In foreign policy, Americans like to keep it simple. Good countries versus bad countries. Democracies versus dictatorships. Of course, as Ronald Reagan reminded Americans, we are a “shining city upon a hill,” one of the goodies. What no one seems to ask is whether idealistic Americans have a clear view of the world as it is, or how their worldview affects the United States’ global image. Surely, as the U.S. enters its 17th year of perpetual war, these might be questions worth pursuing. Problem is, the truth can be disturbing.
So humor me for a moment and join me on a tour of American hypocrisy and naiveté, from Africa to the South Pacific.
Let’s begin with the big boys.
● Russia, with Vladimir Putin at the helm, is considered one of the baddies—even MSNBC thinks so these days. It has allegedly meddled in our election, invaded Georgia, intervened in Ukraine, fought for Bashar Assad in Syria and annexed Crimea. Some of that is true, no doubt, but some perspective is in order. The U.S. has meddled in foreign elections since time immemorial and appeared to back Georgia’s—and Ukraine’s—entry into the anti-Russian NATO alliance. The U.S. also invaded Syria, and, unlike the Russians, we weren’t invited by a sovereign head of state. Finally, the Crimeans wanted to join the Russian Federation.
Russia is by no means guilt-free, and genuine aggression needs to be prepared for and checked, but the American propensity for a Manichaean division between the noble U.S. and abhorrent Russkis is simply obtuse and unproductive.
● China, we are told, is a rising behemoth ready to snatch global leadership out of steadier American hands. And no doubt China’s economy is sizeable, its military growing and its form of government fairly authoritarian. China, like all global power-punchers, needs to be balanced. Still, much of the alarmism over China amounts to hysteria and inaccuracy. China is growing its army and navy commensurate with its economy. So did a rising United States in the 20th century.
China expects to wield influence in its nearby seas. Well, the Caribbean has been an American lake for two centuries. Besides, only the U.S. expects to dominate every ocean and sea on the planet. That’s hegemony, not prudence. China’s system of government is illiberal, and Beijing commits human rights abuses. True, but I’m here to tell you that one could say the same—and I will—about a litany of U.S. “allies” and “partners.”
Now let us move on to the midlevel players and compare and contrast America’s “good partners” and “evil adversaries.”
● Saudi Arabia: good. It sold us oil for decades, still supplies our European allies and balances a nemesis—Iran—in the Mideast. It even buys our advanced weapons and lines the pockets of defense industry CEOs.
But wait: Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. Its women live under medieval patriarchal rules, and over the last four months, it has beheaded 48 people, half for nonviolent offenses (we call that terrorism when Islamic State does it). In Syria, it has even backed an al-Qaida affiliate, the Nusra Front.
Oh, and 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers were Saudi nationals.
The U.S. response: We sell it arms, enable its war crimes in Yemen and back its every move in the region, even when it drags U.S. troops a few thousand miles from home to do the kingdom’s dirty work.
● Iran: super evil. It backs proxy forces across the Mideast, is developing ballistic missiles, threatening Israel and leading rowdy chants of “death to America.”
But wait: Iran is, by most measures, far more democratic than Saudi Arabia—it even sets aside parliamentary seats for minorities, including Jews. There are actually elections—albeit flawed—in Iran. Sure, the mullahs are domineering and corrupt, but in Saudi Arabia, these same elements work hand in hand with the royal family to suppress a citizenry that largely doesn’t vote. Iran does back proxies, but to nowhere near the extent or to the effect that exaggerating Iranophobes would have you believe. Besides, the U.S. backs all kinds of proxies in Syria, Iraq, Israel, Yemen, you name it.
As for those “death to America” chants, well, yes, they’re disturbing. Still, those emotions didn’t arise from nowhere. The U.S. fostered a 1953 coup that placed a brutal shah on Iran’s throne, and then proceeded to back Iraq’s eight-year invasive war with Tehran. The U.S. even took Iraq off the state sponsors of terror list, sent Don Rumsfeld to make nice with Saddam Hussein and then sold Hussein key supplies to produce chemical weapons, which, incidentally, he used on Iranians. So, yeah, it’s complicated.
● Israel: good. Infallibly so. Heck, even to question these guys is tantamount to anti-Semitism in the wildly pro-Israel United States. Israel, we are told, is the only democracy in the Mideast—which is empirically false, a bulwark against terrorism and a lonely victim in a hostile Arab world.
But wait: Israel has the most powerful military in the entire region and is the only local country with nuclear weapons (which we turned a blind eye to, ironically enough). Israel also is occupying Palestinian land in violation of international law, colonizing the West Bank, strangling Gaza and, most recently, gunning down unarmed Palestinian protesters along its border. The United States stands all but alone in the United Nations in its unshakeable and inexcusable defense of Israeli actions.
● Syria: bad country, maybe one of the worst. Here, I must—mostly—agree. Assad has, indeed, inflicted most of the casualties in that country’s horrific civil war. His use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons and indiscriminate attacks on civilians are unforgiveable. Period.
But still, that Assad equals evil does not necessarily mean that toppling Assad equals good policy. And for all the regime’s flaws—and they are countless—Syria’s treatment of its Sunni majority is not so different from Saudi Arabia’s (an “ally”) suppression of its minority Shiites or Egypt’s gunning down of anti-coup protesters. Ugly as Assad is, he mostly deplores transnational Islamist terrorists and provides secular protections to minority communities such as Christians, Druze and Shiites.
● Egypt: still a good country. It has made peace with Israel, buys lots of American arms and munitions, sends its military officers to train at our academies and makes nice with president after president in the Oval Office. Donald Trump even told President Sisi that he is doing a “fantastic job.” How nice.
But wait: Sisi is a military dictator who took power in an undemocratic coup. When protesters took to the streets in response, Sisi’s troops gunned down hundreds of them. Tens of thousands of political dissidents and human rights activists are still imprisoned in Egypt. Furthermore, if Egypt is such a steadfast ally, where are its military contingents backing up U.S. forces in Somalia, Iraq, Syria, et al.?
Sarcasm and cheeky comparisons aside, I am no particular fan of Russia, China, Iran or Syria. These are each flawed states, with less-than-admirable governments and spotty human rights records. But the same may be said of Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt and, well, the United States.
The value is in the evaluations themselves. As an exercise in critical thinking, a fair assessment of the positive and negative attributes of “partners” and “adversaries” can be instructive.
In the end, Washington must make hard decisions and, potentially, deal with some nefarious characters. But only when it is in America’s vital interests. That term, “interests,” has been stretched beyond recognition. Thus, the U.S. is left with the worst of both worlds—backing many baddies while proclaiming its own righteousness—as the global populace rolls their eyes, and more and more young people sign up for anti-American terror outfits.
One thing that hypocrisy produces is enemies, loads of ’em. Enough to wage a forever war.
When it comes to foreign affairs, American policymakers could stand to learn something (sure, I said it) from the savvier Russians and learn to see the gray. The other option is to live our purported values.
As it now stands, the U.S. does neither.