Highlights

 
Quotable
Military justice is to justice what military music is to music.
Groucho Marx
Original Letters Blog US Casualties Contact Donate

 
December 14, 2007

Embarrassed to Explain US Foreign Policy


by Doug Bandow

I'm off in Norway today, the guest of some folks interested in U.S. foreign policy. They want me to explain what Americans think of international events and how policymakers formulate foreign policy. It's a daunting, or perhaps more accurately, an embarrassing, task.

Americans know very little about the world. Their ignorance is almost charming. In one sense, it's good that most people are more interested in spending time with family and friends and in earning a living than in plotting a coup in some faraway land, waging a war against some emerging power, or issuing foreign ultimatums over random economic and political demands.

Unfortunately, however, as a result Americans have essentially delegated the power to do all of those things to a Washington-centered elite. When things go wrong, Americans get angry. Then the politicos start blaming each other. Specific policies sometimes change, but Washington's interventionist enthusiasm always quickly returns.

It's not a pretty spectacle. Most Americans are not ideologically committed to turning the U.S. into an imperial power. Few of them would like to spend months or years patrolling failed foreign states, such as Iraq. Most of them turn against needless conflicts when it becomes evident that they aren't going to be short and sweet.

Indeed, when wars go bad conflicts like Iraq and Somalia the public eventually says "enough!" President Bill Clinton perceived that the debacle in Mogadishu destroyed domestic political support for the mission, so he brought the troops home.

Anger over the Bush administration's Iraq war, dishonestly initiated and incompetently waged, led voters to transfer control of Congress to the Democrats. The failure of Congress to override continuing presidential support for the conflict may lead voters to give the White House to the Democrats as well. Indeed, though the crazy Republican candidates (Rudy Giuliani and John McCain) might be prepared to occupy Iraq forever, the other GOP wannabees likely would bring home the troops for political reasons, if nothing else.

Yet in a perverse sense the biggest foreign policy problem is when the costs seem low. Then the public simply ignores the issue, giving policymakers wide discretion to continue advancing interventionist policies running contrary to America's national interests.

How else to explain continuing American membership in NATO, especially a NATO that keeps expanding? In the 1950s and 1960s Europe needed defending from the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. From whom is America defending Europe today, a continent with a population and GDP larger than America's?

Moreover, what sense does it make to continue expanding NATO up to the borders of Russia, absorbing countries with multiple disputes with Russia, a nuclear-armed power? The Baltic states and Poland, in particular, offer Washington security costs, not benefits. It would be even more foolish to include in an alliance that technically remains the "North Atlantic" Treaty Organization the countries of Georgia and Ukraine.

However, the American people remain blissfully unaware of and disinterested in their nation's foreign policy. If America ends up at war with Russia over a recent addition to NATO, voters might then take notice. Otherwise they just don't care.

Similarly misguided is America's continuing defense of South Korea. The South has upwards of 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Seoul is friends with all of its neighbors, even the North's former allies, Beijing and Moscow. Most South Koreans no longer fear Pyongyang; in fact, they have been lavishing subsidies and aid on North Korea for years.

America's policy-making elite naturally offers a multitude of arguments to maintain the same military commitment more than a half century after the end of the Korean War. But what normal person would support spending billions of dollars to raise and maintain overseas thousands of troops to guard South Korea?

Then there's Japan. The second ranking economic power on earth, Japan could do far more to protect itself and its region. Its neighbors prefer that Washington do the job, but so what? That doesn't make the policy in America's interest. Again, American elites rather like the idea of the U.S. attempting to run the world. But the vast majority of Americans, who have to pay the bill, probably would be much less enthused if they thought about it.

Beyond such major commitments, Washington has dribbled bases and forces around the world. It's a policy of which Americans are largely ignorant. To the extent that they believed that such facilities advanced American security, they might support them. But alliances and bases can act as transmission belts of war at a time when we should be building firebreaks to war.

Although serious armed conflict is unlikely in either Asia or Europe, Washington's explicit promise to defend the Baltic States and Eastern Europe necessarily makes all of those nations' squabbles with Russia America's squabbles as well. Washington's implicit guarantee to Taiwan does the same thing with China next door. Bringing nations like Georgia and Ukraine into NATO would add more problems to America's portfolio.

Advocates of scattering security guarantees around the globe argue that they deter aggression, which undoubtedly is true to some degree. But U.S. security guarantees also ensure American involvement in conflicts that would be little relevant to U.S. security. With the Cold War over, South Korea doesn't much matter to America. It's an important trading partner, but nevertheless remains a minor factor in American prosperity. Poland wasn't important to America's defense even during the Cold War. Promising to go to war in such circumstances is no bargain, even if the chances of conflict seem small.

Especially since guaranteeing the security of other nations changes their incentive for irresponsible behavior. That is, so long as small countries act in the belief that Washington will rush to their defense in a conflict with a bigger power China and Russia most obviously today they are likely to act more aggressively. We can see that phenomenon at work in Taiwan, which has adopted a confrontational stance with Beijing over Washington's objections. With America behind them, why not assert their interest?

The challenge for non-interventionists is to break through the public's ignorance to build popular support for overturning elite opinion. It won't be easy, obviously. But it never has been. However, without the emergence of a real opposition to today's aggressive foreign policy, we are doomed to continue following current policy around most of the world.

Ron Paul has made progress. But we have far to go to turn make foreign policy into an issue that moves voters and, in doing so, stirs so-called major candidates to challenge the interventionist status quo. Only then will we be able transform the American empire back into the American republic.

comments on this article?
 
Archives

  • Squaring the Pentagon
    3/12/2009

  • Balancing Beijing
    2/27/2009

  • The Asian Century
    2/20/2009

  • Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty: The Battle Continues
    2/6/2009

  • Diplomatic Means to Militaristic Ends
    1/30/2009

  • Investigate and Prosecute the Bush Administration
    1/23/2009

  • Assessing the Bush Administration: A Foreign Catastrophe at Every Turn
    1/16/2009

  • An American City on the Euphrates: US as Iraq's Friend or Overlord?
    1/9/2009

  • Coming Soon: The Disunited States?
    1/2/2009

  • Peace on Earth: Once a Year?
    12/26/2008

  • What Foreign Policy Agenda Will President Barack Obama Set?
    12/19/2008

  • Force: The Real 'F' Word
    12/12/2008

  • From Colony to Superpower
    12/5/2008

  • A Return to Liberal Warmongering? Peace Advocates Must Continue the Battle
    11/28/2008

  • Learning from John McCain's Mistakes: Supporting Aggression in the Caucasus
    11/21/2008

  • Barack Obama Takes Charge: Time to Leave Iraq
    11/14/2008

  • The American People Render Their Electoral Judgment: Time to Finish Off the Neoconservatives
    11/7/2008

  • Conservative Fantasies: A World Never More Dangerous
    10/31/2008

  • Constitutional Peril
    10/24/2008

  • The NATO Alliance: Dangerous Anachronism
    10/17/2008

  • Economic Collapse: The Financial Death of the US Empire
    10/10/2008

  • America Between the Wars
    10/3/2008

  • Time to Tell Irresponsible Allies No Thanks
    9/19/2008

  • U.S. vs. Them
    9/12/2008

  • The Hothead and
    the Finger on the Button
    9/5/2008

  • Georgian Fantasies: Where are the Americans?
    8/29/2008

  • The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism
    8/22/2008

  • Washington's Laughable Lack of Self-Awareness
    8/15/2008

  • Which China Will We See?
    8/8/2008

  • Staying Out of Iraq Was the Truest Test for Any Prez Wannabe
    8/1/2008

  • The Lion and the Unicorn
    7/25/2008

  • John McCain: The Candidate of God Mars, the God of War
    7/18/2008

  • Exit Iraq, and Leave No Bases Behind
    7/11/2008

  • What Does China Think?
    7/4/2008

  • Turning the Recurring Joke of a New European Defense Policy into Reality
    6/27/2008

  • Strengthening the US-South Korea Alliance: For What?
    6/20/2008

  • The Cult of the Presidency
    6/13/2008

  • Waging War Only When Necessary
    6/6/2008

  • Heroic Sacrifices for Foolish Causes: Memorial Days Past and Present
    5/30/2008

  • Ain't My America
    5/23/2008

  • This Time, Avoid the Lebanese Quagmire
    5/16/2008

  • Another Needless Confrontation
    5/9/2008

  • Christianity and War
    5/2/2008

  • Inconvenient Truths About John McCain
    4/25/2008

  • Iraq: Tell Us How This Ends
    4/11/2008

  • Reclaiming Conservatism
    4/4/2008

  • Crisis Postponed?
    3/28/2008

  • John McCain: Blowing Up the World at 3am?
    3/21/2008

  • Mr. Adams's Last Crusade
    3/14/2008

  • Turning China into the Next Big Enemy
    3/7/2008

  • Make America's Policy of Promiscuous Intervention the Issue in November
    2/29/2008

  • No End in Sight: Iraq's Descent into Chaos
    2/22/2008

  • Operation Iraqi Occupation: A Decade, Century, or More?
    2/15/2008

  • Election 2008: What's a Peacenik to Do?
    2/8/2008

  • The Terror Presidency: Law and Judgment Inside the Bush Administration
    2/1/2008

  • Korean Troubles Old and New: Time to Bring the Troops Home
    1/25/2008

  • The Great Defense Budget Black Hole
    1/18/2008

  • Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary
    1/11/2008

  • Misguided Meddling in Pakistan
    1/4/2008

  • Michael Huckabee: Foreign Policy Moderate?
    12/28/2007

  • The Forgotten Man
    12/21/2007

  • Embarrassed to Explain US Foreign Policy
    12/14/2007

  • Creating Crisis: Another War in the Balkans?
    12/7/2007

  • Khrushchev's Cold War
    11/30/2007

  • Interest Group Foreign Policy
    11/23/2007
  • Joshua Frank is the author of Left Out!: How Liberals Helped Reelect George W. Bush, just published by Common Courage Press. You can order a copy at a discounted through Josh's blog at www.brickburner.org. He can be reached at brickburner@gmail.com.

    Reproduction of material from any original Antiwar.com pages
    without written permission is strictly prohibited.
    Copyright 2014 Antiwar.com