Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Problem with Enemies

It took me a long time to understand that other people don't see foreign policy the way I do. I always thought the only goal of American policy ought to be making the world a better place, for everyone. Maybe especially for us, but for everyone to the extent that this is compatible with our own interests. I see the world as full of governments and people, some of them belligerent and nasty, some friendly and nice, but most of them self-centeredly pursuing their own agendas.

It eventually dawned on me that some people don't see a world full of people and countries, doing their own things. They see only enemies and allies. Everything our enemies do is wrong, because their motives are wicked -- why else would they be our enemies? No matter what happens, we should always oppose our enemies however we can, and support our allies. Anything we do in support of our interests or those of our allies is by definition good, because we are the good guys and have to stand up to our wicked enemies.

People of this sort look at the Iran deal and say, this helps our enemy, Iran, and that is bad; plus it offends our allies Israel and Saudi Arabia, which makes it doubly bad. Therefore we must reject it. They justify their thinking with paragraphs like this:
There is no evidence that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is a Gorbachev-like figure. Iran gives every indication of being an aggressive, revolutionary power. It is rallying, arming and directing military forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq. The reported agreement to partially lift the arms embargo against Iran — a dramatic concession — must seem to the United States’ Sunni allies and partners like de facto U.S. recognition of Iranian spheres of military influence across the region. Because it is.
Hmmm. Who else is "rallying, arming and directing military forces in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq"? That would be us. If arming and rallying military forces is an illegitimate activity, why are we doing it? I do understand that not all armed forces are equivalent, and that arming the Islamic State is something different from arming the more-or-less elected government of Afghanistan. But in Iraq, the forces we are arming and rallying are fighting side by side with the ones armed and rallied by Iran; if not for Iranian help, the government we support would be in grave danger of complete collapse. (Does that put Iraq within the U.S. or Iranian "sphere of military influence"?) In Syria, the forces we support and those Iran supports are both fighting the Islamic State, and for both the U.S. and Iran the nightmare scenario would be a complete ISIS victory. Yemen is an unfortunate mess, but to my mind the main bad guy there is the Saudis, who seem to be bombing everything at random in pursuit of Iranian "clients" who were never actually very close to Iran, although if the Saudis keep bombing them they may soon end up that way.

I do not see how thinking about the fighting in Yemen in terms of pro-American and pro-Iranian interests makes any sense, or helps anything. It is the interests of Yemenis that we ought to be worried most about, and after that the stability of the whole region. I suspect that if we looked into the matter we would find that the U.S. and Iran share their main interests in Yemen, and in fact both countries have supported recent attempts to declare a cease fire.

Since I don't see the world as divided into armed camps that must always be enemies, I have no problem separating the nuclear issue from the other points of contention between the U.S. and Iran. Yes, ending the sanctions will help Iran, and some of the money will likely flow to the Assad regime and Hezbollah. But most of it will remain in Iran and help the Iranians; what's wrong with that? Should we want the people to suffer because we disagree with their government? Why? If we can keep Iran from getting the bomb for ten years, and no great war breaks out in the meantime, then quite likely something will have changed, either in the Iranian government or the regional situation, and we will deal with whatever new problems that come up as they arise.

Right now, for political reasons, we find ourselves opposed to the government of Iran and supporting that of Saudi Arabia. But in the long run, Iranian society is much more open to American ideas and influence than Saudi society, and if the politics can be worked out we may eventually find ourselves much closer to Iran. Let's not throw away that hope by insisting on being their enemies.


G. Verloren said...

Absolutist thinking is a persistent and crippling disease.

leif said...

a bit afield from the original point, but...

i think it's clear that FP has shifted far from the idealist and, sorry, naive 'make the world a better place' to a reductionistic stance i believe is best labeled as an interests-based policy. here, 'interests' largely means resources, and attendant to resources of course is extraction, protection of extractive efforts, shipping and so on. it is only a side-effect that making resource-extraction, shipping and distribution safer for US companies, we tend to also make it safer for others.

and a bit further afield:

i see very little (in terms of gross expenditures) pure 'do gooder' projects sponsored by the US government. chronic humanitarian efforts receive primary funding from corporations and individuals. acute humanitarian efforts are different, and do dip into the treasury coffers. chronic efforts to prop up unstable and often brutal regimes are re-cast as democracy at work and that hits the treasury as well.

hopefully back on track:

it's great to see the gradual success of diplomatic efforts, for instance iran and cuba. it is heavily documented that sanctions nearly always fail to achieve the goal of causing regime- and political change, and instead harm the citizens of the subject country.

