Let's face it. The drawing down of forces in Iraq is good news. The fact that we have a specific date and a specific number is also good. We also have to face the fact, as much as we don't like it, that involvement in Iraq is not over and will not be for several more years. The worst thing about wars is that they are much easier to start than to end, much easier to escalate than to deescalate, and nations are much easier to break than they are to build. This is a lesson we should have learned from Korea and Vietnam: officially, North and South Korea are still at war and the United States is still the major peacekeeper on the border. We have been in South Korea for more than fifty years. In Vietnam we learned two hard lessons: trying to fight a conventional war against a guerilla force while occupying a hostile populace is impossible (a lesson Napoleon learned in Spain and we should have studied) and that political settlement of a conflict is useless without the means to enforce our end of it.
We repeat our mistakes, and the mistakes of others. Iraq, despite all the good news for which we should be genuinely happy, threatens to become a second South Korea while Afghanistan looms ever larger as another South Vietnam. Our escalation in Afghanistan is not at all good news, yet there may be no political alternative for the administration. The bad news is that Afghanistan has the same potential to suck the heart out of President Obama's domestic agenda that Vietnam presented for President Johnson. If one wishes, one could call Afghanistan a 'second Afghanistan' based on the Soviet experience there or a 'fourth Spain' based on Napoleon's experiences in the Iberian Peninsula.
I am not trying to be un-American, to fail to support our troops (who will be the ones to suffer from any repetition of history, after all), or to undermine the success of President Obama. I am simply stating historical facts and lessons and the potential for terrible disaster they present in Afghanistan. Should this policy of nation building succeed against all odds (as I believe Iraq may, in the end, reluctantly) then I will admit I was wrong. I may have been wrong about the failure of the Iraq War.
I should note that does not mean I was wrong to oppose the Iraq War. It was all the things my fellow liberals have called it: President Bush did indeed 'take the eye off the ball', it was a cynical attempt to fight a winnable conventional war to detract attention from a difficult guerilla action, it was an unjust 'war of convenience', and it was a naked move closer to American empire. I believe, considering all those facts, if a viable Iraqi state develops out of all this mess it is a happy accident for which the imperial ambitions of the neoconservatives cannot take credit despite the fact that they will obviously do so. It was liberals of my parents' generation, after all, who took credit for the end of the Vietnam War despite the fact that Richard Nixon entered the White House with the specific goal of eventually getting us out and the anti-war movement's main contribution was to give Nixon the political cover to do so out of 'necessity.'
It is too late to prevent the mistakes of the past, and will be difficult to stop the mistake of the present in Afghanistan. Nor do I wish to write a political polemic about either war. My goal in this post is to begin the first of several intended to be constructive policy statements about the future of American foreign policy. My desire is to somehow prevent the mistakes of the future.
We can start by examining the questions of foreign policy in the same light as those of health care and the economy: what is the purpose of foreign policy and what should our foreign policy goals be?
The purpose of foreign policy is two-fold: the advancement of our economic interests and the advancement of our national security. It is necessary, in both arms of policy, to follow principles of enlightened self-interest. It is not enough to do what we want, because of its perceived benefits, but it is important to know what is really good for us and to act on that knowledge. As I discussed in my exploration of capitalism, these are not always the same thing at all.
So what is best for us? There are several models that have been followed, past and present, by other nations or imperial powers with varying degrees of success and failure. Russia has sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed by working with roughly the same foreign policy outline since the reign of the first tsar, and arguably longer. While the degree of success has varied, the current Russian state has existed in some form since Ivan the Terrible. Their strategy has been to seek peaceful relations on a basis of neutrality and increasing influence outside of their immediate borders while seeking to be the only police power projecting influence into the smaller powers along its borders. This strategy created the Russian Empire and sustained the Soviet Union through the Cold War. It also led to the disasters of the Crimean and Russo-Japanese Wars and contributed significantly to the horrors of WWI and the Russian Revolution. It was the justification for the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and the reason the Soviets were not willing to annhilate the world over Cuba. Clearly, this policy has had good and bad effects. It has the benefit, however, of being logical, consistent, and 'sane'.
I am not saying that we should simply copy this Russian policy, but I am saying that in the main it has been good for Russia more often than it has been bad for Russia. It also means that the Russians have always had a clear sense of what is good or bad for Russia and why it is thus. There is a benefit to such knowledge.
The United States, prior to WWII, largely followed a policy of armed, benign neutrality. The US used military force to protect its borders or advance its immediate interests and attempted to have as cordial a relationship as possible with the major powers of the world without becoming entangled in their alliances or conflicts. In the 1910s, based on a vision of universal democratic 'empire' (which I use very loosely, because Wilson's vision was not imperialist at all in the traditional sense), President Woodrow Wilson intervened in WWI (essentially a European conflict) with the goal of democratizing Europe. For intrinsically European reasons and the fact that most Americans had no such aspirations, Wilson's adventure failed ideologically despite military success. He could neither dictate terms to the allies whose victory he made possible, nor secure ratification of his own treaty at home.
