The Costs of American Interventionism

The lessons Washington must learn from the consequences of America's globalist post-9/11 policy.

In a New York Times op-ed published on February 2, 1981, Henry S. Bienen, then an Africa specialist at Princeton University, discussed how “globalists” and “regionalists” advocated differing foreign-policy approaches for the United States. “Globalists,” Bienen noted, “believe that weakening military positions will lead ineluctably to weakening economic ones and that, in any case, security interests, defined first in military terms, must be paramount in any discussion of United States policy.”

Bienen declared that he preferred the regionalist approach, however,

since this perspective starts with the assumption that unless one knows what is possible in specific contexts, and unless one has a good understanding of local factors that are operating, policies are likely to fail or to be counterproductive. No accurate analysis of the trade-offs between costs and benefits of different policies can be made without a deep understanding of the specific configurations of power in given countries.

The Cold War is long over, but what Bienen wrote about American foreign policy back in 1981 is also true with regard to American foreign policy in the post–9/11 war on terror. Globalists have been primarily concerned about the “global threat” posed by al-Qaeda and its allies (both actual and perceived) and with defeating this threat militarily. Regionalists, by contrast, have been fearful that America’s deepening military involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq were so unpopular locally that they were creating more enemies than they were eliminating. But just as with the Cold War, it was the globalists and not the regionalists who were in control of formulating American foreign policy in the war on terror—especially during the George W. Bush administration.

The Report Card

After pursuing it for over a decade, what have been the results of America’s war on terror? On the positive side: the regimes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban were toppled, elected governments have taken office in both countries, and, more recently, Osama bin Laden and several other top al-Qaeda leaders have been eliminated.

But there have been negative results as well. America and its allies have paid a high cost in terms of lives lost and resources expended in these two conflicts. The people of Afghanistan and Iraq, of course, have borne far higher human and material costs. Further, the elected governments in both countries have proven to be not only corrupt and authoritarian but also quite ungrateful toward and uncooperative with the United States.

While the U.S. intervention in Iraq ended the Arab Sunni minority’s domination of that country and allowed the Arab Shia majority to come to power via elections, harmony has not been established among Iraq’s three principle communities (Arab Shia, Arab Sunnis and Kurds). With the final departure of American armed forces from Iraq at the end of 2011, intercommunal conflict appears to be increasing.

Even though large numbers of American and coalition forces are still present there, the Taliban and its allies—with help from Pakistan—have made an unwelcome comeback in much of Afghanistan. It does not seem likely that the impending withdrawal of American and coalition forces by the end of 2014 is going to weaken the Taliban. Withdrawal will only provide the Taliban with greater opportunity to regain power.

Further, with America and its allies so heavily involved in Afghanistan and Iraq, al-Qaeda’s affiliates were able to gain influence elsewhere—including in Yemen and Somalia. Finally, even though it has been gravely weakened by the death of bin Laden and many of its other top leaders, al-Qaeda Central remains venomously alive under the leadership of bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The False Choice

Did America have to pursue a globalist policy after 9/11 involving intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq? Could it have pursued a more nuanced, regionalist approach that avoided intervening in these countries and focused on dealing with al-Qaeda instead? Or could it have at least avoided intervening in Iraq and thus concentrated its efforts and resources on Afghanistan and al-Qaeda? While interesting, these questions are moot. The Bush administration adopted globalist policies at the outset of the war on terror, and it is the legacy of these decisions that President Obama—and probably subsequent presidents—must deal with.

President Obama, of course, has already withdrawn American forces from Iraq and has vowed to withdraw them from Afghanistan by 2014. Clearly, he does not share President Bush’s globalist vision regarding the war on terror. But however much President Obama’s decision to withdraw American forces from these two countries is prudent fiscally and popular both domestically and internationally, Obama’s rejection of Bush’s globalist approach to the war on terror does not indicate the adoption of a regionalist approach.

American intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq was unable to establish peace and prosperity in these two countries. American withdrawal from them will not do so either. Conflicts in these countries will continue, and forces hostile to the United States, its regional allies and the people of these countries can be expected to try to get the upper hand. America needs to adopt policies somewhere between the extremes of reintervening and doing nothing. In order to do this successfully, Washington would do well to heed Professor Bienen’s advice from over three decades ago: know what is possible in specific contexts, and understand local factors. We’ve already seen what happens when this advice is ignored.

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