The image: an American president who utilizes long-term detention without trial for terror suspects, unprecedented modes and degrees of surveillance against American citizens, and who engages the country in highly suspect foreign wars in which US interests are subordinated to that of a country whose fate is very dubiously related to our own. The presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama become more indistinguishable by the day, it seems. To Bush’s credit, at least we entered Iraq on the presumption that US interests were being defended—regardless of how rapidly that may have been cast aside in favor of bringing ‘democracy’ to Iraqis at the cost of American lives. In the case of Obama, foreign relations—especially those with the Middle East and Muslim world—must now be said to be so irrational as to forbid any rational over-arching strategy or coherence.
From allowing the nuclear threat in Iran to persist without intervention to our inexplicable involvement in Libya (via NATO) to the sale of tens of billions of dollars in weapons to a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled Egypt and, now, his decision to arm the Syrian rebels, the diplomatic strategy of President Obama toward the region has been a baffling effort to support and embolden Islamism in the Middle East. Fortunately, to merely write against the decision to arm Syrian rebels is largely preaching to the choir, as a Pew Research poll posted Monday revealed an outstanding 70% of Americans to be opposed to the president’s decision. However, by contextualizing the decision and picking it apart, hopefully this writing might assist in understanding how this pattern persists, how its opponents might best argue against it, and perhaps even chip away at that resilient other 30%.
Viewed in the context of his administration’s foreign policy over the past five years, Obama’s decision this week to get involved in the Syrian civil war is entirely unsurprising, if nonetheless objectionable. Under pressure from those across the political spectrum—from John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio to Bill Clinton—to give the Syrian rebels “a decent chance,” as Clinton put it, Obama has fulfilled the expectations of careful observers by caving to the demands of the interventionist crowd once again. The candidate who decried our unnecessary involvement in overseas conflict has become the president who invariably engages it. However, as much criticism is due to Obama on this point, the problem neither begins nor ends with him. He is a president uniquely without a particular set of convictions or guiding ideas (other than those setting him against American businesspeople). Rather, Obama’s choice is part of a broader flawed ideological conception of the role of Western powers in world politics, and one that is not beyond our capacity to solve.
The choice to intervene in Syria is based on three tendencies in American foreign policy that have emerged over the last fifty years: an equation of American capacity to intervene in foreign conflicts with an American obligation to do so (the “responsibility to protect” doctrine); a pathological disinterest in the ideas, values, and intentions of those we support and what they might do once they succeed with our assistance; and, more specific to this case, an overall historical preference for moderate Islamist regimes in the Muslim world—that is, as opposed to secular ones of any kind. Philosophically, these policies translate to: altruism, pragmatism, and willingness to compromise on basic principles.
The “responsibility to protect” doctrine has a long history of advocacy in American foreign policy, though it has only been used as a basis for involvement in foreign conflicts since the 1990s. Prior to that, any involvement of the United States in a foreign country’s internal conflicts could be explained away by the dynamics of the Cold War—“If we don’t determine the outcome, the Soviets will. And then what?” Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the West’s triumph, however, claims by American political leaders that the success of the United States and the safety of its citizens was tied up in the fate of every third world country rang increasingly hollow. It was then that policymakers turned from a paranoid Cold War framework of everything depending on everything else to a philosophy of explicit altruism and the doctrine that it is the moral purpose of the United States and the justification for all we have that we should use our strength in the service of weaker parties in conflicts across the globe. More than a virtue, its advocates argued, protection of the weak was a moral responsibility—‘After all, by what right should we enjoy strength or success if it is not devoted to the service of others?’, they argue with varying measures of explicitness.
This is the philosophy of altruism as applied to foreign policy: the belief that one’s right to what one possesses derives not from having achieved it, but from the willingness to give it away; that every measure of peace and success that a society achieves for its own people is a further obligation to those societies further down the ladder of that process; that governments and their militaries do not exist solely for the well-being of the citizens whose taxes support them, but might also use those resources (forcibly extracted) in ways unrelated to any benefit rendered to their citizens; that need is an entitlement to the achievements of others. It is a morality of sacrifice played out on a global scale, and one that not only mandates involvement in conflicts where no domestic interest is at stake, but diminishes by comparison the moral value of engagements undertaken in the self-defense of a country and the rights of its citizens. Either we hold the preservation of American citizens’ rights and well being as our standard for judging the merits of military policy (whether direct engagement or material support), or we believe that it is through the surrender and sacrificing of those interests that virtue is attained. We either embrace a morality of self-interest or self-sacrifice. To accept both is to abide a contradiction.
