BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
Whose Ideals Are They Anyway?
There are those in the United States who cling to the amorphous idea of human rights being the centerpiece of our grand strategy. This first came to the forefront of American strategic thinking during the chaos of the Jimmy Carter presidency. No longer would U.S. foreign policy be governed according to the cold logic of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford realpolitik, the United States would place its “values” at the center of all foreign policy calculations. To be sure, the United States has always been a crusader state. We’ve never been comfortable operating in a realm of strict, cold, hard realism; American leaders have long trumpeted the uniqueness of America’s value systems (after all, ours was the first country to place its citizens’ “pursuit of happiness” as a supreme priority in its founding documents). But, how is it that the United States was more than able to peacefully coexist–and productively trade–with imperial powers, such as the British Empire or with nations that did not have the same rights and worldview as the United States, like Morocco (the first country to recognize the United States as an independent country after the Revolutionary War)?
The United States, also, has long been enamored with its sense of “American exceptionalism.” In its extreme form, historically, this took the form of “White-Man’s Burden” and quasi-imperialism (which brought the United States from just thirteen ramshackle colonies on the American east coast all the way to the Philippines). At its most benign, American exceptionalism merely wishes to see the world comport closer to the democratic and humanitarian values that a majority of Americans expect their government to embody when operating at the domestic level. This is a noble desire, though, at times (just as with its more extreme variant of “White-Man’s Burden” in the 19th century), it has led to grave miscalculations.
For example, the George W. Bush Administration understandably believed the old way of doing business ended on 9/11. Yet, despite being a Republican presidential administration (most GOP leaders hewed closer to the realist school of international affairs than any other), former President Bush embraced a more militant version of his predecessor’s foreign policy (which can best be summed up as turning America’s military into nothing more than “armed humanitarians”). There were certainly differences between the George W. Bush foreign policy and that of former President Bill Clinton’s. Whereas the Clinton Administration had no problem committing American blood and treasure to humanitarian military operations, there was no catalyzing event (like 9/11) to galvanize the American people to support large interventions of the sort that defined the George W. Bush presidency.
And, while former President Clinton was lambasted for relying too heavily on squeamish foreign support for his retinue of mindless military engagements throughout the developing world, George W. Bush, of course, was viewed as far too much of unilateralist. Although George W. Bush famously campaigned in 2000 against the wasteful nation-building endeavors of the Clinton Administration, by the time of the Iraq War of 2003, the United States had committed itself to two major nation-building campaigns in the Muslim world (Afghanistan and Iraq).
Why did we go into Iraq?
- Weapons of mass destruction were believed to have been present;
- It was suspected that Saddam Hussein was lending support and refuge to al Qaeda elements;
- After 9/11, the Bush Administration strategists disbelieved that the country could afford to continue supporting (or ignoring) the type of authoritarian, strongman systems it had spent the Cold War against the Soviet Union propping up. In other words, the Bush Administration embraced an early form of what Dr. Sebastian Gorka (rightly) derisively referred to as the, “Jobs for Jihadis” program.
Iraq was more than just about WMD and removing a potential safe haven for al Qaeda. It was about socially and politically reengineering the Middle East to comport more closely with the values and norms of the West. After 9/11, no matter how Afghanistan went for the United States, the Bush Administration would have engaged in its ill-fated Iraq project, because it was theorized that only by fundamentally transforming the Middle East to favor democratic norms could the threat (and lure) of Islamism be overcome. It was an admirable if wrongheaded goal.
Just as with the Clinton Administration, under George W. Bush, the United States used its massive military and economic might to engage in a devastating war based on America’s ideals. Talk about cognitive (and strategic) dissonance! The project was a strategic failure. Just to be clear, what goals are we talking about? What is democracy or human rights for that matter? How do we measure them? What countries are considered to be more virtuous than others? Fact is, there are no set ideals. The concepts of human rights and democracy are so poorly defined and open to interpretation that it strains understanding how any American leader would believe it to be either wise or necessary to go to war over such vacuous concepts.
What does a democracy look like? After all, while there are various democratic systems in place throughout the world, no two democratic systems look alike. Even fewer compare to the Jeffersonian-type, representative democracy that exists in the United States. Social democracy tends to be the preferred method in the West. As for Iraq, it is mostly a sham democracy. Even when the Americans looked as though they had stemmed the tide of the insurgency during the Bush era surge, no one seriously believed that Iraq would embrace any real semblance of a democratic system.
As for human rights, well, with all due respect, it’s somewhat laughable that the United States would have been willing to wage war in the name of human rights. For, at the very same time that the United States was going to liberate the desert wastelands of the Middle East, like all misguided revolutionaries of the last century, America imprisoned thousands of people from around the world, and even tortured some of them. Now, it did so in order to prevent future terror attacks (and, despite claims to the contrary, the torturing it did was kept to a minimum).
What’s more, there can be little doubt that the kind of torture the United States committed–particularly on “The Blind Sheikh” and Bin Laden’s driver, Abu Zubaydah–most likely did lead to the successful deterring of catastrophic terror attacks on the American mainland. But, the fact is, the United States engaged in torture. And, whatever hemming and hawing may have been done in public, most of America’s leaders were utterly spineless in voicing any kind of concern over the practice at the time. Bottom line: as we were warring for our ideals in the Middle East, we were also publicly rounding up scores of people–irrespective of whether they were actually terrorists or not–imprisoning them unfairly and, at times, torturing them.
Yes, I know desperate times call for desperate measures, and this is not an indictment of the American officers who engaged in the practice. What this is meant to show is that basing our foreign policy on hard-to-discern ideals–or conflating the ideals that must define the American citizens’ relationship with his government with the kind of brutish action that is often necessary to preserve the national interest abroad–is idiotic. Not to worry, though, as Americans were told a savior was coming to them in the form of Barack Obama.