Lessons from the failed British Empire -- our common future?
In late 1930 the Tory leadership in Britain’s governing coalition decided to back independence for India despite the increasing, vicious sectarian violence that graphically showed India was not yet ready for the British to leave. Later, historian A.L. Rowse would link partisan self-interest to the failure of nerve and collapse of morale that lay behind the policies of the ruling caste. It was in 1931, Rowse wrote, that “the caste lost confidence in itself and, undermined by fear, it lost not only confidence but conscience. Confused in mind about everything, except the main chance––its own preservation, it survived from year to year, from month to month, from day to day, by blurring the clarity of all issues, even the most dangerous––that of the nation’s safety; it maintained its enormous majority by electoral trickery, it spoke and perhaps thought in the language of humbug, it hoped to stave off conflict . . . by offering appeasement.”
These comments can serve as a commentary on the Obama administration’s failed foreign policy. There has seldom been a coherent, sound principle behind that policy other than partisan electoral “preservation” no matter the danger to the nation’s security and interests. Consider this by no means exhaustive catalogue:
• His opposition to the war in Iraq, predicated in the main on the ideological prejudices of his progressive base and validated by war-fatigue among many Americans, lead to a failure to achieve a status-of-forces agreement that would have left enough troops to prevent the current descent into sectarian violence and nascent civil war now rending that country.
• His campaign-sloganeering that Afghanistan was the “good war” compared to Bush’s “bad war” in Iraq compelled him to send more troops into that country, but then to undermine them by announcing a date-certain for American withdrawal, thus ensuring a Taliban resurgence, even now accelerating, after we leave.
• His proscribing of effective enhanced interrogation techniques, another sop for his progressive base, has substituted drone killings and civilian trials for the capture of suspects who could provide valuable intelligence about the resurgent al Qaeda franchise and future terrorist attacks on the homeland.
• His electoral propaganda that al Qaeda is “on its heels” and the war against jihadism is “receding” covered up the expansion of jihadism in Nigeria, North Africa, Yemen, Syria, and Libya, where al Qaeda affiliates murdered our ambassador and three other Americans.
• His “reset” with Russia, bought with an unfavorable arms-reduction treaty and a retreat on missile defense in Eastern Europe, achieved nothing but further Russian adventurism against its neighbors, and continuing support for Iran and Syria.
• His “outreach” to Iran and diplomatic courting of the mullahs, even to the point of remaining silent when in 2009 they brutalized in the streets of Tehran their political opponents, have gained the regime more time to move ever closer to the possession of nuclear weapons.
• His undercutting of our important ally Israel did not get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table, but instead encouraged Mahmoud Abbas to violate the Oslo agreement and seek recognition in the U.N., strengthening the Palestinians’ long-term resolve to destroy Israel.
• His cozying up to the Islamist regime in Turkey––most recently on display in Secretary of State John Kerry’s morally repugnant likening of the victims of the Boston bombing to the terrorists killed by Israel on the gun-running Mavi Marmara in 2010––has not slowed Turkey’s evolution into a Islamic state hostile to our interests.
• His “leading from behind” in Libya empowered jihadist militias and armed them with weapons looted from Gaddafi’s arsenals, while creating a weak state promising to be another Afghanistan in providing sanctuary for jihadist outfits.
• His abandonment of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and support for the Muslim Brothers have lead to an illiberal, theocratic Islamist regime by definition contrary to our interests and beliefs, and currently dealing with us only for the money necessary to keep their dysfunctional government afloat.
• His threats about “red lines” and “I don’t bluff” in regard to Assad’s use of chemical weapons have been exposed as mere bluster, further eroding American credibility and suggesting to our enemies that America’s leadership does not have the stomach for backing its words with action, and so can be defied with impunity.
The consistent theme of these blunders is a political calculus papered over with progressive “humbug”: America is a global bully guilty of crimes that need to be atoned for; unilateral force is rarely effective in pursuing our interests and so must be avoided; diplomatic outreach and engagement can win over our enemies; and multilateral coalitions given U.N. imprimaturs are the only legitimate sanction for using force to protect our security and interests. In short, the bankrupt, internationalist progressive “principles” that hearten our enemies and frighten our friends, but obeisance to which have been politically necessary for Obama and the progressive Democrats. And they have provided cover for policies of appeasement that avoid the political costs and dangers of using force.
What a contrast with George W. Bush, who despite his mistakes and naïveté about democracy promotion, nonetheless predicated his foreign policy on principle rather than ad hoc political expediency. His decision to provide more troops to Iraq in 2007, even as the war’s unpopularity was emboldening antiwar Democrats, was a brave one based on principle rather than political self-interest. We should remember too how politically motivated was the opposition to the surge on the part of then senators Obama, Biden, and Clinton, spurred by the success of Howard Dean’s anti-war primary campaign. Obama called the surge a “mistake” and a “reckless escalation.” Biden said, “We need to stop the surge and start to get our troops out.” Clinton said that General Petraeus’ accurate report documenting the surges’ success required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” Democrats and their presidential primary candidates were more concerned with political self-preservation and success than with the blow to America’s interests that would follow––and now undoubtedly will follow–– failure in Iraq.
The British failure of nerve over India––which after World War II would achieve independence at the cost of 2 million dead in sectarian violence, and two nuclear-armed neighboring rivals––was a signpost of the larger loss of civilizational confidence notoriously on display in the 1938 Munich conference. By 1960 the British Empire had pretty much disappeared, an abandonment based not on the principle of self-determination or freedom for colonial peoples, but on a collapse of principle, determination, and responsibility, and a selfish preference for peace and quiet no matter the cost. The foreign policy of the last four years has been eerily similar, bespeaking the same desire to avoid conflict and all the politically costly risks that force entails, perfumed with specious internationalist and diplomatic “humbug” to kill the stink of decaying principle and rank partisan self-interest. Whether this country will continue down the road of decline will depend on whether we can read these signposts and change course in time.
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