America Unhinged

January 2, 2014 Topic: Grand StrategySecurity Regions: United States

America Unhinged

Mini Teaser: The "most secure great power in world history" continues to engage in costly interventions to defend merely peripheral interests.

by Author(s): John J. Mearsheimer

IT IS WIDELY BELIEVED in the American national-security establishment that Washington has the capacity to fix the problems that plague countries like Egypt and Syria and that the key to success is to turn those countries into democracies.

This is certainly not true in Syria. The United States has no viable strategy for ending the conflict there, much less turning Syria into a democracy. Indeed, it seems clear that the Obama administration made a fundamental mistake when it opted to try to remove Assad. Washington should have stayed out of Syria’s business and let the Syrian people determine their own political fate, whatever the result.

The same logic applies to Egypt, whose politics the Obama administration has been trying to micromanage since protests against then president Hosni Mubarak broke out in January 2011. As the protests gained momentum, the United States stepped in and helped oust him from power. Obama then welcomed Egypt’s move toward democracy and supported its newly elected government, even though the Muslim Brotherhood dominated it.

After a mere one year in office, President Mohamed Morsi, who was a member of the Brotherhood, came under tremendous pressure to resign from the Egyptian military and a large slice of the public. The Obama administration, which was never enthusiastic about a Morsi presidency, stepped into this messy situation and facilitated his overthrow. He was replaced by General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a strongman in the Mubarak tradition.

In taking this step, the United States was helping foster a coup against a democratically elected leader who was not a threat to the United States. The new Egyptian government then turned against the Brotherhood, killing over a thousand people and putting Morsi in jail. The Obama administration lamely tried to prevent this bloody crackdown but failed. Moreover, it has cut only a small portion of the $1.5 billion in aid the United States gives Egypt each year, even though U.S. law mandates that most foreign aid be cut to any country “whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”

The end result of meddling in Egypt’s politics over the past three years is that the United States is even more widely despised in that country than it was before (which is saying something). The Brotherhood and its allies loathe America for helping to overthrow Morsi and then standing by while their members were murdered. The military and many civilians dislike the United States for having supported the Brotherhood when it was in power. On top of all that, the Obama administration ended up helping remove one autocrat only to replace him with another, and in the process helped overthrow a legitimately elected leader.

Perhaps Obama mishandled the situation in Egypt and should have employed a different strategy. Yet it is hard to see what Washington could have done differently in Egypt (or Syria) that would have produced a happy ending.

To take this a step further, what happened in those two countries is part of a bigger picture that is filled with failed attempts at social engineering in the Arab and Islamic world. Just look at America’s track record since September 11. The United States has intervened with force and overthrown regimes in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. In each case, American policy makers thought they could help create a stable democracy that would be friendly to the United States. They failed in all three cases. Serious instability is the order of the day in each of those countries, and although the reigning governments in Baghdad, Kabul and Tripoli are not overtly hostile to the United States, they are hardly friendly and cooperative.

So, if you look at America’s performance over the past twelve years in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria, it is batting 0 for 5. Washington seems to have an uncanny ability to take a bad situation and make it worse. This abysmal record is actually not surprising, as doing large-scale social engineering in any society is an enormously complicated and difficult task. And the circumstances the United States faces when it intervenes abroad are especially daunting. After all, it invariably intervenes in countries about which it knows little and where its presence is likely to generate resentment sooner rather than later. Furthermore, those places are usually riven with factions and are either in the midst of conflict or likely to be in turmoil once the government is toppled.

Should the United States just accept this grim reality and do its best to make things work in places like Egypt and Syria? No. These countries are of little strategic importance to the United States, and it matters little who is in charge in Cairo or Damascus. But even if the fate of those countries did have serious consequences for American security—which is true of the major oil-producing states in the Gulf—it still would not matter much who governed them.

The United States has a long history of working with political leaders of all kinds. In fact, it worked closely with two of the greatest mass murderers of modern times: Joseph Stalin during World War II and Mao Zedong during the latter part of the Cold War. Furthermore, Washington does not always get along well with elected leaders, which is why the United States has an extensive record of overthrowing democratic leaders it does not trust: Mohammed Mossadegh in Iran (1953), Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala (1954) and Salvador Allende in Chile (1973), just to name a few.

These were all wrongheaded moves, however, because Washington could have worked with those elected leaders, just as it has worked with autocrats of all stripes. There is no doubt leaders sometimes come to power filled with revolutionary zeal and hostility toward the United States. But that fervor wears off once those leaders confront the realities of exercising power inside and outside of their countries’ borders. Plus, the United States is enormously powerful, and almost always has substantial leverage in its dealings with other countries. Ceteris paribus, it is best for a foreign leader to get along with Uncle Sam; purposely picking a fight rarely makes sense. None of this is to deny that America’s interests sometimes clash with those of other countries. But that does not mean the leadership on either side is responsible for the rivalry in those cases.

In sum, the best approach for the United States is not to intervene in other countries to help influence what kind of political system they have or who governs them. The smart strategy is to let other peoples decide their own political fate, and then use carrots and sticks to foster relations that serve America’s interests.

WHAT MAKES America’s penchant for intervening in places like Egypt and Syria so disturbing is not just that it makes little strategic sense or that the United States invariably fails to achieve its goals. The costs are also enormous, especially the economic and human costs, as well as the damage it does to the country’s liberal-democratic institutions.

The strategic costs of pursuing global dominance are actually not substantial. As foolish as it is for Washington to intervene in the politics of countries like Egypt and Syria, the mess it makes does not diminish American security in any meaningful way. The United States is a remarkably safe country, which is what allows it to behave foolishly without jeopardizing its security. The “unipolar moment,” coupled with America’s geographical location and nuclear arsenal, creates a permissive environment for irresponsible behavior, which its leaders have been quick to exploit. The one notable strategic cost of these interventionist policies is the terrorism problem. But that threat is not of great significance, which is why the United States is able to pursue the same policies that help cause this problem in the first place.

Unlike the strategic costs, the economic costs of global dominance have been enormous. For starters, the United States has had to maintain a huge and sophisticated military with bases all over the world so that it can intervene anywhere on the planet. Not surprisingly, its defense budget dwarfs that of any other country; in 2012, for example, the United States spent more on defense ($682 billion) than the next ten countries combined ($652 billion). That enormous defense budget accounts for roughly 20 percent of U.S. government spending, which is almost as much as it spends on Social Security and about the same amount it spends on Medicare and Medicaid put together. And then there are the various wars America has fought since 2001, which will probably end up costing a staggering $4–6 trillion.

The enormous amount of money spent on defense since September 11 has contributed significantly to America’s huge national debt, which is now well over $16 trillion. That debt has been a major drag on the American economy and promises to be so for a long time to come. There are also major opportunity costs associated with all the money spent pursuing global dominance. Some of the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted on preparing for and fighting unnecessary wars could have been spent instead on education, public health and transportation infrastructure, just to name a few areas on the home front where additional resources would have made the United States a more prosperous and livable country.

Image: Pullquote: The United States, which is the most secure great power in world history, has been safer over the past twenty-five years than at any other time in its history.Essay Types: Essay