America’s long search for Mr. Right

By Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman
February 12, 2014

What’s wrong with central casting? It’s a virtual truism: The United States always seems to pick the wrong guy to star as George Washington in some faraway civil war. We sell him weapons for self-defense against his despicable foes — and then, sometimes before the end of the first battle, we find we are committed to a bad actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Genghis Khan.

President Barack Obama just approved the sale of 24 Apache helicopters to the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — despite well-founded concerns that Maliki may use them against people we do like as well as those we don’t.

Helicopters aren’t the only munitions on Maliki’s shopping list. Washington has negotiated the sale of 480 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles, along with reconnaissance drones and F-16 fighter jets.

To hear Maliki tell it, he needs these weapons to stop terrorists from destroying his democratically-elected government. To hear his opponents, the divisive Maliki creates his own problems by hounding legitimate rivals, favoring Shi’ites over Sunnis and fueling sectarian grudges. To hear Obama, Maliki is America’s only option: Support him, or see Iraq spiral into civil war.

All three scenarios are correct. They almost always are.

Desperate leaders of unstable countries are problematic partners. They’re controversial with their own people. Backing them typically involves deep moral compromises. And, boy, we’ve picked some doozies in the past: from Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, to Taiwan’s Chiang Kai-shek (and the notorious Madame Chiang Kai-shek), to Haiti’s Jean-Bertrand Aristide, to Iran’s Reza Shah Pahlavi, to Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai.

Yet the problem is not about picking well. It’s about picking at all. The United States needs to get out of that business.

Holding a nation-state together is hard work. When economies or political systems fail, it’s best if local people know their own choices are to blame — not someone else’s — and that it’s on their shoulders to find a solution. No matter how long that takes.

Otherwise, moral hazard is the result. A local leader with the sponsorship of a world power has less reason to compromise with domestic rivals, and possesses a perfect scapegoat when things don’t work out.

This may sound callous and irresponsible. Isn’t it America’s duty to stop the shedding of innocent blood when we can? Shouldn’t the United States make every effort to staunch conflict in places like Iraq and Syria? Isn’t stability in Washington’s interest?

Not necessarily. History is instructive here. Not every civil war can be prevented. In our own, President Abraham Lincoln rejected mediation by Britain, which was unable to stop killing that eventually took 700,000 lives. Or consider what happened the one time a foreign power tried to jimmy America’s electoral process. It backfired spectacularly. The sitting government became more reactionary and the opposition more extremist. Relations with the meddling foreign power worsened.

In 1796, revolutionary France became convinced that the weakling American republic had been captured by vested interests poised to sell out democracy and reinstate monarchy. The French heard this from disgruntled Americans who called their political rivals “Anglomen” and “monocrats.”

French diplomats did their best to subvert President George Washington’s foreign policy. When that didn’t work, they decided that Americans ought to elect “good” Thomas Jefferson, deeply tied to France, over “bad” John Adams.

Certain that Americans would welcome intervention by a revolutionary big brother, the French did all they could to influence the vote. They even threatened war if Americans followed the path of perdition and chose Adams.

Adams, thin-skinned to start with, was not amused. When he defeated Jefferson in a close election, he built new warships, raised an army and passed the most tyrannical anti-foreign, anti-free speech laws in American history: the Alien and Sedition Acts.

Jefferson claimed that the federal government had forged a “rod of iron” over the states, which ought not to submit. He and James Madison secretly wrote the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions, proposing that states annul federal law. The new nation confronted the possibility of dissolution. Well-meaning French intervention in the name of global republicanism shook the American republic.

So, throughout the 19th century, the United States adhered to George Washington’s long-standing “Great Rule” to have “as little political connection as possible” with foreign countries. This policy continued under presidents of both parties.

In 1947, however, President Harry S. Truman proposed a drastic modification. Non-entanglement was no longer safe, he believed. The United States must “support free people who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.”

At the time, Nazi Germany was newly defeated, and the Soviet Union had all of Eastern Europe under its thumb. The stakes during the Cold War seemed incredibly high. West European countries might be overwhelmed, as they had been in 1940. Their former colonies might ally with Russia against the “racist, capitalist West.” And so, for seven decades, Washington played the Cold War game of shoring up deficient governments vulnerable to collapse.

