many American lives have we lost with that strategy? How many more dollars in addition to the $807 billion already spent will be required before exiting Iraq? How many more dollars will proponents be willing to guarantee in future budgets to cover support costs for the tens of thousands of troops with brain injuries from IEDs and missing limbs? Or will those be viewed as "health care" costs like everything else subject to across-the-board budget cuts as politicians maintain their refusal to raise taxes to cover their spending?

If the Obama foreign policy is feckless and the Romney / Ryan ticket expects to do the exact opposite of "feckless", what would that approach be called?

Maybe "fecked?"


That's perfect.