The five deadly sins of US foreign policy

Is the US starting to resemble the Middle East?

The events in Iraq and the wider Middle East make it plain that the US is incapable of handling the elemental forces that it has awakened, writes Richter [AFP]

It is never a good thing if the leading world power acts like the sorcerer’s apprentice. That is all the more troubling if that power – the United States – is now almost three quarters of a century into the job of leading the world. And yet, here we are.

Sin #1:  Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder

The events in Iraq and the wider Middle East make it plain that the US is incapable of handling all the elemental forces that it has awakened.

Worse, US foreign policy in the region is breathless at best. It can only be understood as an endless series of obsessions over the latest issue du jour. Factors totally unheard of even a couple of weeks before suddenly claim the front-page. The Yazidis’ plight, tragic though it undoubtedly is, is only the latest example in a long chain of events.

Inside Story – Islamic State ‘beheading’: A challenge to US?

While Americans fancy themselves Hercules-like, single-handedly holding up the entire world, in actuality they suffer from ADHD, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The deadly sin of US foreign policy that this points to is that it is impulse-driven and event-driven. Under such circumstances, no nation can travel along a rational course or pursue a policy credible to even its own allies.

The US media, especially television media, act as a multiplier of disastrous force in that regard. They monomaniacally seize the “next” topic or angle with which to titillate the fearful American masses. From the media’s perspective, this effort is doubly legitimised: Firstly as part of the desperate ratings game. And secondly as an effort to give the viewers “what they want”.

That such breathlessness does not lead to deeper insight into a more rational policy is self-evident.  Regardless, it seriously undermines a rational process of US foreign policy making.

Sin #2: Money – Not a good predictor of outcomes

As President Barack Obama recently confessed, even he – the commander-in-chief – was surprised by the rapidness with which Islamic State group seized Iraq. That, though, is not his deficiency – nor is it a lack of resources. The US intelligence apparatus, measured purely in budgetary terms, is by far the costliest in human history. 

Unfortunately, that does not mean that it is the most effective or most insightful. If anything, staffing levels and budget volumes are inversely proportional to quality and outcomes.

In fact, at times, one has to wonder whether the real purpose of US foreign policy isn’t to enrich all the vast legions that serve as consultants and service providers to the US government, military, and “homeland” security bureaucracies. This despicable trend has certainly built many a townhouse in Washington’s leafy suburbs.

Sin #3:  Who’s toppling the dominoes now?

How about the third deadly sin of US foreign policy? It is practising yourself what you have long accused others of doing. 

To comprehend the full irony – and yes, the disastrous path that US foreign policy has travelled in the Middle East – it is important to recall the domino theory. From the 1950s onward, successive US administrations employed this idea to justify the need for US intervention around the world during the Cold War.

In its newer iteration, under George W Bush, the official explanation for marauding around the Middle East was that it was done in the name of promoting freedom and democracy. Of course, that was the quite contrary to what the US had practised before then in its friendly dealings with virtually every regime in the region (and even now as the US is dependent on Saudi Arabia).

Today, we live in a reverse domino world. It is decidedly not the spectre of communism that is letting regimes topple. Rather, it is the reckless machinations of US foreign policy that is a key factor. The invasion of Iraq is American-made, and not a creation of Vladimir Putin’s. It is also the key element, the initial domino if you will, that unbalanced the entire Middle East.

Sin #4: Strategy = tactics?

To make matters worse, there is method to the madness. This concerns the fourth deadly sin of US foreign policy. I still vividly remember the days when I arrived in Washington to study foreign policy at Georgetown University’s venerable School of Foreign Service. 

A new arrival from Europe, I was thoroughly confused by my American graduate school classmates’ liberal, interchangeable usage of the terms “tactical” and “strategic”. When asked where the difference was between the two terms, they responded there was a big difference: “Tactical was everything, say, until six weeks – and strategic everything beyond that.” 

I should have known back then that this would spell trouble down the road, all the more so, as the school’s graduates were destined for the US Foreign Service and intelligence agencies.

Sin #5: A negative sum game

You can only understand the true purpose of US foreign policy, if you see all these theatres as opportunities to conduct legal, and preferably prosecutorial, spectacles.

Politics in the US is becoming ever more vicious and mutually recriminating.

The overall point in these battles, you see, is not to come up with a solid policy, or any form of consensus.  No, given the fact that lawyers account for what is, by far, the largest contingent of members of Congress, everything is turned into a trial. It is about raising charges and attacking, with very loose rules for presenting evidence of any kind.

That such viciousness is ultimately self-destructive escapes the attention of these representatives. Unfortunately, they are representative of the American people in one regard:  rather than endeavouring to have any shared experiences or creating any kind of consensus, ever more of them are living in their own realities – among those who share their opinions and, yes, their hatreds.

For some, especially Republicans, it is more important to blame Barack Obama than to get a grip on the Middle East. In that scorched earth endeavour, they are remaking the US ever more in the realities of the Middle East. 

Now, that is a surprising sort of convergence. The US, so claimed President Bush et al., was there to lift down-trodden Middle Eastern countries out of their division and self-destructiveness. 

As things stand now, the reverse has occurred: Politics in the US is becoming ever more vicious and mutually recriminating. In that sense, it is the US that has become more like the Middle East.  

Who would have expected that? Maybe it was that sense of extreme divisiveness at home that attracted the sorcerer’s apprentice to get himself ever more deeply involved in the Middle East.

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist, the daily online magazine, and a columnist in newspapers around the world.

Follow him on Twitter: @theglobalist