An American ambassador murdered. A consulate ransacked. Multiple embassies under siege. A U.S. school looted. Protests in “liberated” Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans again wondering: Why do they hate us?
Yet some Washington policy makers never learn. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said the latest attacks on Americans resulted from a lack of U.S. “leadership.” GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan blamed administration weakness and Pentagon spending cuts. The cause, according to the last Republican presidential nominee, Senator John McCain, was President Obama’s “weakness” and “feckless foreign policy,” most notably Washington’s failure to impose its will on the Muslim world—by intervening in Syria, coercing Egypt, continuing to occupy Iraq and more.
Although the administration reacted more responsibly, it sent drones, ships and Marines to Libya in an attempt to track down the Benghazi killers. It’s a worthwhile objective, but striking back blindly would be worse than doing nothing. Extensive drone campaigns in Pakistan and Yemen have inflamed anti-American sentiments. In fact, the Benghazi airport was closed after hostile militias fired missiles at U.S. drones.
The GOP attack on the Obama administration’s foreign policy reeked of desperation. Republicans offered no plan of their own. Nevertheless, Romney aide Rich Williamson claimed: “There’s a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you’d be in a different situation.” Yes, the situation likely would have been worse.
In practice, there is very little difference between the Bush and Obama administrations on foreign policy. Both engaged in routine political interference, promiscuous military intervention, and continuous warfare in the Middle East and around the world. And this policy has turned out badly irrespective of the party in control. The invasion of Iraq was merely the most spectacular recent failure in American foreign policy, highlighted by the death of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Moreover, despite the Sturm und Drang of the presidential campaign, there are few substantive differences between President Obama and Mitt Romney. The latter just promises more, and perhaps a lot more, of the same. In his opinion, Washington does not intervene enough. If only the United States—apparently an international shrinking violet in Romney’s view despite its ubiquitous presence around the globe—told Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and everyone else what to do, abashed foreigners would instantly genuflect toward Washington. Evil would disappear from the earth, the lion would lie down with the lamb and world peace would blossom.
In the Bush-Obama-Romney view, the president need merely pronounce his will to a waiting world. When that approach fails, it is deemed the fault of the administration, not the policy. It’s an appealing vision but one utterly at odds with reality. Even when Washington intervenes on the side of the good guys (sometimes, but not always), the result usually is counterproductive. Blowing up other societies typically results in unpredictable blowback.
Iraq was a painful lesson for many people. So should be the Afghan war, which continues in its eleventh year even though it no longer bears any connection to the initial triggering event of September 11. However, Barack Obama twice doubled down on the Bush policy. Romney talks of victory even as he refuses to take a clear position. And McCain complains that neither presidential contender will commit to keep American troops in Afghanistan forever.
The Obama administration’s “splendid little war” in Libya promoted regime change on the cheap in the name of humanitarianism. U.S. intervention was supposed to save Benghazi from the depredations of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Yet residents of Benghazi showed their gratitude by storming the U.S. consulate and murdering the ambassador and three other Americans.
Of course, the mob may not reflect majority sentiments. And radical jihadists of one stripe or another may have taken advantage of popular anger. However, the details are irrelevant: it was Western intervention in Libya’s civil war which made this latest round of violence possible.
Another consequence of the conflict was widespread looting of the old regime’s military arsenals. One of the Americans killed in Libya was tasked with tracking down weapons that had fallen into the wrong hands.
As for the Arab Spring, Washington policy makers seem congenitally unable to admit that Tunisians, Libyans, Egyptians, Syrians and others have wills of their own. The readiness of some on the “Arab Street”—and many Muslims elsewhere—to resort to murderous violence in response to a perceived insult to Islam betrays a culture ill prepared for self-government.
Indeed, protests such as those in Benghazi, Cairo and Sana actually do more than anything else to justify the most virulent critiques of Islam. Yet much more is at stake. For instance, the U.S. government spent four decades underwriting autocracy in Egypt in the name of stability. Americans held abstract discussions of policy in Washington while Egyptians suffered in Cairo under a dictator embraced by Washington. That record, along with the Obama administration’s very public reluctance to abandon Hosni Mubarak, tainted America in the eyes of even liberal-minded Egyptians. Today Washington can ill afford to array itself against democracy. The only thing worse than working with a president from the Muslim Brotherhood would be backing another military junta.
Anyway, the United States does not control events in Cairo or elsewhere in the region. Rather, Washington’s insistence on trying to micromanage the region has created its most serious problems today.
For example, fomenting a coup in Tehran in 1953 led to long-lasting Islamic rule, which today poses the most serious challenge to U.S. Mideast policy. Backing Saddam Hussein against Islamist Iran encouraged him to later invade Kuwait, pulling America into war. Later, Washington stationed troops in Saudi Arabia, which sparked the Khobar Towers attack and spurred Osama bin Laden’s efforts. Finally, Washington invaded Iraq to “drain the swamp” it had helped fill. That conflict sowed the wind throughout the region; now the whirlwind is being reaped.
U.S. policy makers should step back and shut up. Avidly blowing up countries with no idea what will follow—whether Iraq, Libya or Syria—is foolish. Moreover, “leadership” would best be exercised without publicly lecturing disdainful governments and peoples about Washington’s opinion on anything and everything. Better to talk privately on fewer issues.
Americans deserve a real debate on foreign policy. The latest tragedy in the Middle East highlights the virtues of humility and prudence. The U.S. government should never apologize for the liberties that undergird American society, though officials should sharply distinguish private opinion from public action. However, Washington should apologize for the genuine horrors that have resulted, even inadvertently, from its past policies and actions. And the next president should abandon Washington’s attempt to constantly reshape the world, a policy that has so dramatically failed at such high cost.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.