There and Back Again


Our foreign policy debate masks the real danger we face — ourselves.

Otto von Bismarck, the Iron Chancellor of Germany, is reputed to have said, “God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America.”

Barack Obama would surely disagree with this statement.

Though he uttered it in the 19th century, Bismarck’s aphorism rings true today. Like fools, we commit time and again to ill-defined strategies and half-measures. Like drunks, we have an acute inability to remember past events. And the plan that the president unveiled last Wednesday can only be described as a Hail Mary pass.

It was preceded, like much of his foreign policy, by a gaffe. A few weeks back, President Obama wore a widely derided suit. He also said “we don’t have a strategy yet” when asked about his plan for dealing with ISIS, the latest group of people to be completely awful in the Middle East. It follows, therefore, that the strategy eventually proposed would include missiles.

That the last four American presidents have felt compelled to bomb Iraq speaks to the absurd and terrifying nature of hegemonic power. It is absurd that a democratic nation of 315 million people should be held responsible for maintaining a stable world order among 7 billion souls. It is terrifying that the same nation is unable to govern itself. We take for granted the sheer dominance of our nation’s might and the preponderance of our wealth. It was not cheaply bought, nor will it be cheaply preserved. If history is any guide, our efforts to keep our power will either bankrupt or ruin us. It happened to the Romans. And everyone else, for that matter.

And the reason it happened is because, at some point, the superpower butts up against what Gina Hahn calls “the inherent impossibility of managing an environment of such burgeoning complexity.” In America’s case, our response to complexity is to call in air strikes.

No one believes that air strikes against ISIS will do anything to improve the situation in Syria or Iraq in the long term. Iraq will most likely continue to be torn apart by sectarian violence, as has been the case since, oh, we invaded Iraq. Any setback for ISIS in Syria is a gain for Bashar Assad, the Syrian dictator we almost bombed last year after he gassed his own people. Just like Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, except that time we were totally cool with it since we hadn’t yet started bombing Iraq regularly.

And here lies the tragedy of hegemonic power: that in the end, it reads as farce. The project of imposing our will, indefinitely and perpetually, in any number of global crises – and our attempts to do so through the blunt instrument of military force – is a fool’s errand. The interlocking and intertwined schisms that drive politics in the region, the struggle for control of the energy reserves beneath its sands, and our desperate, pathological need to preserve our “credibility” have led to stumble after stumble in the Middle East.

And in Southeast Asia.

And in Latin America.

And pretty much everywhere.

I don’t buy the argument that America is in decline. Nor do I think global domination by China or Russia would be at all preferable. The power, hard and soft, that undergirds our international institutions and makes our way of life possible is vitally important – not only to us, but also to the millions who would certainly languish in a less secure world. But I do believe that if we continue to fall into the trap set for us, by “friend” and foe alike, of unfocused and unwise intervention – of airstrikes for the sake of airstrikes – we will hasten our own demise.