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Is the Foreign-Policy Elite Clueless?

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The American foreign-policy elite seems to have no idea what it’s doing.

Americans may believe the government — especially the foreign-policy side — is at least minimally competent, but when one surveys decisions from the last few decades, one has to wonder.

The current crop of policymakers, like earlier ones, know what they want to do: make the world safe for American leadership — or, less euphemistically, American hegemony: No rivals for American influence or access to resources and markets can be tolerated. As President George H.W. Bush said, “What we say goes.”

Even by that standard, the policy architects and executors look incompetent — or unbelievably cynical.

No better evidence exists than the policies that led to the so-called Islamic State and President Barack Obama’s response to it.

Let’s begin with March 2003. President George W. Bush, citing imaginary weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein’s fictitious connection to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks, sent the military to invade Iraq, overthrow the government, and occupy the country. Saddam’s regime was secular, but he was a Sunni Muslim and the majority Shi’ites were especially oppressed under his dictatorship. With Saddam gone, the Shi’ites have dominated, and the emerging successor regime predictably moved close to Iran, the large Persian Shi’ite country next door. (Saddam, assisted by the U.S. government, launched a devastating eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s.) In response, al-Qaeda (which is Sunni) arose in Iraq for the first time and participated in an anti-U.S. and anti-Shi’ite insurgency, until the CIA paid the local Sunni tribal leaders to turn on al-Qaeda, whom they disliked anyway.

Thus Bush alienated the Sunnis and created a Shi’ite ally for Iran. Yet since 1979 (when the Islamic revolution overthrew the dictatorial monarchy of long-time U.S. client Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) Iran has been demonized (falsely) by U.S. administrations as one of America’s mortal enemies.

What was the Bush brain trust thinking when it did its favor for Iran? Was the plan to overthrow Iran’s government next or merely to have a perpetual crisis? Crisis, like war, is the health of the state, after all.

Under the American occupation and the U.S./Iran-installed regime of Nouri al-Maliki, the Sunnis were shut out of the army and civil service, not to mention repressed — so much so that when the Islamic State came along, the Sunnis were willing to tolerate its brutality rather than continue suffering under Shi’ite rule. Maliki is out now, but institutionalized sectarianism is not over.

Meanwhile, next door in Syria, the brutal Iran-backed dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad became even more egregious in 2011 in response to growing protests. Assad’s regime is also secular, but his and his cronies’ religion is related to Shi’ism, putting the majority Sunnis at a disadvantage. Obama, with the help of then secretary of state Hillary Clinton and British Prime Minister David Cameron, made a bad situation worse by declaring that Assad must give up power. Thus compromise would be suicidal for Assad, and al-Qaeda-type fighters from the region (such as next-door Iraq) were encouraged to flock to Syria because Assad’s days were apparently numbered. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant was born when a capable and especially fanatical group of foreign fighters in Syria had strategic differences with the al-Qaeda affiliate.

So here we are. The Islamic State, a product of idiotic U.S. actions, controls large parts of Syria and Iraq, effectively erasing the border between them.

In response, Obama wants to obliterate the Islamic State (by air) without helping Iran or Assad or alienating Sunnis. Talk about squaring the circle! If recent history is any guide, arming the Iraqi army and the phantom moderate rebels against Assad amounts to arming the Islamic State. The nonaggression pact among the Islamic State and other anti-Assad groups, along with the U.S.-blessed Free Syrian Army’s announcement that it would not join Obama’s anti-ISIS coalition, seems to sink the president’s plan.

Obama warns that the Islamic State could threaten Americans at home, yet American airstrikes make that more likely; the Islamic State’s murders of two American journalists were committed in retaliation for the first U.S. strikes.

If any part of Obama’s plan makes sense to you, you might have a future in the foreign-policy establishment.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.