The High Cost of U.S. Foreign Policy

What benefits have our many interventions brought?

As pressure mounts to get more deeply involved in Syria, few attempts have placed the chances for successful intervention within a comparative historical context, or have analyzed the opportunity costs of such interventions. Most Americans would probably be surprised, for instance, to learn that over the past two decades their country has, according to Paul Wolfowitz, fought “at least seven wars of Muslim liberation” (in Kuwait, Northern Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya). Unfortunately, such expenditures of blood and treasure have gained us precious little gratitude or appreciation.

According to a 2012 Pew Research Survey, on average 75-80 percent of the world's Muslim populations have an unfavorable attitude towards the United States. This might have something to do with the collateral damage resulting from these liberatory wars. According to Stephen Walt, U.S. military actions have killed, by a very conservative estimate, some 288,000 Muslims in the very places we have “liberated.” And the financial costs of such interventions have been nothing less than astronomical, and potentially catastrophic for the country. Brown University’s Costs of War project has estimated that American military expenditures on Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan will ultimately cost over $4 trillion dollars—fully one quarter of the entire U.S. national debt.

Moreover, from a long-term perspective it is difficult to see the benefits these interventions have brought. Since 2001, the United States has provided some $93 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan. If these monies were intended to promote, at least to some small degree, values and concepts such as respect for human rights and civil liberties, then their expenditure might well go down as the most miserably failed lobbying effort in history. In May, the Afghan parliament debated measures to ban child marriages, forced marriages and marital rape for a full fifteen minutes before the initiative was scrapped. Meanwhile, after twelve years of war, 2,250 American lives lost, and $93 billion invested, we are beginning negotiations with the Taliban, who have just opened a political office in Qatar representing “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”

Another beneficiary of Western largess has been Egypt, which since the Camp David Accords has received by conservative estimates over $45 billion in U.S. military and civilian aid. A recent EU auditor’s report claimed that EU financial assistance to Egypt has “done little” to tackle corruption and the effort to improve human-rights abuses has been “largely unsuccessful.” Examples of such failures are not hard to find. According to a 2010 Pew Research survey, 80–85 percent of Egyptians believe that apostates and adulterers should be stoned to death, and 75 percent believe thieves should have their hands cut off. (Even in relatively liberal Jordan, a recent study found that one third of all teenagers believed that honor killings were appropriate for women and girls who bring “shame” on the family.) Just two years ago, now deposed president of Egypt Mohamed Morsi called Jews “the descendants of apes and pigs.” One can't help but think that the neocons must have been smoking something funny out of their shisha pipes when they argued that a region with such predominant attitudes about freedom of conscience and corporal and capital punishment just needed a military invasion for democracies to start bursting forth.

Moreover, when the media spotlight goes off, little notice is paid to how these efforts can backfire. In the 1990s, the United States helped infiltrate Iranian agents and Al Qaeda operatives into Bosnia. Yet by 2001, according to the late Richard Holbrooke, if it had not been for the peace agreement ending the war, the 9/11 attacks would have been planned “from Bosnia, not Afghanistan.” The extent to which these policies continue to haunt us is amply evident; in just the last couple of months, two Iranian “diplomats” were expelled from Bosnia for their suspicious dealings with a Wahhabi leader who advocates jihad against the West and the imposition of sharia in Bosnia, and one of the architects of the Pakistani nuclear program, Zahid Ali Akbar Khan, was arrested in Bosnia. What Akbar Khan was doing in the country remains unexplained. Western diplomats and security officials are also becoming increasingly alarmed at the dozens of Bosnian extremists joining the jihad in Syria.