When Success Is Failure

When Success Is Failure

Why it’s hard to make sense of US foreign policy.


The debate over US foreign policy is always a curious phenomenon. In recent times, Barack Obama appears to have succeeded in achieving two extremely significant foreign policy goals: securing an agreement for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stock and agreeing with Iran to begin the process of preventing its acquisition of a nuclear weapon. Both goals are unarguably consistent not only with US national interests but also with those of peace and humanity overall. Both were achieved at virtually no cost in blood or treasure. And yet both were roundly criticized in the mainstream media as examples of appeasement and/or capitulation.

Part of the explanation for this lies in the fact that US foreign policy debates are usually little more than domestic policy debates conducted by other means. (Hence Senate minority whip John Cornyn’s nutty tweet regarding the announcement of the historic Iran deal: “Amazing what WH will do to distract attention from O-care.”)

The underlying dynamic of US foreign policy is the topic of an erudite and generally quite sensible 162-page scholarly essay by Perry Anderson taking up the entire contents of the current New Left Review. On its first page, he notes that US foreign policy in the modern era is bedeviled by the twin problems of “provincialism of an electorate with minimal knowledge of the outside world, and a political system that—in strident contradiction with the designs of the Founders—has increasingly given virtually untrammeled power to the executive in the conduct of foreign affairs.” To try to straddle this divide, a foreign policy elite has tasked itself with the job of inventing various “grand strategies” ostensibly for the purpose of guiding US foreign policy leaders, but more often employed to sell the actions of an imperial power to an always ill-informed and oftentimes isolationist-minded public.

Unfortunately, these grand strategies can be deployed in defense of deeply immoral policies that would on their own never survive scrutiny. The historian Gary Bass examines one rarely discussed example of how this takes place in his new book, The Blood Telegram. In it, he reconstructs the discussion between Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger in response to the April 1971 pleadings of the US consul general in Dhaka, Pakistan, to take steps to prevent the “genocide” (Archer Blood’s words to Kissinger) against the Bengalis of East Pakistan. In what Bass calls “probably the most blistering denunciation of U.S. foreign policy ever sent by its own diplomats,” Blood decried the “moral bankruptcy” of America’s continued support for General Yahya Khan, under whose direction the campaign was being conducted. Kissinger was furious at the insubordination, while Nixon, in a rare (and decidedly brief) moment of moral introspection, pondered the fact that the killings under way were not as bad as those in Biafra. And given that the United States had not intervened there, it would be hypocritical to try to stop the genocide in Bengal. “There weren’t very many Jews in Germany,” he mused, so maybe that meant it was “therefore not immoral for Hitler to kill them?” (Oddly, nobody mentioned Kissinger’s family having fled the Nazis.) Even so, Kissinger argued that withdrawing support for the genocidal general would invite a pro-Communist victory, and hence violate the US foreign policy doctrine of “containment.” This was hardly the only time in recent history when the United States had turned a blind eye to genocide conducted with US weapons and tacit approval (see, for instance, my July 8/15 column “The Upside of Genocide”).

In this respect, the foreign policy doctrine of containment justified a far worse policy than could have been defended on its merits. And yet America cannot have a foreign policy without a “doctrine.” To conduct foreign policy from a straightforward calculation of US interests as most nations do—the so called “realist” option—is not feasible in the context of our moralistic foreign policy debate. As Anderson observes, “Neo-realism as pure theory, a paradigm in the study of international relations, is one thing; the ideological discourse of American foreign policy, another. Through those portals, it cannot enter unaccompanied.” So what’s the portal?

The “portal,” such as it is, is usually a combination of two arguments. The first is almost always the exaggeration of an alleged threat to our safety. The second is the need to defend our “values.” As the historian John Thompson has written, “The dramatic extension of America’s overseas involvement and commitments in the past hundred years has reflected a growth of power rather the decline of security. Yet the full and effective deployment of that power has required from the American people disciplines and sacrifices that they are prepared to sustain only if they are persuaded the nation’s safety is directly at stake.” This has resulted in “the expansion of national security to include the upholding of American values and the maintenance of world order” and “the recurrent tendency to exaggerate the country’s vulnerability to attack.” And yet, as Melvyn Leffler, author of what remains today the (so-far) definitive history of US behavior in the Cold War, 1992’s A Preponderance of Power, concludes, “Fear and power…ot unrelenting Soviet pressure, not humanitarian impulses, not domestic political considerations, not British influence” were “the key factors shaping American policies.”

Anderson surveys the views of some of the most prominent mainstream American foreign policy intellectuals and finds them not only unconvincing—which is hardly surprising, as he is a Marxist and an admirer of Gabriel Kolko and Noam Chomsky—but also incoherent. This is due, I think, to the fact of the impossible task laid out above. And it is one that will continue to bedevil the Obama administration unless it admits to itself that it is dealing, as with Congress, with a deeply irrational and fundamentally corrupt political discourse. As events in Syria and Iran—to say nothing of those in Iraq and Afghanistan—clearly demonstrate, the cost in lives and treasure demand the courage to say so and act accordingly.

Thomas Meaney wrote about two books on US foreign policy in Bangladesh in last week's issue.

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