Wayne O'Leary

In Search of a 21st Century Foreign Policy

For the first time since George W. Bush ambled out of the White House, foreign policy is front and center on the American agenda. It’s not foreign policy as we have known it; there is no all-consuming cold war and no single existential threat to the nation. The new demands of foreign engagement are more diffuse, mid-level crises rather than national emergencies — Gaza, the Ukraine, Syria, Iraq. And, truth be told, neither the American people nor their president welcome these multiple involvements, preferring instead to ignore them and focus internally.

Regrettably, the new quasi-isolationist mindset may not be possible to maintain much longer. And to paraphrase Shakespeare, the fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. Over recent decades, the US, intent on expressing its superpower status and imposing its will on world events, intervened here, there, and everywhere.

We tried to craft a post-Soviet Russia, flooding Moscow with economic and political advisors whose goal was to inculcate democracy and laissez-faire capitalism. We attempted to replicate American institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan, picking and choosing among tribal, ethnic, and religious interests, and ignoring historical antagonisms. And, of course, having helped create the State of Israel, we dedicated ourselves to defending it forevermore against all external enemies, regardless the circumstances.

All of these chickens have come home to roost. In the Ukraine, Vladimir Putin appears determined to begin reconstituting the old Soviet empire, not in the name of Communism, but that of Russian nationalism. His motivation is to refurbish Russian pride after years of what he feels (with some justification) was humiliation at the hands of arrogant American “victors” in the Cold War practicing a form of noblesse oblige. Rather than following our lead, he went back to Russia’s autocratic roots.

Vladimir Putin is not Hitler, or even Stalin; he’s Mussolini. Americans forget that Russia has little in the way of a democratic tradition and has always been expansionist. As elsewhere, we thought in the 1990s that Westernized government and free, unregulated markets could be force-fed to the former USSR; neither took hold. Russia’s government, democratic in name only, is a strongman dictatorship, and its economy is the province of corrupt billionaire oligarchs, who operate within a statist framework — classic fascism minus the racial overtones.

It’s also worth recalling that Crimea, where the present impasse started, was historically part of Russia (from the 18th century onward) until ceded to the Ukraine under the prodding of Nikita Khrushchev, himself an ethnically Russian Ukrainian, in 1954. Its population is mostly Russian, and its port of Sevastopol (Russia’s Guantanamo) was a Soviet naval base for decades. So, we may have to acquiesce in its crude reannexation by Putin.

His invasion of eastern Ukraine is another matter. Short of starting World War III, Barack Obama has to draw a line there, or see other independent former Soviet republics (Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, et al.) fall under Putin’s new Russian sphere of influence. The president’s economic-sanctions policy has been the right approach, but he has to risk raising the ante by toughening it further and backing Ukraine with arms. And the NATO allies have to be pressured to help. We can no longer impose democracy on the world, as in Iraq, but neither can we stand by and see it cavalierly eliminated in country after country.

As regards the simmering Middle East, America has a special, if unwelcome, responsibility. Israel is the flash point for that part of the world, and this country has to do more than reflexively respond, knee-jerk fashion, in support of every Israeli overreaction to provocations by its neighbors.

The spectacle of Democrats, led by the president and Hillary Clinton, endorsing Israel’s heavy-handed actions in Gaza, with one eye on Jewish-American political contributors and the other on the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) lobby, was especially disheartening. The same goes in spades for the utterly shameless pro-Israeli propaganda emanating from AIPAC fellow travelers on the Republican right like Arizona Senator John McCain and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

Sure, Hamas is bad in many ways, but Fatah, the moderate Palestinian faction, is not. We can work with the latter, but we barely try. Democrats, in particular, are surely aware the chief protagonist in the Gaza drama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is a hard-line right-winger who, in an American political context, would be a tea-party Republican; yet, they back his every counterproductive policy.

And let’s not forget the pure lack of concern (by both American parties) for Gaza’s civilians, killed at a rate 30 times that of Israelis — who, incidentally, were protected from Hamas rockets by the elaborate “Iron Dome” missile-defense shield, funded by US taxpayers to the tune of $900 million. This all-out support of one side in the on-again, off-again Palestinian conflict is not only unjust, it generates hatred for Americans among the very Muslim populations whose hearts and minds we are supposedly trying to win. US policy toward Israel needs to be recalibrated and brought into balance. If AIPAC squeals, so be it.

This brings us to the terrorist aggression of the Islamic State, otherwise known as ISIS or ISIL. Here, again, the US is reaping what it has sown in foreign policy. Our disempowerment of the proud Sunni population of Iraq, combined with our callous disregard for the Arabs of Palestine, has created a cadre of rootless, stateless Islamist extremists with nothing better to do than nurse grievances and plot violent revenge against “the Crusaders.” (That’s us.)

It’s too late to undo George W. Bush’s Mideast mess, so ISIS will just have to be confronted in some fashion and defeated; exactly how is uncertain at this point. What is clear is that a new realist American foreign policy needs to be forged, especially for the Middle East. As the Arab Spring gradually devolves into an Arab winter, Barack Obama is in danger of becoming this generation’s Woodrow Wilson, whose laudable idealism foundered on the rocks of the post-World War I cynicism of “Old Europe.”

A useful and moral corrective would begin with the nagging sore that is Palestine. For starters, this administration might stop coddling Netanyahu’s Likud government and demand that it do something about the vast prison camp that is Gaza, reform its settlements policy, and get serious about a two-state solution.

Wayne O’Leary is a writer in Orono, Maine, specializing in political economy. He is the author of two prizewinning books.

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2014


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