During the period of Sukkot, referred to in the Christian Bible as The Feast of Booths, it is customary to read the Book of Kohelet, also known as Ecclesiastes. One of the famous phrases in that well-known work, is that there is “nothing new under the sun.” In considering current American foreign policy, it appears that Kohelet had it right.
An evaluation of American history will point to three concepts that are repeated to the point of becoming a well-worn mantra. They are as follows: Fear (of a Vietnam-like situation), Budget, and Authoritarianism. These three items may be manifested in a variety of different ways throughout our historical narrative, even if we do not always recognize it as such. Sometimes, for example, the fear factor or budgetary considerations are reflected in an isolationist sentiment suggesting that we can wall off the United States from the world’s troubles.
When the new nation was founded under the current Constitution in 1789, The Founders did their best to stay out of the frequent disputes between England and France. While the United States fought in revolution against the British Empire, the Colonists had a lot in common with the Monarchy from a trade and a social perspective. After all, most of the citizens of the former colonies were British subjects previously. They were comfortable with the nature of British society, even if they were critical of the stratifications socially and the crude taxation policies of the British monarchs. More than anything else, however, the new nation wanted to steer clear of entanglements in European wars. The enormous naval confrontations between the British Empire and France, threatened to become the era’s Vietnam, as more and more American sailors were impressed into foreign navies.
Even in that early era, presidents and many in the legislature showed admiration for authoritarian rule. Jefferson was an undisguised fan of the French Revolution, which was one of the bloodiest uprisings up until that time. Likewise, the Federalists wanted to model the new American capitalism after the British market structure. Both parties, Federalists and anti-Federalists, realized that America did not have the budgetary ability to play in the big leagues. That appreciation also kept them out of the European wars. It was almost inevitable that the War of 1812 would occur, given the pressures on the new American nation to put its future fortunes either with its former allies, the French, or its immediate ancestors, the British. Were it not for the French Navy at Yorktown, the American Revolution would never had ended as well as it did. The Colonists had no worthwhile navy to speak of, and the fact that the French Armada had trapped the British at the Great Battle of Yorktown, was the key leading to the freedom attained by the colonists.
Many historians look at World War I as a “just” war based upon the argument that Woodrow Wilson, was dedicated to principles of world peace and an eventual League of Nations. The truth is somewhat different, however. The English Empire, which we helped to bail out of that bloody World War, was the greatest colonialist structure that the world had ever known. Millions of people around the globe lived under the thumb of British bureaucrats, who at the end of World War I remade the Middle East in their own image, thus creating many of the problems that we are saddled with today. The Germans were unsympathetic, of course. The Prussian empire sought to impose its militaristic nationalism on Europe and to some extent the World War was a dispute between cousins. Some of the royalty in England were related to some of the royalty within the nascent German Empire. Likewise, royalty in Austria and Hungary had connections throughout the world. Teddy Roosevelt, who had served as president just before World War I, had a family that was related to the European Aristocrats, the same royalty who turned a small squabble into a terribly messy family feud.
In World War II, the United States, without hesitation, forged an undeniable relationship with Stalin, a mass-murderer and dictator of enormous proportions. He was “better” than the European monster, Adolf Hitler, and was more acceptable to the authoritarian nature of both Roosevelt and Churchill. No doubt America made the right decision as to who to throw its heft behind in World War II. As a result of World War II, Russia lost 50 million citizens. The Soviet Union entered Berlin with almost twice the number of divisions as the Allies, when victory was declared and the dust settled.
The United States showed its own blemishes in World War II by attempting to have the freed North African continent ruled by its former Nazi overlords. Fortunately, the British opposed that, or another million Jews would have died in concentration camps. Without any doubt scholarship has demonstrated anti-Semitism in the United States both emboldened and enabled the Germans to murder almost every Jew in Europe. Franklin Roosevelt will down in history as an elitist hypocrite who was a virtual partner in the extermination of Europe’s Jewry.
In the Korean War, the United States, fearing the threat of a world Communist takeover, aligned itself with what was essentially an authoritarian regime in South Korea. Likewise, South Vietnam was no model democracy but was rather an authoritarian Government thought to represent America’s interests in Southeast Asia.
The consequence of our national history is to fear foreign military entanglements, the course of which we cannot control; a tendency to place our fate with authoritarian leaders that serve American interests; and a great concern that both our budget and economy would be seriously impaired by the scourge of war.
Donald Trump’s current policy in the Middle East, though confused, erratic and apparently without an overriding clear cut plan, still reflects all three historical perspectives. Trump’s opponents do not seem to have any different view of the world. In fact, to some extent the Trump policy is a continuation of the Obama approach. Both presidents have a great fear of the Vietnamization of ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. They are correct to believe that Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran can become a fatal pit of military confrontation uncontrollable by even the most brilliant military minds. Just as generations of Americans feared becoming involved in European conflict, generations later we worried about a land war in Southeast Asia. Now, and for some years, politicians have demonstrated a great reluctance to become involved in the historically bloody Middle East.
