Are we stupid abroad by accident or design?
In the manner of a doctor, let us review the symptoms of our present foreign policy and then offer a diagnosis:
Autocratic and dictatorial Russia has become a veritable friend. America will say very little about the Russian government’s involvement in the chronic assassination of journalists and dissidents. We don’t mind passing along nuclear-weapon information about our British allies to Russia if it furthers better relations with Moscow and results in a treaty. We apparently are more worried about offending Vladimir Putin than about offending our Polish and Czech allies. We eagerly sign an arms treaty that most people believe favors Russia more than ourselves, and we shrug when Russia does not, as promised, help thwart Iranian nuclear proliferation.
In the last three budget years, we have borrowed $4 trillion, some of it from China, mostly to expand our existing entitlements, almost all of which China does not extend to its own people. We cannot quite assure Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, or the Philippines of past levels of support, since we are worried that our old high military profile would now only provoke Chinese sensibilities. And yet we are depressed when our creditor China in turn seems to resent even the barest mention of its deplorable human-rights violations or its treatment of Tibet.
America vows not to “meddle” on behalf of Iranian dissidents, reaches out to Syria, and was initially silent in the face of Libyan atrocities — in a landscape in which we earlier declared Hosni Mubarak a dictator, and not a dictator, who should depart kinda yesterday, if he did not stay on for a transition to a military dictatorship, which might in turn oversee elections some day that might include the Muslim Brotherhood, which is sorta nonviolent and kinda secular.
In the last two years scarcely a week has gone by in which we did not in some way criticize democratic and once allied Israel. Perhaps if the Israeli government had stoned some homosexuals, or assassinated a leading Lebanese reform figure, or bombed its own cities, we might either have kept silent or publicly promised not to meddle in Israeli affairs. Or we might have apologized for something we purportedly did decades ago that offended Israeli sensibilities.
The Guantanamo Bay detention center is al-Qaeda’s chief recruiting tool, and that is precisely why we closed it — at least virtually. Military tribunals, renditions, preventive detention, and Predator drone attacks during the Bush administration raised “serious” constitutional questions, and that is why we, also virtually, stopped all such problematic protocols. An architect of 9/11, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, is currently facing a virtual civilian trial in Manhattan. Iraq is both our worst disaster and our greatest achievement. As proof that we are withdrawing according to set deadlines from Afghanistan, we are sending thousands more troops there.
Terrorism of the home-grown kind is now a “grave” concern, and that is why we do not use the offensive terms “Islamist” or “jihad,” and have evolved to nomenclature like “overseas contingency operations” for “war on terror” and “man-caused disasters” for “terrorism” — although one may doubt that any serious American security official has ever phoned his European counterpart to discuss joint “overseas contingency operations” against “man-caused disasters.” When jihadists strike, they do so “allegedly” until formally convicted, and the resulting American uproar and threats to diversity programs can be as serious a concern as the actual terrorist operation. Formerly one-dimensional agencies like NASA now have new expanded missions, namely, reaching out to the Muslim world.
In the theoretical sphere, we are unsure that America is any more “exceptional” than, say, Greece, since such perceptions are always relative and merely rest in the eye of the beholder. Britain certainly does not really hold a “special relationship” with the United States in the past Churchillian or Thatcherian sense. And there is a greater need to fly abroad to lobby for a Chicago Olympics than there is to visit Germany to commemorate the downfall of Communism. France, hitherto not known for having greater idealism than the United States, from time to time reminds us that centrifuges are still “spinning” in Iran.
We promised increased billions in foreign aid to our allies, much of which is borrowed from foreign bondholders, along the lines of, “Dear China, could you lend us another $2 billion at 3 percent to help Pakistan, and then please act as if the ensuing grant is really our money?” Apparently, we really must believe that America is exceptional to try to get away with that.
America is terribly worried about the volatility of the oil-exporting Middle East, and that is why we put large regions of the United States and its coasts off limits for new oil, gas, and tar-sands exploration. Apparently other countries can extract and export oil in far more environmentally sound fashion than can America, and, in any case, we have plenty of cash reserves to import at high prices.
What diagnosis might we make on the basis of such symptomology?
The United States is doing its best to reassure the world it is not following George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies by often following George W. Bush’s anti-terrorism policies. The earlier Afghan war was not a mistake, and that is why Afghanistan is still violent and our troops are still being deployed there; while the later Iraq war was a mistake, and that is why Iraq is now quiet and our troops are leaving.
Countries that are pro-Western are somewhat suspect and do not warrant the same level of trust as those which in the past were overtly anti-American — apparently either because prior positive views of the Bush administration render them now suspect, or because resistance to an anti-American regime makes grass-roots dissidents somehow less than genuine or authentic. Past alliances during world wars, and shared support for capitalism, free markets, and constitutional government, are relevant only in the sense that such kindred countries have, like us, a lot of apologizing to do.
Left-wing governments that brutalize their people and deny them freedom — like Cuba’s or Venezuela’s — offer interesting opportunities for new relations. The president’s mixed heritage, his patrimonial tie to Islam, his exotic nomenclature, his progressive Chicago past — all that allows him to meet and conduct business with Third World leaders in a way impossible under a white southern conservative like President Bush. That is a rare advantage that we should not squander by mindlessly supporting the removal of such dictators by their own angry people.
The degree to which America deems itself not exceptional is in direct proportion to the fact that it does consider itself quite exceptional in its entitlement to borrow trillions of dollars on the world stage and consume world oil that it will not itself produce.
There is also another possible diagnosis for all these symptoms: We simply have no clue what the United States is or should be doing, and we more or less make things up as we go — day by day.
— Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, the editor of Makers of Ancient Strategy: From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, and the author of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.