By Ivan Eland
President Vladimir Putin of Russia recently bluntly lashed out at U.S. foreign policy. At an international security conference with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in attendance, referring to U.S. actions in the international arena, Putin said, “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations—military force.” He asserted that U.S. military interventions, which he termed “unilateral” and “illegitimate,” also “have not been able to resolve any matters at all,” and have generated only more instability and peril, especially in the Middle East. He concluded that, “Primarily the United States has overstepped its national borders, and in every area.” In addition to profligate U.S. military threats and actions, he also criticized the United States for building an “offensive” missile defense, expanding the NATO alliance to the borders of Russia, and supporting groups trying to overthrow their governments in the Russian historic sphere of influence.
Since the speech, Putin has been excoriated in the U.S. press. As usual, such intense vitriol is reserved for people who bring up inconvenient truths about U.S. policy. Of course, Putin didn’t say anything that was untrue, and that’s the reason for the intense anger in the United States.
Americans have never been very good at looking at their government in the mirror. They see the cogent and pithy words of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison about our system of government and reach the conclusion that the United States can do no wrong in the international arena because it has one of the world’s best systems at home. Yet the two have nothing to do with each other.
This unquestioning attitude when dealing with other countries I label the “Tarzan foreign policy,” which assumes “we good, you bad.” In other words, in this distorted mental framework, aggressive U.S. actions would not be tolerated if another country did them.
For example, if the usual chest thumping of “patriotic” U.S. citizens and policy makers is discarded, and things are more dispassionately analyzed, one might be unsettled by the fact that Saddam Hussein had a better reason for invading Kuwait than the United States did for invading Iraq. Although I’m in no way endorsing Saddam’s brutal invasion of that small Arab country, at least he had some tangible reason for doing so: The Kuwaitis were stealing Iraqi oil by slant drilling deposits across the Iraq-Kuwait border.
But in the case of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, before the invasion, the Bush administration was told by the international weapons inspectors that they could find no weapons of mass destruction. In addition, the Bush administration deceived the U.S. public and manipulated intelligence to attempt to link Saddam with the 9/11 attacks. If you accept with a straight face the administration’s stated objective of democratizing Iraq and the Middle East—only emphasized when the other two justifications failed to materialize—the goal was undermined by U.S. actions after the invasion and very well might have been achieved without war. Initially, after the invasion, a true democracy wasn’t the administration’s first choice in Iraq. Instead, the thinking was that a system of caucuses—in which the United States and the U.S. appointed Iraqi Governing Council would nominate the participants—was favored. Only massive protests ordered by Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Islamic cleric for the country’s majority Shi’a, forced the administration to accept general elections. Even if the main U.S. goal was to get rid of the despotic Saddam, according to Bob Woodward in his book Plan of Attack, Saddam made some indirect feelers through the son of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak to go into exile. Bush, however, wanted war and did not pursue this behind-the-scenes appeal.
So if these weren’t the reasons for the Iraq War, then it must have been to help Israel, to settle old scores with Saddam, or to ensure that cheap oil continues to flow to the U.S. economy. None of these petty reasons qualify as defending U.S. vital interests. The last one comes the closest, but many economists note that the international oil market actually works and that oil producing countries, which don’t have much else to export, need to sell the oil as much as the United States needs to buy it. Spending all those hundreds of billions to defend something that doesn’t need defending makes no sense. On a moral level, using the U.S. military to grab oil suspiciously seems similar to what the Imperial Japanese did to start World War II in the Pacific—after the United States cut off oil exports to that nation.
But what about the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan? An argument can be made that the United States had to invade to neutralize bin Laden and take out the Taliban regime that was sheltering him. As usual, such foreign adventures rarely turn out the way they are supposed to. The United States achieved the latter, but not the former, because it shifted many key military and intelligence resources to the coming invasion of Iraq. Also, instead of leaving after deposing the Taliban, the United States has stayed around to “nation-build,” which historically has never worked, and acts as a lightning rod for a Taliban resurgence. Even if one buys into the Iraq and Afghanistan invasions (a dubious proposition), continued foreign occupation was bound to trigger indigenous resistance. In Afghanistan, the typical mission creep is so bad that the Bush administration is now trying to eradicate the opium trade to win points back home—thus pushing Afghan drug lords to finance the Taliban.
Republicans, however, will be happy to know that George W. Bush should not be solely blamed for this aggressive U.S. foreign policy. Although he did ensnare the United States into significant quagmires on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States’ modern-day interventionist foreign policy dates back to the Democratic Truman administration after World War II. Of all countries during the post-war period, including the authoritarian Soviet Union, the United States has been, by far, the most aggressive nation on the planet with its military. Even during the Cold War, of the two superpowers, the United States was the first-among-equals and took advantage of it to intervene militarily in all parts of the world. The United States used the fight against communism to advance its imperial tentacles into backwater countries, such as Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Nicaragua, etc.
At the international security conference, the suave Secretary of Defense Gates dismissed Putin’s unanswered specific charges on U.S. missile defense in Europe, the expansion of a hostile NATO alliance to Russia’s borders, and U.S. meddling in Russia’s traditional sphere of influence by saying that the United States felt that “one Cold War was quite enough.” Yet Putin was right that the United States is pursuing another Cold War, this time an unstated one, against both Russia and China.
In his most astute criticism of the lone superpower’s foreign policy, Putin noted that the power amassed by a global power “destroys it from within.” Alluding to the aggressive, militaristic U.S. foreign policy, Putin noted correctly that, “it has nothing in common with democracy, of course.” Surprisingly, Putin, a domestic autocrat himself, seems to see what the U.S. founders knew, but what the occupants of the post–World War II imperial presidency have not been able to fathom. During the Roman Republic, the concentration of power associated with a militarized foreign policy led to the disintegration of the republic itself. The same thing is happening in the United States now. Thus, to safeguard one of the greatest domestic systems in the world, U.S. citizens and policy makers should drop the Tarzan foreign policy and return to the founders’ policy of minimal interference in the affairs of other nations.
-Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office, Evaluator-in-Charge (national security and intelligence) for the U.S. General Accounting Office, and Investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee.