Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I’m looking forward to corned beef and Guinness this evening. You, too, I hope.
I am reminded that we’re nearing the 20th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Spencer Ackerman has a retrospective at The Nation, The Unlearned Lessons From the War in Iraq. “You’ll drive yourself crazy if you try to view US foreign policy through a lens of logical consistency rather than according to its signature mix of material interest and exceptionalist fantasy,” he writes.
U.S. foreign policy has been more about what sells at home and what helps win elections than about what’s really best for the U.S. and the world for a long time. Consider the Republican Party. Way back when, before Pearl Harbor, U.S. conservatives were isolationists. Some of them even admired Hitler. Then after World War II they flippy-flopped to being proactive hawks ready to send troops anywhere to fight the Commies before they attacked us.
By 1950 U.S. foreign policy was mostly about shutting down anything that looked like less than 100 percent support for capitalism. That’s why U.S. and British intelligence agencies orchestrate a coup in 1955 that ousted Iran’s democratically elected and secularist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq. This was mostly because Mossadeq wanted to nationalize his nation’s oil industry. Can’t have that. But this bit of stupidity set up a world of hurt for a lot of people, including us, in the future. U.S. “tough on commies” foreign policy tended to backfire a lot, such as its support for the dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, which you might remember didn’t end well, either.
Democrats got sucked into Red Scare hysteria too, of course. Lyndon Johnson sent troops into Vietnam because he feared being accused of “losing” Vietnam the way the U.S. had “lost” China. A “soft on Communism” label was a hard thing to overcome.
Richard Nixon sabotaged peace talks with Vietnam so he could win an election against Johnson — which resulted in the Vietnam War continuing even longer and Nixon owning it. Did Ronald Reagan negotiate with the Ayatollah Khomeini to sabotage hostage negotiations so he could win an election against Jimmy Carter? Reagan really didn’t have anything to do with the Iran hostage release, according to everyone who knows anything about it, but Reagan got the credit anyway.
I don’t have the strength to review the messes made by Ronald Reagan (Lebanon, anyone? Iran Contra? Grenada?), but it has to be said the high point of movement conservatism was probably the moment that Reagan went to Berlin in 1987 and said “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Or something like that. Republicans liked to give Reagan sole credit for ending the Soviet Union, but in truth he was a very tiny part of a much bigger picture. The USSR likely would have ended as it did had Reagan never gone to Berlin, or even been elected President. Try telling a Republican that, though.
Bill Clinton wasn’t really a foreign policy president as much as he was a globalization president, which is a whole ‘nother mess that needs its own discussion. But toward his last couple of years in office he really was focused on the rising threat of Islamic terrorism and tried to warn the incoming Bush II administration about it. The Bushies blew him off and ignored al Qaeda, until September 11, 2001.
People forget that a majority of House Democrats (126 to 81) voted against the Iraq War Resolution in October 2022. Had they all voted against it, it still would have passed with 215 Republican votes. It was the Senate Democrats who let us down on that one. The Dems had 50 seats in the Senate, plus the former Republican turned Independent James Jeffords was caucusing with the Dems. They could have stopped it. But 29 Democrats voted with 48 Republicans to pass the thing. There’s a list of who voted how at Wikipedia.
My impression is that many of those Dems voted for the damn resolution because they didn’t want to be blamed for being soft on terrorism. Hillary Clinton later tried to claim that she didn’t realize Bush was going to really invade Iraq. Yeah, right.
Barack Obama’s foreign policy decisions don’t stand much scrutiny either, frankly. Providing support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen was an indefensible thing to do, IMO. But then … Donald Trump? Who wanted to destroy NATO? Who negotiated with the Taliban? Who sent Turkish President Erdogan an engraved invitation to go ahead and wipe out our Kurdish allies in northern Syria (because “betraying the Kurds” is another recurring theme in U.S. foreign policy)? Who enabled a mass release of ISIS prisoners?
Trump’s so-called foreign policy was what you’d expect if you put a spoiled 9-year-old who had already flunked third-grade geology in charge of foreign policy. But he got one pass after another because the Republican Party, the one-time party of foreign policy toughness and anti-Communist hawks, protected him.
And now the Republican party can’t even rally behind defending Ukraine, because a big chunk of younger (as in under age 60) Republicans are isolationists who admire Vlad Putin and would possibly turn the nation over to Viktor Orban if they could. A portion of the Republican Party has come full circle to about where it was in 1940. From the Washington Post:
At a dinner named after the former president at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) gathering earlier this month, failed Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake pushed a very different message to the party’s activists.
“We are living on planet crazy where we have hundreds of billions of dollars of our hard-earned American money being sent overseas to start World War III,” Lake said in her keynote address, inflating the amount of U.S. aid that’s been sent to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion. “This is not our fight. We are ‘America First!’”
Charles Lindbergh was making very similar speeches 80-something years ago. The new isolationists are even using the same old slogans.
I would like to say that I flinch a bit whenever Democrats make defending Ukraine all about doing something nice for another democracy. That’s fine, but there’s also the little matter of not risking a wider war in Europe. If Putin isn’t stopped in Ukraine he is likely to want to start taking nibbles out of other eastern European countries that used to be part of the USSR. He’s got to be stopped somewhere. Might as well do it in Ukraine. If Putin can be stopped without risking the lives of U.S. troops, so much the better. And if stopping Putin in Ukraine gives Xi Jinping second thoughts about invading Taiwan, better still. It’s very possible that not stopping Putin is what could lead to World War III. See, for example, World War II.
Speaking of Vladimir Putin, the International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for him.
Well, happy St. Paddy’s, anyway.