The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy

by Robert D. Kaplan

For over two years, the civil war [3] in Syria has been synonymous with cries of moral urgency. Do Something! shout those who demand the United States intervene militarily to set the situation there to rights, even as the battle lines now comprise hundreds of regime and rebel groupings and the rebels have started fighting each other. Well, then, shout the moral interventionists, if only we had intervened earlier!

Syria is not unique. Before Syria, humanitarians in 2011 demanded military intervention in Libya [4], even though the regime of Muammar Qaddafi had given up its nuclear program and had been cooperating for years with Western intelligence agencies. In fact, the United States and France did lead an intervention, and Libya today is barely a state, with Tripoli less a capital than the weak point of imperial-like arbitration for far-flung militias, tribes, and clans, while nearby Saharan entities are in greater disarray because of weapons flooding out of Libya.

The 1990s were full of calls for humanitarian intervention: in Rwanda, which tragically went unheeded; and in Bosnia and Kosovo where interventions, while belated, were by and large successful. Free from the realpolitik necessities of the Cold War, humanitarians have in the past two decades tried to reduce foreign policy to an aspect of genocide prevention. Indeed, the Nazi Holocaust is only one lifetime removed from our own—a nanosecond in human history—and so post–Cold War foreign policy now rightly exists in the shadow of it. The codified upshot has been R2P [5]: the “Responsibility to Protect,” the mantra of humanitarians.

But American foreign policy cannot merely be defined by R2P and Never Again! Statesmen can only rarely be concerned with humanitarian interventions and protecting human rights to the exclusion of other considerations. The United States, like any nation—but especially because it is a great power—simply has interests that do not always cohere with its values. That is tragic, but it is a tragedy that has to be embraced and accepted.

What are those overriding interests? The United States, as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, must always prevent any other power from becoming equally dominant in the Eastern Hemisphere. Moreover, as a liberal maritime power, the United States must seek to protect the sea lines of communication that enable world trade. It must also seek to protect both treaty and de facto allies, and especially their access to hydrocarbons. These are all interests that, while not necessarily contradictory to human rights, simply do not operate in the same category.

Because the United States is a liberal power, its interests—even when they are not directly concerned with human rights—are generally moral. But they are only secondarily moral. For seeking to adjust the balance of power in one’s favor has been throughout history an amoral enterprise pursued by both liberal and illiberal powers. Nevertheless, when a liberal power like the United States pursues such a goal in the service of preventing war among major states, it is acting morally in the highest sense.

A telling example of this tension—one that gets to the heart of why Never Again! and R2P cannot always be the operative words in statesmanship—was recently provided by the foreign-affairs expert Leslie H. Gelb. Gelb noted [6] that after Saddam Hussein had gassed close to seven thousand Kurds to death in northern Iraq in 1988, even a “truly ethical” secretary of state, George Shultz, committed a “moral outrage.” For Shultz basically ignored the incident and continued supporting Saddam in his war against Iran, because weakening Iran—not protecting the citizens of Iraq—was the primary American interest at the time.

So was Shultz acting immorally? Not completely, I believe. Shultz was operating under a different morality than the one normally applied by humanitarians. His was a public morality; not a private one. He and the rest of the Reagan administration had a responsibility to the hundreds of millions of Americans under their charge. And while these millions were fellow countrymen, they were more crucially voters and citizens, essentially strangers who did not know Shultz or Reagan personally, but who had entrusted the two men with their interests. And the American public’s interest clearly dictated that of the two states, Iran and Iraq, Iran at the time constituted the greater threat. In protecting the public interest of even a liberal power, a statesman cannot always be nice; or humane.

I am talking here of a morality of public outcomes, rather than one of private intentions. By supporting Iraq, the Reagan administration succeeded in preventing Iran in the last years of the Cold War from becoming a regional hegemon. That was an outcome convenient to U.S. interests, even if the morality of the affair was ambiguous, given that Iraq’s regime was at the time the more brutal of the two.

