The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy

Sometimes American interests and values don't align perfectly. Accepting that is painful, but necessary.

For over two years, the civil war in Syria has been synonymous with cries of moral urgency. Do Something! shout those who demand the United States intervene militarily to set the situation there to rights, even as the battle lines now comprise hundreds of regime and rebel groupings and the rebels have started fighting each other. Well, then, shout the moral interventionists, if only we had intervened earlier!

Syria is not unique. Before Syria, humanitarians in 2011 demanded military intervention in Libya, even though the regime of Muammar Qaddafi had given up its nuclear program and had been cooperating for years with Western intelligence agencies. In fact, the United States and France did lead an intervention, and Libya today is barely a state, with Tripoli less a capital than the weak point of imperial-like arbitration for far-flung militias, tribes, and clans, while nearby Saharan entities are in greater disarray because of weapons flooding out of Libya.

The 1990s were full of calls for humanitarian intervention: in Rwanda, which tragically went unheeded; and in Bosnia and Kosovo where interventions, while belated, were by and large successful. Free from the realpolitik necessities of the Cold War, humanitarians have in the past two decades tried to reduce foreign policy to an aspect of genocide prevention. Indeed, the Nazi Holocaust is only one lifetime removed from our own—a nanosecond in human history—and so post–Cold War foreign policy now rightly exists in the shadow of it. The codified upshot has been R2P: the “Responsibility to Protect,” the mantra of humanitarians.

But American foreign policy cannot merely be defined by R2P and Never Again! Statesmen can only rarely be concerned with humanitarian interventions and protecting human rights to the exclusion of other considerations. The United States, like any nation—but especially because it is a great power—simply has interests that do not always cohere with its values. That is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has to be embraced and accepted.

What are those overriding interests? The United States, as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, must always prevent any other power from becoming equally dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere. Moreover, as a liberal maritime power, the United States must seek to protect the sea lines of communication that enable world trade. It must also seek to protect both treaty and de facto allies, and especially their access to hydrocarbons. These are all interests that, while not necessarily contradictory to human rights, simply do not operate in the same category.

Because the United States is a liberal power, its interests—even when they are not directly concerned with human rights—are generally moral. But they are only secondarily moral. For seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor has been throughout history an amoral enterprise pursued by both liberal and illiberal powers. Nevertheless, when a liberal power like the United States pursues such a goal in the service of preventing war among major states, it is acting morally in the highest sense.

A telling example of this tension—one that gets to the heart of why Never Again! and R2P cannot always be the operative words in statesmanship—was recently provided by the foreign-affairs expert Leslie H. Gelb. Gelb noted that after Saddam Hussein had gassed close to seven thousand Kurds to death in northern Iraq in 1988, even a “truly ethical” secretary of state, George Shultz, committed a “moral outrage.” For Shultz basically ignored the incident and continued supporting Saddam in his war against Iran, because weakening Iran—not protecting the citizens of Iraq—was the primary American interest at the time.

So was Shultz acting immorally? Not completely, I believe. Shultz was operating under a different morality than the one normally applied by humanitarians. His was a public morality; not a private one. He and the rest of the Reagan administration had a responsibility to the hundreds of millions of Americans under their charge. And while these millions were fellow countrymen, they were more crucially voters and citizens, essentially strangers who did not know Shultz or Reagan personally, but who had entrusted the two men with their interests. And the American public’s interest clearly dictated that of the two states, Iran and Iraq, Iran at the time constituted the greater threat. In protecting the public interest of even a liberal power, a statesman cannot always be nice; or humane.

I am talking here of a morality of public outcomes, rather than one of private intentions. By supporting Iraq, the Reagan administration succeeded in preventing Iran in the last years of the Cold War from becoming a regional hegemon. That was an outcome convenient to U.S. interests, even if the morality of the affair was ambiguous, given that Iraq’s regime was at the time the more brutal of the two.