The policy mostly succeeded. But the collateral damage lives on in anti-Americanism. Resentments linger that the United States picked the wrong side in numerous domestic conflicts. Even in Greece, where the Truman Doctrine began, some leftist critics still demonize the U.S. for appointing “stooges,” enslaving the nation, and “not allowing Greece to become a Soviet satellite in the 1940s,” according to Evanthis Hatzivassiliou of the University of Athens.

The Cold War is now long over. Middle East terrorists may bedevil Western governments, but are not poised to take them over. The global community is more firmly united on the sanctity of international borders than in all preceding history. The United States took the lead in building a stable world order — which has materialized.

Now is the time to consider the best course for the next 70 years.

The cardinal principle of the system of nation-states since the 1648 Peace of Westphalia is that sovereign countries must not intervene in one another’s internal affairs. This principle is often observed in the breach, but it is the oldest, most stable dictum of international relations. It’s based on the idea that minding one’s own business is usually safer, and sometimes more virtuous, than being one’s brother’s keeper.

Obama’s decision to arm the Iraqi government against its multifarious opponents continues the Truman Doctrine, which violates the Westphalian principle.

The Truman Doctrine’s inherent liabilities now outweigh its once undeniable benefits. The chance of Washington — or any outside government — sorting out the Byzantine Middle East is zero to none. Outsiders cannot pick the “right” leader in complex internal disputes.

Many now insist that Maliki’s enemies are our enemies. America’s hubristic policy ensures that they will become so. Iraqis can best save Iraq.

 

PHOTO (TOP): Secretary of State John Kerry (R) meets with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad March 24, 2013. REUTERS/Jason Reed

PHOTO (INSERT 1): First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt (L) and Madame Chiang Kai-Shek on the White House lawn, February 24, 1943. Courtesy of LIBRARY OF CONGRESS/Office of War Information.

PHOTO (INSERT 2): President John Adams in painting by Asher B. Durand. Courtesy of U.S. Navy

PHOTO (INSERT 3): Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavī in 1973. WIKIPEDIA/Commons

7 comments

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“Yes men” are never wise or benevolent. The person who tells you what you want to hear is simply using your gullibility to manipulate you. They are in fact your superior. This is true in business and in politics and in foriegn policy. Americans are overly dependent on “gut feel” because they lack practice in thinking and evaluation. This is also why we always elect pretty faces rather than substantive leaders. Your laughing, but many GOPers find Lindsey Graham to be quite fetching, with that gentile manner. And Oh the swoons that occur in a liberal haven when the topic of Joe Biden arises. Bottom line is we’re a superficial bunch when it comes to evaluation of human capital.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

Mrs. Hoffman, the US has already taken sides in Iraq. We destroyed that nation, so it is us, THE USA, that is responsible for cleaning it up.

I love how we destroy countries, but when it comes to rebuilding or giving them resources, we tell them that they need to tend to there own affairs.

Tough Sh%^ America. Want to be the worlds policeman, you got it.

As the saying goes, if you break it, you own it!!!

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

we make the mistake, of not vetting and picking them right…they tell America what we want to hear, then after we spend all our money, kill our brave soldiers, they ask us to leave, proceed to rob the country blind…everyone loses… especially, the peoples of their countries

Posted by sabrefencer | Report as abusive

Hello KyleDexter – I didn’t break Iraq and I don’t own it either. George W. Bush and Dick Cheney broke it. Let them fix it.

Posted by RobertRaulerson | Report as abusive

The electorate no longer understands what their votes mean. As a result,and because of deft media manipulation, the mediocre gain office and make greedy decisions guided by the pertinent Lobby.

Posted by rikfre | Report as abusive

As usual, Ms.Hoffman states her case buttressed with present and historical facts. It is always a pleasure to read her writing. The USA no longer can afford or has the ability for Nation building. Especially in this part of the world where the population is so recalcitrant. Also, the fact is we, the USA, no longer need these people or their assets. I know, very cold blooded, but true. Now, I believe the PRC would be more concerned about keeping the shipping in the Straits of Homuz unfettered than anyone else.

Posted by edgemarty | Report as abusive

I believe as the USA becomes more independent from foreign energy and the USA pivots towards Asia, the Middle East will become less a concern for the West. Perhaps, the PRC will feel the need to keep the straights of Hormuz open. The USA can no longer afford to engage in Nation building nor, should it.

Posted by edgemarty | Report as abusive