In seeking good outcomes, policymakers are usually guided by constraints: a realistic awareness of what, for instance, the United States should and should not do, given its finite resources. After all, the United States had hundreds of thousands of troops tied down in Europe and Northeast Asia during the Cold War, and thus had to contain Iran through the use of a proxy, Saddam’s Iraq. That was not entirely cynical: it was an intelligent use of limited assets in the context of a worldwide geopolitical struggle.

The problem with a foreign policy driven foremost by Never Again! is that it ignores limits and the availability of resources. World War II had the secondary, moral effect of saving what was left of European Jewry. Its primary goal and effect was to restore the European and Asian balance of power in a manner tolerable to the United States—something that the Nazis and the Japanese fascists had overturned. Of course, the Soviet Union wrested control of Eastern Europe for nearly half a century following the war. But again, limited resources necessitated an American alliance with the mass-murderer Stalin against the mass-murderer Hitler. It is because of such awful choices and attendant compromises—in which morality intertwines with amorality—that humanitarians will frequently be disappointed with the foreign policy of even the most heroic administrations.

World War II certainly involved many hideous compromises and even mistakes on President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s part. He got into the war in Europe very late, he did not bomb the rail tracks leading to the concentration camps, he might have been more aggressive with the Soviets on the question of Eastern Europe. But as someone representing the interests of the millions of strangers who had and had not voted for him, his aim was to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in a manner that cost the fewest American soldiers’ lives, and utilized the least amount of national resources. Saving the remnants of European Jewry was a moral consequence of his actions, but his methods contained tactical concessions that had fundamental amoral elements. Abraham Lincoln, for his part, brought mass suffering upon southern civilians in the last phase of the Civil War in order to decisively defeat the South. The total war waged by generals William Tecumseh Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant was evidence of that. Simply put, there are actions of state that are the right things to do, even if they cannot be defined in terms of conventional morality.

Amoral goals, properly applied, do have moral effects. Indeed, in more recent times, President Richard Nixon and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, rushed arms to Israel following a surprise attack by Arab armies in the fall of 1973. The two men essentially told the American defense establishment that supporting Israel in its hour of need was the right thing to do, because it was necessary to send an unambiguous message of resolve to the Soviets and their Arab allies at a critical stage in the Cold War. Had they justified the arms transfers purely in terms of helping embattled post-Holocaust Jewry—rather than in terms of power politics as they did—it would have made for a much weaker argument in Washington, where officials rightly had American interests at heart more than Israeli ones. George McGovern was possibly a more ethical man than either Nixon or Kissinger. But had he been elected president in 1972, would he have acted so wisely and so decisively during the 1973 Middle East war? The fact is, individual perfection, as Machiavelli knew, is not necessarily synonymous with public virtue.

Then there is the case of Deng Xiaoping. Deng approved the brutal suppression of students at Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. For that he is not respected among humanitarians in the West. But the consolidation of Communist Party control that followed the clampdown allowed for Deng’s methodical, market-oriented reforms to continue for a generation in China. Perhaps never before in recorded economic history have so many people seen such a dramatic rise in living standards, with an attendant rise in personal (if not political) freedoms in so short a time frame. Thus, Deng might be considered both a brutal Communist and the greatest man of the twentieth century. The morality of his life is complex.

The Bosnia and Kosovo interventions of 1995 and 1999 are frequently held out as evidence that the United States is most effective when it acts according to its humanitarian values—never mind its amoral interests. But those who make that argument neglect to mention that the two successful interventions were eased by the fact that America operated in the Balkans with the balance-of-power strongly in its favor. Russia in the 1990s was weak and chaotic under Boris Yeltsin’s incompetent rule, and thus temporarily less able to challenge the United States in a region where historically the czars and commissars had exerted considerable sway. However, Russia, even in the 1990s, still exerted considerable sway in the Caucasus, and thus a Western response to halt ethnic cleansing there during the same decade was not even considered. More broadly, the 1990s allowed for ground interventions in the Balkans because the international climate was relatively benign: China was only just beginning its naval expansion [7] (endangering our Pacific allies) and September 11 still lay in the future. Truly, beyond many a moral response lies a question of power that cannot be explained wholly in terms of morality.

