Americans have a hard time dealing with nuance. We love black and white and we need clarity on good guys versus bad guys. Maybe it’s the byproduct of Hollywood’s Cowboys and Indians movies, professional wrestling’s heels versus baby faces, or because we have been told to ‘root root root for the home team.’ And it certainly doesn’t help when President George W. Bush tells the world “you’re either with us or against us.” Seemingly, during the 1st half of the 20th century things indeed were simpler, we fought the Huns, the Nazis, and the Japanese. We were attacked and responded with fierce determined force; it was black and white. But things started getting cloudier soon after, and perhaps ignoring President Eisenhower’s dire warning of the ‘military industrial complex’ we chose to rely almost exclusively on military solutions as opposed to diplomatic solutions. We had no long game, just short game. And as we have seen in the last twenty years, that has become a critical flaw in our thinking and foreign policy in the rapidly globalized hyper connected world. Nowhere is that as obvious than in the Muslim world.
I am not arguing for isolation, pacifism, or abdication of our global responsibility and ignoring our national interests. I simply believe we need to do more listening (less talking), more alliance building, and perhaps more emulating the Chinese. What? Yeah it seems, the Chinese have adopted the position that they’ll simply wait for us to enter every middle east, African, or southwest Asian conflict guns blazing, raise the ire of the local populace, and then they come in to clean up with reconstruction and economic aid. Our blood, sweat, and tears, and the Chinese and others (Turks, Russians, Iranians, Europeans, etc.) reap the rewards.
Our foreign policy has become too simplistic and jingoistic; we have taken the adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and created a foreign policy based on a phrase more suited to a game of Risk where the long term is a few dice rolls away. Our short term thinking may be the result of our relative inexperience as the global leasers on the foreign stage, our need for instant gratification, or own history of being able to get things done (a skill that seems to be declining). As former Secretary of Defense Gates said to Bob Scheiffer, we haven’t been effective since the end of the Cold War when every president, Democrat and Republican, carried on the mission of containing the Soviets. Alas it was black and white. Now we suffer from habitual mission creep as we contend with the abstract versus the concrete, the nebulous versus the solid, and the clear versus the cloudy.
We armed the mujahedeen to fight the Soviets in Afghanistan and we know how that turned out. We armed Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran and well you know the rest of that story. We trained and armed rebel forces in Algeria only to see the French have to fight these same guys in Mali 10 years later. We invaded Afghanistan even though no Afghanis were involved in 9/11.
We have propped up dictatorships in Iran, Egypt, Central Asia, South America, and Central America and have paid the price for sponsoring and funding such hegemony. A decade after the Iraq invasion, we still don’t know if we created a worse situation for the people, what we do know, our reason for going was a lie, and in the process we stirred up a hornets nest.
No, the clarity of World War II has been replaced by the confusing Muslim world. Fighting the axis, our allies shared our values, beliefs, history, and culture; they were our friends before, during, and after the war, not so much today.
One things seems for certain, just like in wrestling the guy we boo today, we cheer tomorrow and vice versa. Too bad the real world isn’t as choreographed and scripted like Wrestlemania.