by Michael Cummings
This is the fundamental principle of American international relations: do whatever you can to prevent a foreign affairs disaster from harming your reelection chances, even if it hurts America in the long run. The Cold War defined this practice. From Egypt to Vietnam to Chile, America supported and funded anti-Communist governments, be they democratic or autocratic. It even overthrew regimes which it didn’t like, like Iran. (This SWJ post pretty much describes how the failure of Iran is one of constant short term priorities replacing a long term goal mindset. ) America fought the Cold War as if it would never end. When it did, plenty of people around the world didn’t like America, or at least they felt America might be a hypocrite.
Then 9/11 happened. Had it happened on President Clinton’s watch, our response might have been subtly nuanced with post-Cold War thinking. Since it was President Bush’s team of all former Cold War-riors, the response was straight out of the “stop the USSR” playbook. First, the CIA found all its old autocratic friends in north Africa like Egypt, Algeria and Yemen who could hold terrorism suspects indefinitely, while possibly torturing them, and letting the CIA listen in. Then we launched two wars, one of which made sense, the second of which did not, to stop “state sponsored” terrorism. Then the Department of Defense started launching attacks into other countries where we could not put troops, like Pakistan and Yemen.
With the Arab Spring overthrowing some stalwart American terrorism fighting allies--Egypt and Tunisia--and threatening others--Qatar and Saudi Arabia--many Muslims across the Middle East have a choice: what type of government do I want? It turns out, they want democracies, and not American-style democracy. Those democracies will probably not be friendly to U.S. interests, either, because in their minds, America is linked to supporting military regimes like Pakistan, Egypt or Qatar, which had just been preventing those people from living in freedom.
In other words, our short term goals--fighting the Cold War or capturing terrorists--and our responses to those threats--overthrowing unfriendly regimes, torture, extraordinary renditions and supporting dictators--have hurt what should be America’s long term foreign policy goal: spreading democracy (and free markets) around the globe. It isn’t very hard for Islamic political parties to discredit so-called “universal” American values when they only apply to Americans in America, an un-universal caveat.
As we said last week, we believe the world is getting better. We believe democracy is spreading, and the world is getting less violent (in part because of democracy, and the spread of international institutions). If President Obama aligned our foreign policy more with our long terms goals, and worried less about preventing another terrorist attack, then democracy and peace would spread even faster.
That position is idealistic, but so are we.