America's Costly Foreign-Policy Follies

"The United States has suffered through thirteen years of foreign-policy incompetence in the Oval Office, with little likelihood that the pattern will change before the next president is inaugurated." 

The United States has suffered through thirteen years of foreign-policy incompetence in the Oval Office, with little likelihood that the pattern will change before the next president is inaugurated. The country desperately needs salvation from such consistent blundering, but there’s no particular reason to believe the next president will be any better. And thus, the gnawing question is: What accounts for so many years under two presidents when foreign policy turned out to be one fiasco after another?

Is it possible that we just had the bad luck of having two stupid presidents in a row? The problem with that thesis is that neither George W. Bush, nor Barack Obama lacks serious native intelligence. It doesn’t take a stupid man to pursue a stupid policy; it merely takes a misguided man. And that raises a question as to how it happened that we had two misguided presidents in a row.

The only compelling answer is that there is something amiss in the general outlook of the country—or at least the general outlook of the country as perceived by its foreign-policy elite. The general outlook of the country, on foreign-policy matters today, seems to be made up of two fundamental philosophical concepts, both hopeless illusions.

One flows from what might be called the ameliorative impulse—the idea that mankind can be improved, that human nature can be altered, that we can find a way to spread amity and light through the world if we just work at it hard enough. This is the philosophical foundation of Wilsonism, Woodrow Wilson’s fond conviction that the application of American power in behalf of all mankind can spread democracy; and the spread of democracy will foster peace. It didn’t work for Woodrow Wilson, and it hasn’t worked since.

But it won’t die. George W. Bush was peddling distilled Wilsonism when he declared, in his second inaugural address, that his aim was to eradicate tyranny in our world, in every nation and culture. He hadn’t yet realized that his plan to create a true democracy in Iraq by invading the country and eradicating its tyranny wasn’t exactly working as planned. Where do people get such ideas? Have they never heard of human nature?

But, even after the failure of Bush’s foreign-policy efforts in behalf of the ameliorative impulse, Obama walked into the same trap. He said we just wouldn’t be true Americans if we didn’t jump on the bandwagon bent on destroying the tyranny of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. So we led the bombing campaign, eradicated the old regime, and generated a sump of chaos that is proving impossible to control. He then instinctively concluded, seemingly on the basis of the ameliorative impulse, that Syria’s Bashar al-Assad had to go. So now we are the sworn adversary of Assad at the same time that we are fighting those who are fighting Assad.

The ameliorative impulse is driving the liberal interventionism of the Obama administration. Like Wilson himself, Obama’s Wilsonian officials believe that good things will follow if America maintains an expansive global presence in behalf of the good guys and against the bad guys. If we can just get rid of the tyrants, democracy and stability will follow. It never seems to do so, but that hardly constitutes a cause for any second thoughts on the part of these true believers.

The opposite of the ameliorative impulse is the tragic sense of life—the idea that mankind is flawed, that tyranny will always be with us, that human nature is fixed, and that utopian dreams centered on the ameliorative impulse will always come a cropper. A foreign policy emanating from this view of life focuses on the necessity of balancing power with power and rejects the idea that there is any culmination point in human development.

The other philosophical concept driving American foreign policy is the idea that America’s post–Cold War mandate is to operate in the twenty-first-century world pretty much as it operated on the North American continent in the nineteenth century or as it burst onto the world scene at the dawn of the twentieth century. In a famous late-1990s article in the Weekly Standard, William Kristol and David Brooks promoted what they called “national greatness conservatism,” the central tenet of which seemed to be that the country didn’t rise to sufficient grandeur to satisfy national aspirations. They called for a heightened sense of national purpose and, in its behalf, invoked the memory of Theodore Roosevelt, that brilliant and irrepressible warmonger of the day when America undertook to become an empire.  

Since then, Brooks has retreated to a certain circumspection on America’s role in the world, but Kristol has indeed been a consistent latter-day TR, extolling every real and proposed American intervention since the morning of 9/11. His “national greatness conservatism” seems to have no governor on it.

But there is a flaw in equating such misadventures as the Iraq invasion with America’s audacious actions in consolidating power upon the North American midsection or in kicking a corrupt and fading Spain out of the Caribbean and East Asia. The North American consolidation came at a considerable price, but the payoff was immense—a transcontinental nation facing two oceans and positioned to project power into both. The Spanish conflict carried hardly any price at all, but greatly enhanced America’s global position. It’s difficult to argue that those actions didn’t further the country’s national interest.