David said...

I can't think of any clear, unambiguous example of a major current US foreign policy that is built in any simple, straightforward, or even important sense around resource extraction and the protection of US companies. I've never seen any evidence, for example, that the US protects Saudi Arabia in any simple sense because that's good for Aramco. Basically it's the result of the interaction of a huge range of constituencies and interest groups--many of them not companies.

leif said...

david, your point is interesting and for sure, the nuanced and complex explanations nearly always win out in these topics. however, if we were not dependent on oil at all, would you not agree that we would pretty quickly eliminate most of our ties to the mideast? we're 'friends' with the saudis not because of their humanitarian record. they buy almost nothing from us if one removes military sales from the list. why did we install the shah of iran if not to protect our interests?

i'm not sure i can bring myself to buy that there is no important history of protection of US companies. consider the broadly termed 'banana wars' (see wikipedia for some examples). the US quelled rebellions for no other reason than to protect our interests and, for instance, Dole. i would agree that protection of specific companies isn't high on the list, but promoting safety in resource-rich countries, which we then enter into lucrative business deals with, that's our bread and butter.

David said...

Yes, there certainly is a history of US FP being geared toward the interest of companies, especially before WWII. But I got the impression from your original post that you thought US FP was more oriented toward company interest today than in the past.

Yes, much of our original interest in Saudi in the 1940s had to do with oil, and oil helps make the mideast strategic. But a larger part of our interest has to do with the decision to replace the British as the mideast's policeman and make that a permanent US commitment, mainly to keep out the Soviets. If it was all about resource extraction, we wouldn't have been closely allied with countries like Egypt, Jordan, or Israel.

WWII is the watershed. WWII convinced the US establishment that we had to play the great power game.

leif said...

aha, sorry for my mistaken drift. i think it's probably as strong today as ever, given that war profiteering must be figured into the mix more now than before. before WWII i believe it was a bit more of a given that governments went in and quieted the natives to promote businesses. today, taking iraq as an example, the enforced calm gives way to resource extraction deals (exxon and many others) the iraqi government considered 'illegal' but appeared powerless to resolve. it reminds me of medieval strongarm tax-collection tactics... show up, break an arm and bloody a few noses to show who's boss, take a sheep or two, leave without further incident.

David said...

I would say today it's MUCH weaker than in the first half of the last century. Iraq is a great example: in fact, the US had almost no concrete plans in place to exploit or even guard Iraq's oil wealth after the 2003 invasion, and during the first decade, my understanding is it was Russian and Chinese companies who benefited the most. In economic terms, the Bush administration's attitude was to make the war as cheap as possible by evacuating as quickly as possible once Saddam was overthrown. The fact that they actually had to stay caught the Bushies off guard; several studies have demonstrated this.

The idea that war profiteering actually motivates wars is a myth. There are war profiteers, but no great power government has ever launched a major war so that armaments manufacturers can make money. In years of reading about such things as the decisions for war in 1914, or the US intervention in Vietnam, I've never seen one shred of evidence to suggest otherwise.

David said...

I suppose my basic problem is with the idea that, if countries aren't idealistic and altruistic, their motives must be economic. I would agree that US foreign policy is self-interested; but the key terms here are power and prestige, not economics.

A US diplomat wrote in a secret cable in 1965 that the US was indeed not interested in freedom or in helping "a friend" in Vietnam. The US motive, he said, was to demonstrate that the US could not be crossed and would keep to any commitment. Nothing there about economics. Note that this was a *secret* cable--later outed in the Pentagon Papers--and that these were in his view our true motives behind our surface rhetoric.

leif said...

all great points. your posts add to the discussion. i still think that profiteering is one part of the equation. no, we don't go to war to enrich raytheon, boeing, blackwater and so on, but there's no shortage of contracts for them when we do. they enable it to a great degree, and for that they are in part, culpable.

an interesting point in the 1965 cable. i hadn't heard about that, but it doesn't surprise me at all. one more reason to go to war, added to my list.