But that train keeps a-rollin'
Brief commentary on American foreign policy
Just about exactly a year ago, I wrote a post called "Stop the damned train," in which I argued against interventionism and in favor of pacifism as a motivation for foreign policy. I have, accordingly, had just about exactly a year to think about it.

So now a rant: Mr. Obama's neoconservatism is a gentler, subtler kind, more suited to a changing world. It is probably more insidious, also, and in the long run no less dangerous.

But I'll step back from the premise a little bit, for two reasons.

Firstly, because it's not clear to me how much of American foreign policy that appears to be the property of the executive branch is actually the property of the executive branch, and blaming the president for the ills of the government is tired and unproductive.

Secondly, because so far as most people are concerned "neoconservative" is not a word with any particular meaning, but an epithet specifically and narrowly applied to high-ranking functionaries in the Bush Administration. As a technical-sounding word, it was a nice insult because it came off as a statement of fact instead.

I used to consider myself aligned to neoconservative philosophies, before I became more isolationist, so I'm not above using it in a descriptive, rather than pejorative sense. So let us say this instead:

American foreign policy is destructive and unconscionable, and you should be more upset with it than you are.

Most foreign policy is selfish, at least in the sense that its goals are aligned chiefly with promoting the state, and do not concern themselves particularly strongly with interests that lie outside the state; nor are they opposed to putting foreigners at a disadvantage. We understand this.

Neoconservatism takes as one of its founding principles the maxim that war is the continuation of diplomacy by other means. It places in the toolkit of the modern actor the use of military force. Preemptive attacks are justified; meddling is expected, unilateralism is enshrined — the good of the country trumps all.

During the Cold War, what would be considered now as neoconservatism was characterised by its opposition to communism, which neoconservatives viewed as a force of great evil. Neoconservative ideologues argued in favor of the Viet Nam War, for example; they also opposed rapprochement with the PRC in favour of endorsing the Republic of China.

After the dissolution of the USSR, neoconservatives became more chiefly concerned, even paranoid, with the notion that a new rival might emerge to challenge the United States. Who? Well, lots of people. Russia, for one, yes. But also anyone in the Middle East who might become powerful enough to jeopardise the world economy on which American happiness depends. Also China.

It shouldn't come as any surprise, seen through this lens, that the United States has waged electronic war on China and Iran. It also shouldn't come as any surprise that other countries have returned the favor. In the atomic age, the United States and the USSR did a remarkably good job of establishing the boundaries of nuclear weapon use (never acceptable, unless your aim is to destroy the world). They also did a good job of making sure that space would not be weaponized... mostly.

Having invented new arenas of war in cyberspace and autonomous weaponry, the United States has completely punted by suggesting that their use is relatively free. The implication is that it is perfectly acceptable for other countries to attack the United States' Internet infrastructure without it being unconscionable or an act of war; also, that Syria would be completely justified in lobbing a couple of drone-launched Hellfire rockets at Americans advocating arming the Syrian government's opponents.

(As an aside: among other lessons from Syria, I'd like to see one applied to the American government, considering the steps the US intelligence community has taken in violating — ethically if not legally — the US Constitution, and the vigor with which two successive administrations have used "terrorism" as a way to justify essentially anything. From here on out I want to see the American media do the scare-quote-plus-parenthetical "... 'terrorists,' the American government's term for the opposition" thing)

Neoconservatives tend to believe, rather quaintly, that democracy is a salve that can be smeared on a problematic society to evolve it into something productive and beautiful; this is one of the reasons why they opposed the Soviet Union so. They present themselves as hardminded practitioners of realpolitik — making the hard decisions that a country needs to survive — but they are in fact optimistic idealists of the highest order.

The current foreign policy scriptwriters are not so stupid, although they are perhaps more callous. Their neoconservatism rejects putting boots on the ground to effect "regime change," as the Bush Administration did... but this puts them in an awkward position, because they're not actually opposed to regime change as a concept. So how to effect it?

Well, if you can't bring democracy to a country, why not destroy it?

We probably should've learned from the sanctions levied against Cuba that subjecting people to deprivation and suffering does not make them more likely to support you. But we have not. Sanctions placed against North Korea and Iran have self-evidently not prevented the former from obtaining nuclear weapons and are unlikely to stymie the latter. What do they accomplish?

They subject a great deal of ordinary people to suffering, for one. For two, they... oh. Well, no, that's about it, actually. There is absolutely zero moral justification for this. None whatsoever. The idea that the suffering is really the fault of "the regime" for failing to comply with "international norms" is craven, inexcusable, despicable nonsense. The United States, at least officially, does not respond to blackmail: why would North Korea?