The second phenomenon to be observed here—the patent disinterest of American leaders in the ideas and beliefs of those they support—is rampant in almost all matters of American foreign policy today. Since the United States allied with the Soviet Union during World War II in order to defeat Nazi Germany, it has maintained the approach that when allies are adopted, they are to be adopted wholesale and without caveat. Roosevelt did not present to Americans the nuanced view, ‘Yes, the Soviet Union is morally reprehensible, but we must ally with them for the moment to defeat a common and more threatening enemy.’ Instead, Americans were presented an image of the noble, peaceable, and quaint Soviets whose interests might not be so different from ours. During the Cold War, a seemingly endless series of such unqualified acceptances ensued to secure American influence in some of the more oppressive corners of the globe. Today, the same undiscriminating philosophical framework combined with the post-Cold-War impulse toward altruistic intervention has led to a policy of utter disregard toward the ideas and values of those we endorse. All oppressed people are universally assumed to desire freedom and liberal political values—and, if given “a decent chance”, they will choose it for themselves. Oppressive, rights-abrogating extremist ideologies are wished away as a passing phenomenon to be solved deterministically through institution-building and economic aid.
It is a disdain for ideas that animates and defines the philosophy of pragmatism. Denying fixed standards of logic, they dismiss the cries of those who point to past travesties enabled by this process, asserting that such belief in consistency of cause and effect is mere mysticist hypothesizing. Having no regard for basic principles, they believe all eccentricities and irrationality, all ideological problems, to be solvable through the imposition of proper political frameworks—institutions, customs, labels, and systems of mutual dependency. Compelled by the pragmatist’s imperative to act, they inject themselves into situations and perpetuate the process of trial-and-error by “competent elites” whose sole imperative is to ‘do something’—anything—but to know that the lessons learned from the last experience bear no relation to this experience, and will certainly lose all applicability to the next.
The final feature of this circumstance—the Western embrace of religious, conservative, moderate Islamist regimes over all alternatives—is merely an extension of the last. It is an application of the pragmatist’s insistence on compromise as a virtue—compromise not simply on concrete particulars, but on fundamental values. As a result, the country that championed the separation of church and state, the rights of the individual, and the denial of arbitrary power of monarchs over their people has spent half a century giving its unqualified support to religious monarchs and regimes that base their claim to legitimacy on their willingness to impose religious doctrine by force against their populations. It has been a pervasive feature of US relations with the Middle East in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Yemen, the Gulf States, Egypt, and Pakistan. Furthermore, despite the claims by some that the wars in the Middle East over the last twelve years have been driven by an animosity against Islam, the US has overseen the rise of Islamist ‘democracies’ in Iraq and Afghanistan and appears to be embracing the new Muslim Brotherhood-backed Morsi government in Egypt, providing overwhelming military aid to a country that appears set for years of Islamist rule.
Thus, as was said in the beginning, the choice to arm the Syrian rebels is unsurprising in the broader context of US foreign policy. President Obama is fundamentally intellectually unequipped to oppose these trends and, what’s more, was he exposed to these conceptions of the problems, there is no reason to believe that he would go against the prevailing wind. No argument pointing out the increasingly brutal Islamist nature of the opposition in Syria, the lack of clarity as to what their victory might portend, or the vast discrepancy between any fate they could bring and anything resembling American values and interests stands a chance against one that merely points out the weaker stature of the rebels, the potential to manage any future problems through aid and institutions, and the possibility that if the rebels should prevail the US might have a new Islamist regime to negotiate with on terms that it has honed and crafted for a half century—forgetting the fact that it was a half century that culminated in the worst terrorist attack in US history and a war that has persisted for over a decade.
What, then, is the answer? It cannot be found in the intellectual trend that has prevailed for the last few generations. It cannot be found in altruism. To continually embrace a morality of self-sacrifice and find oneself ravaged time and again by its results has been the cyclical fate and insanity of American foreign policy. Nor can it be found in some tweaking and moderation of pragmatism. As Leonard Peikoff writes in The Ominous Parallels,
“pragmatists—despite their repudiation of all systems of morality—are compelled, if they are to implement their ethical approach at all, to rely on value codes formulated by other, non-pragmatist moralists. As a rule the pragmatist appropriates these codes without acknowledging them; he accepts them by a process of osmosis, eclectically absorbing the cultural deposits left by the moral theories of his predecessors—and protesting all the while the futility of these theories. The dominant, virtually the only, moral code advocated by modern intellectuals in Europe and in America is some variant of altruism. This, accordingly, is what most American pragmatists routinely preach . . .”[i]
Thus, what America requires to break this cycle is a foreign policy of rational self-interest, one that holds the protection of the rights and freedoms of American citizens as its sole priority and does not view its government, its tax dollars, or its military as resources at the dispense of causes the world over. If peacekeeping forces are required or truly freedom-seeking peoples are in need of support to achieve their freedom, let this be the province of international organizations such as the United Nations and recognize that the impotence they so often plead in these circumstances derives largely from their own amoral approach to struggles of oppression versus freedom. American political leaders, however, will only begin to truly secure the interests of American citizens by prioritizing their rights and freedoms, taking an interest and care in the ideas and values of groups and movements to whom they provide even verbal support, and by breaking the cycle of endorsing regimes whose values and claims to legitimacy contradict those of the US and the principles on which it was founded. To succeed, we need new ideas. For that, we need new leaders.
[i] Peikoff, Leonard. The Ominous Parallels, p. 128