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Neither moral nor pragmatic, but a secret third thing
Human rights and realism are both masks for the emotional and personal urges driving U.S. foreign policy.
The 20th anniversary of the Iraq War has produced a lot of non-apologetic apologies by its former architects and supporters. The formula usually goes like so: we were misled by “intelligence failures,” we made a costly mistake, and we wouldn’t do it again. However, the apologists argue, the war did succeed at destroying Saddam Hussein’s regime, so it was not a total wash.
Yes, the war crushed an enemy and secured a U.S. foothold in the region. But to what end? Those things are supposed to serve some kind of purpose or goal. And even in the most coldly selfish view of the world — where U.S. interests are more important than Iraqi lives — it’s hard to see what economic or security benefits the hawks can point to.
U.S. foreign policy makers tend to wear a series of masks. The outermost mask is the ideal of democracy, freedom, and human rights. Rip off that mask, and policymakers start to talk about security, deterrence, balance of power, and national interests. Yet those concepts turn out to be half-baked and inconsistently applied, a mask for something else.
At the core is a set of emotional and personal urges: vengeance, honor, glory, greed, and the thrill of wielding power for power’s sake. While those motivations have driven statecraft since states have existed, U.S. elites have gotten better at rationalizing them over the past few decades.
The War on Terror was the peak of base impulses wrapped up in the language of humanitarianism or security. Before the Bush administration really started to emphasize “democracy promotion” as a justification for war, some public intellectuals didn’t even bother hiding their true motivations.
“Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business,” conservative columnist Jonah Goldberg claimed in 2002, paraphrasing arch-hawk Michael Ledeen.
Veteran journalist Thomas Friedman was even more pithy: “well, suck on this!”
The Bush administration tried to put an academic veneer over this reasoning. Officials wanted to create a “shockwave” through “confidence-inspiring” displays of power, Defense Department official Doug Feith later wrote in his memoir, and their fear was looking “weak” or “laughable.”
In his review of Feith’s memoir, the writer Tanner Greer argues:
The celebrals running DoD could not bring themselves to admit a base emotion like [revenge] was driving their policies. This was a terrible mistake. American officials should have enshrined ‘revenge’ as an official war aim. Had they done so, they could have then had an open conversation about which targets were the proper objects of revenge and what actions might satisfy American demands for retribution. Dodging these discussions did not cause American soldiers or statesmen to act in a less vengeful fashion, but it did allow the bloodlust-driven target list to expand irresponsibly. The spirit of vengeance fueled the American war machine even as its wrath fell on targets at further and further remove from the 9/11 attacks.
Feith kept the definition of the enemy purposely vague in order to preserve “flexibility regarding how, when, and against whom we should act.” Hence Iraq — a country that had nothing to do with 9/11 but was an old enemy now weak enough to crush — absorbed the trauma and anger Americans felt over the attack.
U.S. leaders skimped on the resources they provided to the military in Afghanistan and Iraq, in order to create the impression that the United States was gearing up to strike elsewhere, Greer points out in a separate book review. Officials said that they were “recocking the pistol,” in order to wield it against Iran or Syria.
The strategy of chest-puffing defeated itself. When the Taliban tried to surrender, and Iran offered a grand bargain to avoid Iraq’s fate, the Bush administration felt so confident in its “deterrence” that it turned the offers down. Over the next two decades, the Taliban built up its strength to reconquer Afghanistan, and Iran learned to outperform the United States at proxy warfare — especially in Iraq.
Greer argues that the War on Terror failures were a result of Cold War mentalities. The American policymakers who watched the fall of the Soviet Union were skilled at “deterring conventional military forces from aggressive action,” he writes, and went wrong in applying the same mindset to a much more amorphous problem.
But maybe the late Cold War generation was less rational than we have been led to believe.
Take former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, the “master of the game.” Because he had been willing to step on a lot of people and tolerate a lot of ugliness, Kissinger is often considered an example of foreign-policy “realism.” However, his actual beliefs in office were mushy and incoherent, more about projecting bravado and attaching himself to the latest intellectual fad than anything else, as the historian Thomas Meany argues.
