A Policy of Masterly Inactivity

Avoiding unnecessary conflicts rather than seeking them out will keep the American people more safe, prosperous and free.

Military genius is winning wars without fighting battles. In the same way, foreign-policy genius is masterly inactivity: eschewing capers abroad in search of monsters to destroy, while avoiding meddling in the internal affairs of other nations.

In practice, masterly inactivity means spending billions on self-defense and deterrence while promising a second edition of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to any aggressor. It means refusing one cent for empire, which includes establishing military bases in 150 countries manned by 200,000 U.S. soldiers, and weapons sales and bribes disguised as foreign aid. The United States has neither a moral nor a legal obligation to undertake the fool’s errand of ridding the world of tyranny by making Americans play global Good Samaritan. That is a role for volunteers who covet a Nobel Peace Prize.

Masterly inactivity preserves American lives, saves vast sums in Pentagon spending, and creates no enemies. It was the foreign policy of President George Washington and his first five successors throughout the Napoleonic Wars, North African piracy, as well as the Central and South American upheavals against Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

The modern day foreign policy of empire has squandered the lives of courageous American soldiers under the banner of world domination in places like Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. It has created enemies by providing material assistance to rulers who oppress or terrorize their peoples, which makes the United States morally complicit in their oppression or terrorism. In the Middle East alone, the United States has provided assistance to Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, the King of Bahrain, Kuwait’s al Sabah family, Saudi Arabia’s House of Saud, Iran’s Mohammed Reza Shah, Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh and Jordan’s King Hussein. 9/11 might have been avoided if the United States had refrained from aiding and abetting the criminal acts of Middle East governments against their peoples.

If left alone from external threat, nations typically convulse from internecine warfare or strife. The causes vary, but the most common are religious, tribal, racial or ethnic animosities. Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, China, Russia, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Lebanon and Myanmar are exemplary. Muslims kill each other far more frequently than they kill Jews or Christians. Even homogenous nations like Somalia or Bangladesh routinely splinter over struggles for power. Chairman Mao killed more Chinese in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution than is conceivable by any invader. Moreover, wars of aggression or occupation of foreign lands typically destroy or weaken the aggressor or occupier. The Soviet Union was bankrupted by occupying Central and Eastern Europe and the Red Army was preoccupied with suppressing chronic revolts in Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Czechoslovakia. China’s 1979 aggression against Vietnam was sharply rebuffed. India is bleeding from its occupation of Kashmir.

The United States is the most invulnerable nation in the world. Its annual national security expenditures approximate $1 trillion, dwarfing the defense spending of every other nation on the planet. Its weapons are vastly superior to the arms of any rival, and its military personnel are more highly trained, skilled and motivated. No other state or nonstate actor endangers United States sovereignty. None would even contemplate an attack or revenge unless provoked by United States efforts to manipulate or control their domestic politics or international relations. Illustrative was the U.S.-orchestrated overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh in favor of the brutal and corrupt Mohammed Reza Shah in 1953. A more recent example was a $30 billion arms sale to the House of Saud.

The United States should return to a foreign policy of masterly inactivity. This should begin with Syria. We should be scrupulously neutral between President Bashar al-Assad and the fractured Syrian rebels, just as the United States practiced strict neutrality between the Spanish and Portuguese Empires and the Central and South American insurgents seeking independence in the early 1800s. Irrespective of the outcome of the Syrian civil war, U.S. sovereignty will not be threatened and the U.S. economy will not be harmed. Syrian WMD will not be used against the United States.

Masterly inactivity would leave the United States innocent of the predictable atrocities or autocratic practices that will blemish the successor regime to President Assad. In contrast, the foreign policy of empire that implicated the United States in the overthrow of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi correspondingly made America morally responsible for the semi-anarchy—featuring Gaddafi’s murder—that followed. One group of insurgents in Syria, the Al Nusra Front, has been listed by the United States as a foreign terrorist organization. None of the others are devoted to principles of government worthy of democracy or the rule of law. Indeed, no Arab culture in history has ever sustained a democratic dispensation, including post-Saddam Iraq bedeviled by ethnic and sectarian hatreds and a dysfunctional judiciary.

By non-intervention in the Syrian conflict, the United States would make no enemies. Losers in war are not resentful towards nations blameless for their deaths or defeat. Neither the Cambodians nor Rwanda’s Tutsis despise the United States for declining intervention to thwart the Pol Pot and Hutu genocides.

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