A Note from John Allen Gay, executive director of the John Quincy Adams Society: There’s growing debate in America about the proper scale of our involvement abroad. But here in the Beltway, no matter what the question is, the answer always seems to be that the United States needs to do more: to risk its troops’ lives in more places, to sacrifice more in taxes, debts, and domestic investments to support overseas endeavors, to extend defense guarantees to more countries, and to involve itself more deeply in other countries’ civil wars and internal struggles. Yet “more” hasn’t been working. As a national network of college groups focused on foreign policy, we at the John Quincy Adams Society wanted to challenge our next generation of national security leaders to evaluate a different path. That’s why we partnered with the National Interest to sponsor an essay contest, asking students to answer the following question: “What benefits could a more restrained, careful foreign policy strategy offer to the United States?” We’re pleased to present the best, selected from among dozens of excellent entries.
The essay below, by Matthew Petti of Columbia University, was a runner-up in the contest.
American influence on the rest of the world is not a two-way street. Just as Newton's Third Law posits that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, every expansion of U.S. power in the rest of the world gives foreign powers both the means and incentive to build influence in Washington. It is neither surprising nor unreasonable for governments and international organizations to advocate for their interests in the capital of the most powerful state on earth. However, the United States should not mistake these interests for its own. Attempts to maintain an imperial presence around the entire world have dragged the country into self-destructive actions at the behest of its allies, and American disengagement from local conflicts would free the U.S. from its allies' prejudiced understanding of those conflicts. American patronage of Saudi Arabia’s policies in its near abroad provides a valuable case study of allied nations’ sometimes detrimental effect on U.S. foreign policy.
Saudi Arabia portrays itself as the leader of a moderate Sunni Muslim bloc against Iranian expansion and Islamic extremism. This view is not necessarily grounded in reality, as a radically anti-Shia ideology causes the Saudi regime to see Iranian conspiracies behind every rock, whether or not Iran is actually involved. Nor is its claim to leadership unanimously accepted by Sunni Muslims, as the Saudi dispute with Turkey and Qatar demonstrates. Finally, Saudi Arabia's support for militant Salafist ideologies calls into question its claims to moderation. Nevertheless, the Trump administration has bought into this sectarian worldview, promising a basket of favors to the Saudi regime, including a $110 billion arms deal, during Trump's first foreign visit.
The most destructive result of Saudi Arabia’s influence can be seen in its campaign in Yemen. The ironically-named Operation Restoring Hope has killed thousands of Yemenite civilians, bringing disease and famine to millions more. For all their insistence on intervening in Syria for moral ends, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists have been strangely silent about the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.
Beyond the immorality of its effects, the Saudi campaign is a political failure, as the anti-Saudi rebel government still controls the capital in Sanaa, as well as nine out of twenty-one provincial capitals. Even cities supposedly under the control of the Saudi-backed Hadi government are hotbeds of chaos and violence . This instability is bad for not only the innocent Yemenis living through a civil war but also the international economy, as more than 10 percent of global trade flows through the Red Sea basin on its way to or from the Suez Canal; ships traveling through the Straits of al-Mandab have come under fire from inside Yemen.
U.S. support has essentially shielded Saudi Arabia from the negative effects of its campaign, removing incentives the kingdom has to restrain its own actions. From the beginning of Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen, the Obama administration supported the Saudi-led coalition with mid-air refueling and advanced munitions. This aid hasn’t quite made up for poor military leadership , but it has passed the mounting economic costs onto a foreign guarantor, allowing Saudi forces to maintain their technological edge despite a budget crisis in the kingdom. Consequently, American calls for a political solution have fallen on deaf ears; as the Trump administration considers removing some restrictions on support to the Saudi-led coalition, Riyadh will only be encouraged to pursue the disastrous status quo.
America is taking on consequences of the Saudi campaign other than the economic costs associated with a prolonged counterinsurgency near major trade routes. The extensive logistical support for the Saudi air force has put a “Made in the U.S.A.” sticker on the devastating bombing campaign and the consequent starvation of Yemen’s people. Given the extensive comeback Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has made during the civil war, an increase in anti-U.S. sentiment in Yemen could directly impact the American people by further encouraging support to anti-American terrorists. Saudi Arabia doesn’t seem to care very much about terrorism unless it can accuse a regional rival of supporting it, and this lackadaisical attitude can be seen in Yemen, where AQAP forces are allowed to openly operate alongside the Saudi-led coalition. While attempting to please a U.S. ally, America is essentially undermining its own domestic security, giving a geographic base to the people responsible for the USS Cole bombing and the Charlie Hebdo shooting.