Foreign Policy Myths Debunked | The Nation


Foreign Policy Myths Debunked

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Myth 4. Iran is responsible for much of the violence against US forces in Iraq; by using its proxies in Lebanon and Gaza, it threatens to dominate the Middle East.

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Iran has been able to increase its influence in the region not because of its strengths but because of Washington's blunders, most notably its illegal invasion of Iraq, which brought to power a pro-Iranian Shiite government, and its policy of isolating Hezbollah and Hamas, which has opened the door for Tehran to forge a closer alliance with both groups. Although strong enough to make any military action against its territory costly, Iran has a very modest ability to project military power and therefore poses little threat to its neighbors. Its economy is overly dependent on high oil prices and is so badly managed that it depends on imported gas and other distillates. And its Islamic system of government has very limited ideological appeal in the predominantly Sunni Middle East, as evidenced by the failure of its earlier effort to export revolution. In recent years it has made progress in its uranium-enrichment program, but experts agree that it is years away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon.

Iran has tried to make the occupation of Iraq as difficult as possible for US forces, but it has not been the major cause of violence against US troops. Most of these attacks have come from Sunni insurgents, who are deeply hostile to Iran. Even though Tehran has helped supply some Shiite militias hostile to the US occupation, Iran does not want to do anything that would destabilize the current Shiite-led government, with which it has very close relations. Like it or not, both Tehran and Washington back the current Shiite-dominated government in Iraq.

Commentators have focused too much attention on the statements of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has little influence over foreign affairs. Iran is not ideologically wedded to an anti-American position. It supported the Bush administration's 2001 overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, and in 2003 it made a diplomatic overture to Washington, which put on the table such sensitive issues as Iran's support for anti-Israeli militant groups and a de facto acceptance of Israel's right to exist, in return for the normalization of US-Iranian relations. By virtue of its size and power, Iran wants to play a larger role in regional relations, and it sees Washington's policy of isolating and punishing it as an obstacle to this goal. Change American policy to engage Iran, and the rationale for some of its anti-American policies would disappear while pressure within Iran for a different regional approach would increase.

Myth 5. To talk to the leaders of "rogue" states like Iran and Cuba without conditions legitimizes their position and weakens American leverage.

McCain has attacked Obama for saying that he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea without conditions. Although Obama later qualified his position, his willingness to engage US adversaries and use bilateral and multilateral diplomacy offers a clear alternative to McCain's almost unconditional hostility to any kind of diplomacy.

McCain's position of refusing to meet with such leaders without conditions ignores a long, albeit uneven, bipartisan tradition of direct negotiations with our enemies, a tradition that runs from Kennedy to Nixon to Reagan. It also ignores the abysmal record of trying to isolate "rogue" states with the goal of regime change. The Castro brothers in Cuba have outlasted nine, soon to be ten, US presidents. And more than seven years of refusing to talk with Tehran has only left Iran stronger and closer to a nuclear bomb. By contrast, the Bush administration's decision to participate directly in the six-power talks and to drop earlier conditions led to the successful agreement with North Korea to dismantle its nuclear program.

As our experience with North Korea makes clear, however, to talk or not to talk misses the main point. The key question is not whether the president will meet with other leaders, "rogue" or not, but whether the United States will use diplomacy effectively to achieve US objectives. In many cases that diplomacy will not be head-to-head meetings with other leaders but good-faith participation in multilateral forums such as the six-power talks. In most cases, the United States will have far more to gain by participating without conditions than by creating conditions to avoid negotiations.

Myth 6. Vladimir Putin's Russia is an authoritarian state pursuing an anti-American agenda aimed at reconstituting the Soviet Union in the form of a new Russian empire.

McCain has seized on the crisis in Georgia to advance this alarmist view and to push his policy of ejecting Russia from the G-8 and expanding NATO to include Georgia and Ukraine. Obama initially took a more nuanced position toward the crisis but has recently joined McCain in promising NATO membership to Georgia. McCain's characterization of Russia is wrong for two reasons.

First, Russia's foreign policy has not been anti-American. Moscow has cooperated with Washington on a number of important international issues, from assisting NATO against the Taliban in Afghanistan and supporting Washington's counterterrorism efforts, to joining the coalition to curb Iran's nuclear enrichment program.

Second, what McCain sees as a pattern of intimidation to re-establish the Russian empire more objective analysts see as a great power protecting its legitimate interests in the face of US provocations. These provocations started during the Clinton administration and have increased under Bush, with the expansion of NATO to Russia's border and abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. They have continued with the promise of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine and the decision to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe. Yet Moscow has responded for the most part in a measured and defensive way, its most forceful move being the recent military actions in Georgia to protect South Ossetia. When the Georgian president, Mikheil Saakashvili, sent forces into South Ossetia in violation of an earlier agreement, Russia responded much as the United States did when it intervened in 1999 against Serbia over Kosovo. Russian military actions in Georgia may have been disproportionate, but not as disproportionate as Washington's extensive bombing of Serbia proper.

Despite the souring of the earlier cooperative relationship with the Bush administration, Russia has made it clear that it would still prefer a strategic partnership that would reduce nuclear weapons, contain Islamist extremism and expand the world's oil and gas supplies. But it has also made it clear that this partnership must be based on mutual interests and compromise, not simply on Russian acquiescence in American dictates.

Myth 7. Because the American military is stretched thin by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we must increase the size of our conventional armed forces.

Both presidential candidates have come out with proposals to increase conventional forces. But these proposals are based on mistaken notions of the utility of military power and which military missions we must pursue to protect national security and contribute to world order.

The long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have indeed ground down the military and limited our ability to respond to other potential threats. But the problem is not that we spend too little or have too few forces. After all, the military budget, now almost $600 billion, is almost as large as the combined military budgets of the rest of the world. We outspend China by a factor of ten to one, Russia by sixteen to one and Iran by almost ninety times. Rather, the problem lies with the Bush administration's military missions and its forward-based strategy. In addition to the traditional missions of deterrence and defense of sea lanes, national security strategy now calls for the use of force to effect regime change and to fight counterinsurgency wars. It also envisions expansion of American military bases throughout much of the greater Middle East.

The lesson we should draw from our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is not that we need more conventional forces but that the missions of regime change and counterinsurgency are--in addition to being illegal, in the case of the former, and unethical--not essential to US interests and cannot be achieved at acceptable cost. Furthermore, we should have learned from the stationing of forces in Saudi Arabia in the 1990s that positioning US troops in or near Muslim countries can fuel radical movements that create new threats to US security. The better course of action would be to wind down the counterinsurgency wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and reduce America's heavy footprint in the Islamic world, thereby freeing resources for more urgent domestic and international needs.

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