Thus, to raise morality as a sole arbiter is ultimately not to be serious about foreign policy. R2P must play as large a role as realistically possible in the affairs of state. But it cannot ultimately dominate. Syria is the current and best example of this. U.S. power is capable of many things, yet putting a complex and war-torn Islamic society’s house in order is not one of them. In this respect, our tragic experience in Iraq is indeed relevant. Quick fixes like a no-fly zone and arming the rebels may topple Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, but that might only make President Barack Obama culpable in midwifing to power a Sunni-Jihadist regime, even as ethnic cleansing of al-Assad’s Alawites commences. At least at this late juncture, without significant numbers of Western boots on the ground for a significant period—something for which there is little public support—the likelihood of a better, more stable regime emerging in Damascus is highly questionable. Frankly, there are just no easy answers here, especially as the pro-Western regime in Jordan is threatened by continued Syrian violence. R2P applied in 2011 in Syria might actually have yielded a better strategic result: it will remain an unknowable.

Because moralists in these matters are always driven by righteous passion, whenever you disagree with them, you are by definition immoral and deserve no quarter; whereas realists, precisely because they are used to conflict, are less likely to overreact to it. Realists know that passion and wise policy rarely flow together. (The late diplomat Richard Holbrooke was a stunning exception to this rule.) Realists adhere to the belief of the mid-twentieth-century University of Chicago political scientist, Hans Morgenthau, who wrote that “one must work with” the base forces of human nature, “not against them.” Thus, realists accept the human material at hand in any given place, however imperfect that material may be. To wit, you can’t go around toppling regimes just because you don’t like them. Realism, adds Morgenthau, “appeals to historical precedent rather than to abstract principles [of justice] and aims at the realization of the lesser evil rather than of the absolute good.”

No group of people internalized such tragic realizations better than Republican presidents during the Cold War. Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush all practiced amorality, realism, restraint  and humility in foreign affairs (if not all the time). It is their sensibility that should guide us now. Eisenhower represented a pragmatic compromise within the Republican Party between isolationists and rabid anti-Communists. All of these men supported repressive, undemocratic regimes in the third world in support of a favorable balance of power against the Soviet Union. Nixon accepted the altogether brutal regimes in the Soviet Union and “Red” China as legitimate, even as he balanced one against the other. Reagan spoke the Wilsonian language of moral rearmament, even as he awarded the key levers of bureaucratic power to realists like Caspar Weinberger, George Shultz and Frank Carlucci, whose effect regarding policy was to temper Reagan’s rhetoric. The elder Bush did not break relations with China after the Tiananmen uprising; nor did he immediately pledge support for Lithuania, after that brave little country declared its independence—for fear of antagonizing the Soviet military. It was caution and restraint on Bush’s part that helped bring the Cold War to a largely peaceful—and, therefore, moral—conclusion. In some of these policies, the difference between amorality and morality was, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad in Lord Jim, no more than “the thickness of a sheet of paper.”

And that is precisely the point: foreign policy at its best is subtle, innovative, contradictory, and truly bold only on occasion, aware as its most disciplined practitioners are of the limits of American power. That is heartrending, simply because calls to alleviate suffering will in too many instances go unanswered. For the essence of tragedy is not the triumph of evil over good, so much as the triumph of one good over another that causes suffering.

Robert D. Kaplan is chief geopolitical analyst for Stratfor, a private global intelligence firm. His latest book is The Revenge of Geography 

via The Tragedy of U.S. Foreign Policy.

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