Foreign policy is a tough business, especially when you are the world’s only real superpower.
If the policy makers in Washington didn’t understand that fact before the upheavals in Tunisia and Egypt rocked the world this week and last, they surely must at least be thinking on it now. What’s a country supposed to do to protect its interests?
The conservative pundit, Ross Douthat, summarized that thought in a piercingly adroit New York Times OpEd column earlier this week.
“We have theories,” Mr. Douthat wrote, “and expect the facts to fall into line behind them. … But,” he noted, “history makes fools of us all. We make deals with dictators, and reap the whirlwind of terrorism. We promote democracy, and watch Islamists gain power from Iraq to Palestine. We leap into humanitarian interventions, and get bloodied in Somalia. We stay out, and watch genocide engulf Rwanda. We intervene in Afghanistan and then depart, then watch the Taliban take over. We intervene in Afghanistan and stay, and end up trapped there, with no end in sight.
“Sooner or later,” he concludes, “the theories always fail. The world is too complicated for them, and too tragic.”
U.S. foreign policy has been overly aggressive and single-minded in its pursuit of American interests for over 60 years, and the negative results are all too apparent in the initially awkward and uncertain responses of the Obama administration to the sudden rebellion against authoritarian rule that we are now witnessing in Egypt.
It has always been thought that America’s interests would best be served by some kind of meaningful peace in the Middle East vis-à-vis Israel and its neighbors. Thus, when Egypt’s Anwar Sadat sought a rapprochement with Israel in 1978, after two wars (in ’67 and ’73) that easily could have spread beyond the region, the United States sought to facilitate a lasting peace between the two countries.
The peace treaty signed by Sadat and Menachim Begin at Camp David in 1978 was a crowning achievement for U.S. foreign policy and the administration of Jimmy Carter. But three years later, Sadat was assassinated by militants in his own elite military forces, and the cause of peace was set back severely.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union, still perceived by U.S. policy makers to be engaged in imperialistic expansionism, invaded Afghanistan, a country few Americans even knew existed at the time, in an effort to maintain a pro-Soviet Marxist government there.
Viewing the invasion as more evidence of Soviet “evil-empire” intentions (“We will bury you,” Premier Nikita Khrushchev had vowed two decades earlier), the U.S. reacted aggressively, tacitly supporting the Afghan freedom fighters, who happened to include a young rebel named Osama bin Ladin.
In the meantime, in Iran, the people revolted against the repressive government of its monarch, who had held power against a fundamentalist insurgency thanks to U.S. (CIA) support twenty-six years earlier. In his place, an aged prelate, Ayotollah Khomeini, installed an Islamic theocracy that was immediately perceived as a threat to U.S. interests.
Within two years, following the ultimate release of U.S. embassy personnel who had been taken hostage in the initial days of the revolution, the Iran regime was at war with neighboring Iraq, where another U.S.-created dictator, this one named Saddam Hussein, was intent on domination of the region. The U.S. covertly supported Hussein, who used poison gas in his attacks on the Iranians. The war lasted for eight years and only ended when both sides essentially ran out of troops.
By then, the Soviets, now ruled by a relative visionary named Mikhail Gorbachev, had withdrawn in defeat from Afghanistan, leaving in power another theocracy, this one run by Islamic extremists known as the Taliban. The Soviet Union fell apart early in the next decade, imploding of its own weight when it could no longer support its empire with corrupt and dictatorially-imposed socialist rule.
And then, undoubtedly feeling emboldened by tacit U.S. approval of his tactics in the war against Iran, Saddam Hussein invaded neighboring Kuwait, which, he claimed, was historically a province of Iraq.
The United States reacted with typical American aggressiveness in demanding Hussein’s immediate withdrawal from the sovereign state that just happened to be a major oil producing country. When Saddam refused, Gulf War I began, and in prosecuting it, the United States established a significant U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia, which was now home to that young Afghan freedom fighter, Osama bin Ladin.
Throughout this period, Anwar Sadat’s successor, Hosni Mubarak had created a veritable dictatorship for himself. His regime had received billions in aid from the United States, part of the American pledge to honor Egypt’s 1978 peace agreement with Israel, and he had used that support to build a police state that was heavy on repression and brutality. Along the way, his government grew increasingly corrupt, further inflaming the passions of young militants who joined forces with bin Ladin’s newly formed al Qaeda.
On September 11, 2001, the foreign policy decisions that had created al Qaeda experienced the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil in the country’s history.
Less than two months later, another aggressive foreign policy decision led to the initiation of the war in Afghanistan, and just another eighteen months later, more aggressiveness (this one breaking new ground with a “preventive war”) led to an invasion of a sovereign state that had itself invaded a sovereign state in violation of international law a decade earlier.
One supposed purpose of that war was to unleash the forces of democracy in the entire region, as the U.S. president boldly declared in explaining his decision to his citizens and the world.
The democratic forces of which he spoke are now unleashed. To be sure, the war in Iraq did not unleash them. That war has created a messy quasi-democracy that has hardly been a model for anything other than how not to invade a country.
The one in Afghanistan is even more of a disaster. The “democracy” there is nothing more than a puppet regime of the U.S. that is corrupt to the core.
And now, whether the United States foreign policy apparatus favors it or not, another form of democracy will seek to establish itself in Egypt. And who knows what tomorrow may bring.
The world is, indeed, too complicated. And too tragic.