Supporting sanctions is supporting a humanitarian catastrophe that has no consequence but to effect the destruction of the state. It is every bit as morally wrong as bombing civilian targets during the Second World War, and every bit as ineffective (neither the Blitz nor the bombing of Berlin caused the inhabitants to turn against their governments, did they?). If you support "sanctions," you are supporting starving people to death.

So why would you, as the leadership of a first-world country, do that? Considering how ineffective it is? Unless, of course, that is your goal. Unless it is your goal to cripple the technology and industry of any country that you think might be a threat, and to hell with the humanitarian consequences. Unless it is sufficient to keep them just hobbled enough: if most North Koreans stay in the stone age, well, that's American foreign policy spoken for.

Sometimes, though, that's just not enough. When it was a current topic, two years ago, I opposed Western intervention in Libya and irrespective of anything else I consider the president's actions an indefensible violation of the War Powers Resolution. At the time, I argued that it was a sectarian conflict we had no business being involved in. Of course, those advocating in favor of intervention had all the right answers. It was a popular uprising! It was a unified people, finally just sayin' "enough!" Gosh darn it, aren't those little rascals just like we were, way back in 1775?

Oops! Turns out Libya is now careening drunkenly towards being a failed state (it jumped an amazing 61 places on the failed states index last year), with all the lovely things you'd expect (vigilanteism, assassinations, terrorism, that kinda thing) from that. It also turns out that it was a tribal conflict, and the country is highly fragmented. Well, yeah, but what were we supposed to do? Nothing?

... Yes. But the goal was not creating a functional Libya, anyway. The goal was taking a hostile state and utterly sabotaging it. By the time the Libyan people are able to come up with something to replace it (dictatorship, democracy, who cares?) the United States will have bought another five or ten year head start against a foe that was never particularly threatening to begin with (but, as was his undoing, Gadhafi did have aspirations of meddling abroad — sponsoring terrorism is always a no-no, unless they're our terrorists).

Syria was at one point a relatively secular, relatively acceptable place in the Middle East. On the other hand, it has historically been an opponent to Israel, and an ally of Iran, and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. For the last couple of years, it has been subjected to an increasingly destructive civil war that you may or may not have heard of. Once again, the administration is beating the war drums. Now, they have decided they want to fuel the fire by adding yet more weapons into the mix.

For those of you playing the home game, this has been been somewhat controversial, by which I mean an overwhelming majority of Americans oppose it. It may be that Americans are simply tired. It may be that they remember the last time a neocon, with support from a lapdog UK, blathered on about "weapons of mass destruction" and "supporting terrorists" and "killed his own people" and think the sanctimony is a bit much from the country that brought you six figures of dead civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It may be that there is a growing awareness that it is not at all clear that the rebels have popular support, or it may be that they are led by terrorists, or it may be that people realize that the consequences of a rebel victory are not likely to be appreciably better for many Syrians (including all minorities) than the status quo was, and given Libya as an example will probably be worse.

It is beyond the height of absurdity to think that the president or his administration actually believe that pouring more guns into Syria will improve anyone's lot there. The only conclusion I can draw is that the destruction of Syria is in fact the goal, because it is in line with America's other foreign policy excursions.

I wouldn't say "wake up, Americans" because Americans already have. The most recent Pew poll shows 70% of Americans opposed to arming the Syrian opposition, even though much of the poll was conducted after the President & Friends' tedious chickenhawk bloviating about their "red line." I suspect people are appropriately skeptical, both about the red line and about the sudden pressing need to cross it, and good for them.

The real question, though, is if this is overall a foreign policy direction that Americans are comfortable with and, unfortunately, I think that many of them are. In the short run the kinder, gentler neoconservatism has produced fewer American casualties and allowed American influence to be exported to additional places (essentially, as far as a UAV can fly). But in the long run, I think it's destructive, and will come back to haunt us.

I don't have a solution or a commentary on that. I'm just saddened by it, that's all.
19.06.2013 - 5h22
Comrade Alex
19.06.2013 - 6h19
19.06.2013 - 8h39
Comrade Alex
19.06.2013 - 9h32
19.06.2013 - 5h09

You can use this form to add a comment to this page!




You will be identified by the name you provide. Once posted, comments may not be edited. For markup, use 'bulletin board' code: [i][/i] for italic, [b][/b] for bold, [ind][/ind] to indent, [url=][/url] for URLs, and [quote=Author|Date][/quote] for quotes (you can leave the date blank but you need the pipe). HTML is not allowed. Neither is including your website :)