Kissinger realized the Vietnam War was unwinnable, yet argued that Washington had to maintain its “credibility,” because “stability [in other parts of the world] depends on confidence in American promises.” Instead of seeking peace immediately, Kissinger decided to “drag on the process” of losing. The Nixon administration tried to preserve American “honor” through military campaigns that killed tens of thousands in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
Those decisions may seem like a dose of hard realism, with the Nixon administration casting aside compassion for the sake of national interests. Dig a little deeper, though, and the idea turns out to be emotional rather than calculating. Kissinger believed his team risked looking like a chicken in front of everyone else, and he knew how to put that anxiety in academic language.
Serious realists did not think like this. Although they were willing to shed blood to build an American empire, statesmen like George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau believed that “saving face” was a stupid and wasteful reason to use force. They publicly said so when it was still unpopular to oppose the Vietnam War.
Kissinger went much further in politics because he knew how to turn politicians’ emotional impulses into the language of hard statecraft. He was a master of the game — it’s just that the game was the opposite of “realism.”
Under the later Reagan administration, the full set of masks was developed. Hawkish policies were not only necessary to shore up U.S. power, the administration argued, but also to spread freedom throughout the world. Military force was both pragmatic and moral.
Future ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote the manifesto for Reaganism. She argued that “moderate autocrats” were more likely to reform their regimes than “extremists” and “totalitarians,” so the United States should try to shore up the former and destroy the latter around the world. Maximizing power through friendly dictators happened to be the most democratic thing America could do.
The Kirkpatrick Doctrine was obviously not about protecting freedom. It wasn’t really about U.S. national interests, either. As the historian Greg Grandin argues in Empire’s Workshop:
U.S. allies in Central America during Reagan’s two terms killed over three hundred thousand people, tortured hundreds of thousands, and drove millions into exile.
Reagan could afford to execute such a calamitous policy not, pace Kirkpatrick, because of the region’s importance but because of its unimportance. The fallout that resulted from a hard line there could be, if not managed, then easily ignored. Unlike the Middle East, Central America had no oil or crucial resources. Nor did Washington’s opponents in the small, desperately poor countries have many consequential friends. Unlike Southeast Asia, the region was the U.S.’s backyard, its “Balkans.” The USSR would not support the Sandinistas or the rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala to the degree it did its allies in Vietnam. “The eagle that kills the deer in Central America,” declaimed national security scholar Robert Tucker, “will not frighten the bear in the Middle East.
Tucker wrote that “our pride is engaged [in Central America] as it cannot possibly be engaged in Africa or in Southeast Asia.” In other words, the point was to make a point.
The Reagan administration also had domestic audiences in mind. The American public was chastened by “Vietnam syndrome,” and a (relatively) cheap display of force against a small country was just the antidote they needed. Then the Soviet Union fell, and Reaganism got the credit.
The policymakers who cut their teeth at this time felt like gods. The interests of their nation, the moral arc of history, their personal feelings — and their career advancement — all seemed to line up. You’re asking whether it was necessary to turn Guatemala into a killing field? What are you, some kind of sore loser commie sympathizer? What part of “credibility” don’t you understand?
The line runs straight from Kissinger to Kirkpatrick to Feith. If 9/11 never happened, some other trauma or setback would have unleashed the same kind of force. Washington was sitting a lot of firepower, and its star policymakers had gotten used to beating up “crappy little countries” in order to make a point.
By the way, Kissinger supported the Iraq War, while academic realists like Robert Jervis and Stephen Waltz were shouting that the war was a terrible idea.
Of course, realism isn’t necessarily less violent. An older generation of American leaders shed rivers of blood in places like Korea and Indonesia out of cold, calculating pragmatism. But the current form of U.S. statecraft is the worst of both worlds, neither serving pragmatic goals nor advancing noble ideals.
Greer writes that “the Vulcans [of the Bush administration] were masters of their reality. They had wrought anew the social realm in which they lived, changing the terms of the bureaucratic game, bending the rules, memos, and meetings that constrained lesser men to their own wills…Unfortunately, the reality that mattered existed outside the confines of the American bureaucracy.”
The United States that Kissinger, Kirkpatrick, and Feith led could afford a little wanton destruction, and a little ignorance of reality. Whether our America can is another question.
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Header image: Baghdad ablaze during the allied bombing on the first night of the Shock and Awe operation. 21 March 2003. Trinity Mirror / Mirrorpix / Alamy Stock Photo.