The present day Middle East situation also reflects an American tendency toward authoritarianism. It was after all the Eisenhower administration who overthrew a democratically-elected regime in Iran. We installed the Shah of Iran, a dictator overthrown by Khomeini and his followers. Our disrespect for democracy, helped to create the current terrorist rogue regime that rules Iran. In World War I, we assisted the British in carving up the Middle East to put minority tribes in power. We helped the British put the Hashemite minority in charge of the Palestinian Arabs in Jordan. We also assisted the British in placing a minority tribe, currently headed by President Assad, in Syria. We helped to create boundaries in the Middle East that were both unrealistic and did not represent history. The carving up of the Jewish nation into a tiny indefensible territory had to do with both historical antisemitism and a desire to please wealthy Arab minority overlords in order to guaranty a continuous supply of oil to the West. This tendency toward Authoritarianism in American foreign policy also helps to explain why we have been in bed with Saudi Arabia, and flew its officials out of the United States on an emergency basis during the Bush Administration, right after 9/11. Perish the thought that those Saudi Arabians would have had to answer for the American inferno at the World Trade Center.
President Trump has also rallied behind the budget excuse. The United States has always been dedicated to low taxes, compared to European socialist regimes, and a high standard of living. This means keeping the budget in control. Currently, we are dealing with a national debt that threatens to choke us in the future, especially if our creditors such as China decide to pull the plug. China probably could not do that because of its own budgetary constraints, but do not be surprised if the ultimate reaction of China to the current trade war is to cut down its buying of American debt. That would result in our interest rates going right up through the roof. Our economy would stall and economic disaster would realistically loom for the American consumer.
We need to recognize and understand that budget, authoritarianism and Vietnamization are the key elements behind American foreign policy decisions and in one form or another have guided those determinations since the beginning of our history. The issue for the American public is whether we can be a positive influence in the world, to support our values, and stabilize the world economy, without the negative effects that often go with being the policeman of the world. There is no doubt that consistency and clarity of national purpose is an essential ingredient to world leadership. It is also beyond dispute that having our own budgetary house in order is crucial. Therefore, while politicians make all kinds of promises concerning federal spending, whether it be for military or social purposes, we need to appreciate that our foreign policy should not be dictated by our enormous and unsustainable debt load. Finally, while it is true that we will often have to make deals with bad people, authoritarians, we still need to respect the role of democratic regimes even if we do not always like their leaders. President Obama stumbled badly because of his personal dislike for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama was not the first president to do that. Past presidents hated Charles de Gaulle of France or were uncomfortable with British and Canadian leaders. In every presidency, there has been tumult created by the Chief Executive’s personally liking or disliking a foreign leader whose own authoritarianism clashed with the Bully Pulpit of the American president. President Trump, of course, is no different. He likes authoritarian leaders, such as those in Turkey, North Korea and Russia, but chafes at the authoritarian leadership in China. The President does America no good by personalizing foreign policy in this way, although he is neither the first nor the last president to do that. Americans would be better off if world leadership was not based upon interpersonal disputes between leaders of great nations but rather were strictly based on American self-interest.
Finally, there is the fear factor. Should we be isolationists or risk being dragged into the wars of other nations? The United States has utilized both strategies in the past. There was none better at foreign affairs than Theodore Roosevelt, whose reputation for speaking softly and carrying a big stick, prevented a world war which was almost certain to occur as Russia and Japan went to battle with one another, dragging their allies into the conflict. Carrying a big stick, of course, does not mean necessarily using the big stick. Speaking softly does not mean being a mouse. The concept of “Teddy” was to refrain from outrageous threats or promises but nevertheless to have a powerful military presence capable of both acting and reacting in order to safeguard American interests.
America’s first military intervention, interestingly, was not in Mexico or Canada. Although we did try to invade Canada four times, according to some scholars. Our first real international venture was when President Washington, Adams and finally Jefferson became so disgusted with the Barbary Pirates that they sent the American navy in the Mediterranean to put an end to Islamic terrorism in that region. The United States did not establish a permanent base or presence in the Middle East but used its considerable skill gained on the battlefields of our large continent and the seas of our great coastline to eliminate forever a threat to American and European commerce. Hence the song of the Marines, From the Halls of Montezuma to the Shores of Tripoli. Tripoli in Libya was the center, as it has been in recent years, of terrorist activity.
It is a mistake for the United States to cede control over the Middle East to Russia and Iran, as the last two administrations have done. That does not mean that the United States must fight a land war in the Middle East. It takes relatively little in the way of boots on the ground to assure strength and integrity for the United States in that region of the world and safety for its allies. Forcing the Kurds into the arms of Syria and attempting to buy off Turkey as a bulwark against Russia and Iran is a dangerous proposition which may turn out to be brilliant or gutless, depending upon what our intelligence really knows about the direction of those conflicts. To the extent that President Trump is relying upon solid data and a thought-out process favoring American interests, he may be on the right track. However, if the current Middle East policy is merely a reflection of what personalities President Trump likes or dislikes and whose politics he admires, then the end result is sure to be bad for the United States.
There is no question, however, that the concept of Budget, Authoritarianism and Vietnam will continue to be a major influence in American foreign policy into the next administration, unless some thoughtful clarity and appropriate forcefulness is brought to bear on strategic American thinking.