What does the Obama administration really want in Egypt and Syria? “To reduce the risk to U.S. interests,” writes Washington Post blogger Max Fisher. The administration wants “to play the middle and to avoid any strong positions” because it values “above all, an aversion to risk.” So “the White House tried [in Egypt], as in Syria, to manage it from the behind the scenes.”
The result has been bad for the U.S. and horrendous for the Egyptians and Syrians: “Bloody stalemate has become the status quo.” But that status quo is “unsustainable.”
It’s hard to argue with Fisher’s observations. It’s equally hard not to argue with his conclusion, a call for the U.S. to take charge: “Better to force a solution, however uncertain, than wait for things to combust on their own. Staving off catastrophe only works for so long.”
Really? I wish we could assemble all the Cold War presidents, from Truman to Reagan, read them that last line, and listen to them chuckle. Staving off catastrophe was the heart and soul of their foreign policy. They called it “containment.” (I call it the mythology of homeland insecurity.)
Then we could assemble an all-star roster of historians and political analysts who would assure us that it worked pretty damn well for four decades. That’s a debatable conclusion; it depends on what you mean by “worked well.” But it’s the prevailing view in the foreign policy establishment.
Anyone who thinks that the U.S. must choose between a) forcing solutions in other countries, and b) avoiding strong positions, doesn’t know how U.S. foreign policy has been working for the last seven decades. Cold War presidents all used both of those options as means to pursue their goal of containment — staving off catastrophe — in hopes of reducing the risks to U.S. interests everywhere around the world.
Sometimes they thought they had to force a solution and overthrow the status quo in some nation or other to serve U.S. interests. And they were always ready to do it. (The most important example for our current world is the overthrow of the government in Iran in 1953 — which Iranians have not forgotten, even if most of us have.) During the Cold War era, such jolts to the status quo almost always came where communism supposedly threatened.
Throughout the non-communist “free world,” the goal was to manage events from behind the scenes in order to maintain stability everywhere. “Stability” was the code word for sufficient U.S. control to contain the spread of communism and thus stave off the catastrophe.
Since 1989, without any overall global struggle to fight, U.S. administrations have still pursued the traditional goal of stability to reduce the risk to U.S. interests. In effect, they have acted as if we had turned the whole world into the “free world.” So they’ve continued to follow the golden rule of the cold war containment policy: avoid risk; stave off catastrophe.
Occasionally, in obedience to that rule, they still may upset the status quo, hoping short-term chaos will breed long-term stability. Apparently something like that happened in Egypt. If the U.S. didn’t orchestrate the coup, it certainlygave a green light to the generals who did.
But the theory is always that the U.S. is strong enough to control the outcome by managing every situation, even the most catastrophic, either by overt force or from behind the scenes. (I call it “apocalypse management.”) If you give up that belief, you in effect give up U.S. foreign policy as we’ve known it for nearly three-quarters of a century. Then you’re really left with chaos, not in some country far away, but in Washington.
The Obama administration, and much of the foreign policy establishment, has to believe that the current bloody status quo in Egypt and Syria is only temporary, that with enough skill and persistence the U.S. government can still produce an outcome that serves U.S. interests.
If that means playing the middle and avoiding any strong positions right now, so be it. You’ve got to have lots of arrows in your quiver, they’ll say. Sometimes the best way to force a solution is to act decisively (as in OK’ing a coup). Sometimes the best way is to play a patient long game and make it look like you are not forcing any solution at all.
So the most basic question about U.S. policy in Egypt and Syria is not: Should we force a solution or discreetly play the middle? Those are just different means toward the same old end of reducing risk and staving off catastrophe.
The most basic question is: Does a foreign policy built on reducing risks to “national interests” (as defined by the establishment), using all the old familiar tactics, really serve the best interests of the American people?
Unfortunately, neither the administration nor the foreign policy establishment and its pundits (like Max Fisher) can ask that question. Their language, generated by and trapped in the dominant mythology, simply doesn’t allow it. They can’t think outside of the box they have created.
If they could ask the question, the past — in places like Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq — and the present — in places like Afghanistan, Syria, and Egypt — would send back the same answer: Every conflict is more likely than not to drain the U.S. of resources, influence, prestige, and, all too often, American blood — all because of a self-defeating obsession with forcing solutions and staving off catastrophe.
If bloody stalemate has become the status quo in Syria and Egypt, as Fisher says (and he could well add Afghanistan to the list), it’s hardly because the U.S. has restrained itself from interfering.
On the contrary, U.S. pursuit of perceived self-interest, by a variety of means, has played a significant role in creating the stalemate and the bloodshed. That’s more obvious in Egypt (where both sides in the brewing civil war openly cast blame on the U.S.) and in Afghanistan than it is in Syria.
But U.S. foreign policy still follows the dictum laid down by Cordell Hull in 1937, when the mythology of homeland insecurity was just being born: “There can be no serious hostilities anywhere in the world which will not one way or another affect interests or rights or obligations of this country.”
In other words, the U.S. has to have at least its foot, and usually more parts of the national corpus, in every conflict, everywhere. And all of us, in America and around the world, pay the price.
Is there any alternative? Proponents of nonviolence in America, from the early Quakers to the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., all thought there was.
A lesser-known but equally great leader of the nonviolence tradition, A. J. Muste, once wrote: “When a crisis develops, people turn upon the pacifist, figuratively hold a gun to his head, and demand: ‘Now how would you pacifists stop this thing? ¾ in five minutes and painlessly.”
It is usually the violent who want simple, instant solutions, he pointed out. The nonviolent recognize that there are never any simple solutions to foreign policy problems, most of which were created by policies of force and control.
What would happen if the world’s strongest nation exerted all of its diplomatic, moral, and economic force based on the principles of nonviolence? There is no way to know. Again, politicians, policymakers, the foreign policy establishment, and its media scribes simply cannot ask that question. The very words are incomprehensible within their mythic framework. So the American public at large never learns how to ask it either.
That’s the bloody stalemate which has become America’s status quo.