In the intervening years, however, diplomatic conflicts with Japan over space and resources in the Pacific began to change the perception of America's 'borders' and 'interests' overseas. By the time WWII began, the idea of universal democratic empire had begun to take shape again in the minds of President Roosevelt and some of his advisors and political allies. By the time the United States joined WWII, the country at large was increasingly ready for this objective as well. Victory in WWII and the beginnings of the Cold War made many believe this democratic universalism was necessary and just: the United States was the New Rome fighting for civilization against darkness. This view of American foreign policy certainly led to the United States' reconstruction of Western Europe and ultimate victory in the Cold War, but it should be important to remember that the USSR collapsed as much because of the failures of Communism to keep its promises as any American policy, and that it was detente that made the glasnost and perestroika policies that culminated in the Soviet collapse possible, not the wild 'cowboy' escalations of the Reagan years.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, the achievement of universal democratic empire seemed to be assured. Russia would become a cheerful ally and supporter of US goals, so went the prevailing imperial wisdom, and would cooperate in the new world supremacy of the United States. Democratic nations would naturally look to the United States, the 'leader of the free world', as a model and benevolent patron.
This has simply not been the case, and careful consideration makes the idea that it would have been the case laughable. Russia is still Russia, for all the change of the form of government and the attraction to aspects of American culture (it should be remembered that the United States and Russia are both pluralistic, multi-ethnic societies with certain shared egalitarian social values) does not change the fact that the Russian ethos is fundamentally different from the Western value system. Not so completely different as to be totally alien, it is true, but there is certainly enough of a difference to matter. Russia will never be another nation's happy satellite.
Perhaps more importantly, it should be noted that the whole attraction of democracy is freedom. Democratic nations want to enjoy that freedom, not become de facto client states to a greater power. Wilson's romantic ideals aside, universal democratic empire is impossible: democracy is pluralist and not autocratic. No one nation can seek to dominate a democratic empire, a genuine universal democratic empire must be entirely democratic throughout. No American, despite the lack of compunction at the idea of telling Israel or Great Britain what their policy should be or the willingness to judge Iran and Syria, is willing to allow Europe to dictate policy to America or be judged by Venezuela and Russia. Clearly, the policy of American empire that has been pursued up to this point and is still being pursued as I type has failed.
This does not, necessarily, mean we should allow France and Germany to dictate our policy or accept Russia and Venezuela's moral judgements. It does, however, mean that perhaps we should recognize that we cannot dictate the policy of every friendly nation or expect the world to unequivocally share our judgement of unfriendly nations.
The substitution of a nation building campaign in Afghanistan for one in Iraq is not a sufficient departure from the policies of the past. We do not need to simply review the policies of the Bush Administration or the Reagan Administration, but rather we need to acknowledge that the world is a different place than it was during or after WWII and that the United States needs a different global strategy to operate in that different world. Isolationism failed and universalism is no longer possible. Personally, I find pragmatic nationalism to be extremely unpalatable but it must be admitted that it would be an improvement over the current obsolete philosophy of universal empire.
That does not mean I am advocating such an approach. I believe alternatives can be found to pragmatic nationalism as well, if enlightened self interest is applied to the challenges that face us.
Therefore a radical change in foreign policy rests on some basic facts:
1.) We must admit and accept, as a nation, that a policy of universalism (at the very least, the policy of a universalism led by America as the imperial nation) has failed in the 21st century.
2.) We must also admit and accept that we are not playing a zero sum game in which our only choices are universal empire or total isolationism, as the politicians often cast the choice.
3.) We must determine whether we, as a nation, are willing to accept a policy of pragmatic nationalism or whether we have the ideals and courage to seek an alternative.
4.) Either way, we must accept that the United States is part of a pluralistic society of nations and that China, Russia, and Europe are great powers to which we cannot simply dictate and that India will certainly become so within the century. We have, to some extent (perhaps failing too much in the opposite direction) admitted this in regard to China, we must remember it when dealing with Russia and Europe.
I don't believe that the universalist ideal is totally dead. Nationalism has been greatly discredited, not only by the world wars but in the intervening years between and after them, as a viable system of human political interaction. I believe that some form of universalism is ultimately necessary, that some sort of global system of governance will ultimately prevail. I believe it must be democratic, both in its totality (as opposed to say, the United Nations) and in its composition (we are not going to achieve a global democracy as long as powerful ethnocentric police states like China and Iran remain as they are), but that it cannot be 'imperial.' Nor do I believe it is the responsibility of the United States to bring this universalist ideal to fruition. It will happen naturally or it will not happen, it cannot be forced. We, certainly, cannot force it on the rest of the world. To paraphrase a great t-shirt, 'Forcing democracy is like fighting for peace.'
We must practice democracy and we must puruse the best interests of our people, as a nation, in an enlightened and mature manner with a true knowledge of our capabilities and limitations.
That would be a radical change.