Foreign Policy Is Not a Game

America has often been at its most dangerous and destructive when it has had supreme confidence in itself and its role in the world.

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David Brooks tells a tale of sanitized U.S. foreign policy and likens our two major failed wars of the twenty-first century to a bad night of pitching:

For most of the past century, human dignity had a friend – the United States of America. We are a deeply flawed and error-prone nation, like any other, but America helped defeat fascism and communism and helped set the context for European peace, Asian prosperity and the spread of democracy.

Then came Iraq and Afghanistan, and America lost faith in itself and its global role – like a pitcher who has been shelled and no longer has confidence in his own stuff. On the left, many now reject the idea that America can be or is a global champion of democracy, and they find phrases like “the indispensable nation” or the “last best hope of the earth” ridiculous. On the right the wall-building caucus has given up on the idea that the rest of the world is even worth engaging.

It is very American to look at failed wars that killed hundreds of thousands of people, displaced millions, and destabilized entire regions and conclude that the real victim is America’s confidence in itself. If we have “lost faith” in our “global role,” it is because we have come to realize that many of the myths we have woven about ourselves are false and we are not the benevolent hegemon or indispensable nation that interventionists said we were. Believing in these myths led the US to commit not only major blunders, but serious and terrible crimes against whole nations. The phrases themselves are clichés, but it is the people that cling to them as guides to policymaking that deserve the ridicule.

The baseball metaphor trivializes decades of disaster, and it makes it seem as if wars that last a generation are no more than having an off night playing a game. Foreign policy isn’t a game. The “pitcher” flung countless bombs and missiles at these two countries, committed war crimes against the civilian population, and waged a damaging “war on terror” in many other parts of the world. The “field” where Brooks urges the US to remain is soaked in the blood of countless innocents, and pretty much everywhere that the US has forcibly intervened is demonstrably worse off than it was before our forces arrived.

Brooks asserts that this has “meant that global terrorism is no longer seen as a major concern in daily American life,” but that’s not true. Large majorities of American remain preoccupied with the exaggerated threat from terrorism because our leaders keep telling them almost twenty years after 9/11 that they should still be afraid. The US has “taken the fight” to lots of groups in at least half a dozen countries, and the result has been to make life for ordinary people in those countries much worse. The actual threat to the US from international terrorism is small, but our “war on terror” has been nothing but a boon to terrorist organizations, which have proliferated and carried out far more attacks than they had before the war began.

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Daniel Larison is a weekly columnist for Antiwar.com and maintains his own site at Eunomia. He is former senior editor at The American Conservative. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.