Iran’s Attack on Saudi Arabia Reveals Our Foreign Policy Muddle
We're stuck in fossilized paradigms while our enemies grow stronger.
Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Hard upon President Trump’s misguided outreach to the Taliban, rumors are circulating of a meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming UN General Assembly meeting. Trump has also publicly stated he doesn’t want regime-change in Tehran. This “let’s make a deal” mentality, even with foes who have repeatedly declared and carried out their malign intentions against us, bespeaks more than just the president’s volatile personality and experience in Manhattan real estate.
Indeed, after the probably Iranian-engineered missile attacks on Saudi oil refineries that knocked out half its productive capacity, Trump’s gestures of outreach to the mullahs have now become even more dangerous, and made the need for long-overdue significant military action to punish and deter the mullahs more urgent,
Equally urgent is the revision of a foreign-policy paradigm many years in years in the making and mired in received wisdom. It took root after World War II ended the malign ideologies of fascism, Nazism, and Japanese racist militarism. Even though those murderous movements put the lie to the long dream of a global “harmony of interests” institutionalized in transnational treaties and supranational organizations, the West created the UN, NATO, the World Bank, and other global institutions that would help contain the Soviet Union while the global economy increased wealth and distributed it more widely. The collapse of the Soviet Union fed the illusion that the triumph of liberal democracy was assured, and that its last ideological rival was dispatched without another world war.
But multinational institutions didn’t bring about the end of the Soviet Union, or the communist ideology still riling some parts of the world, and also gaining popularity in this country in its “kinder, gentler” manifestation as “democratic socialism.” Likewise, despite the orthodox paradigm of our foreign policy and national security agencies, NATO did not “keep the peace” in Europe. Peace was achieved by U.S. nuclear weapons, forward-deployed military forces, and “proxy duels” fought to contain Soviet-sponsored aggression. And Soviet communism as an ideology was discredited by visionary leaders like Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II. They saw beyond the shibboleths of “détente” and “outreach” and “summits,” and realized that given an “evil empire”–– as Reagan called it to the scorn of foreign policy savants–– that was ideologically committed to our destruction, the only strategy should be, “We win, they lose,” as Reagan famously said. Diplomacy works only when the enemy believes in your commitment to use lethal force.
Before that recovery of nerve, Jimmy Carter bungled our response to the Iranian Revolution and its jihadist mission to “fight all men until they say there is god but Allah,” as Mohammed instructed. Thus the Islamic Republic of Iran, came into being, a consequence of Carter’s foreign policy idealism, which empowered the mullahs rise to power. Carter ran an “international rules-based order” foreign policy, and he believed that American restraint and “principled” example on human rights would promote the spread of democracy and peace. His speeches and writings were redolent of the post-Vietnam “crisis of confidence” and “recent mistakes,” and counseled that America had “recognized limits.” Rather than the wars of containment, Carter highlighted “our commitment to human rights,” and promised that “we will not behave in foreign places so as to violate our rules and standards here as home.” “Moral principles,” he intoned, “were the best foundation for the exertion of American power and influence.” This statement is good example of what historian Corelli Barnett called the “moralizing internationalism” that had been developing since the late 19th century and reached its gruesome repudiation at Munich and the 60 million dead that followed.
The problem with such idealism is, as the cliché goes, the enemy has a vote about what comprises “moral principles,” and it’s unlikely that good examples, foreign aid, or restraint in the face of aggression will change their minds. A readiness to punish swiftly and brutally attacks on our security and interests, the willingness to employ the “mailed fist,” as Duff Cooper said of dealing with Hitler, rather than “sweet persuasion,” creates the prestige that deters aggressors. After 9/11 we did recover some of that lost respect with the swift victories in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those successes were the monitory “examples” that got Syria’s Bashar Assad out of Lebanon, and convinced Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi to dismantle his nuclear weapon facilities–– and to let us watch him do it.
But then this muscular realism was enervated by George W. Bush’s moralizing internationalism, based on yet another failure of imagination––ignoring the fundamental differences over “moral principles” that exist in other cultures, especially Islam. Ignoring that diversity, in 2002, before the Iraq War, Bush identified our foreign policy strategy as the promotion of the “single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise,” for “these values of freedom are right and true for every person, in every society.” Thus the U.S. will strive “to extend the benefits of freedom across the globe. We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.”
Based on these delusions, the punitive wars of deterrence morphed into democracy promotion in cultures with a religion that for 14 centuries both in word and deed has demonstrated its scorn for our Western ideals and its “benefits” like political freedom, human rights, and prosperity. Just as the similar idealism that hyped the stillborn “Arab Spring,” this stale paradigm of democracy promotion did nothing to restrain Iran and Syria, and contributed to more disorder in the Middle East, Iran and Russia filling the power vacuum our fecklessness created in Syria, more and better missiles for Hezbollah and Hamas, and more lethal threats to our ally Israel.
Finally, Barack Obama went even farther than Carter or Bush in his myopic idealism. He dismissed American exceptionalism as parochial boasting, and went on an international “apology tour” for America’s geopolitical sins. Like Carter, he spoke of our country’s “imperfections” and its need to lead by example: “To build a better, freer world, we must first behave in ways that reflect the decency and aspirations of the American people.” Once again, our enemies have their own notions of what constitutes “decency” and which “aspirations” are acceptable.
And Obama endorsed the long tradition of Wilsonian global democracy promotion: “I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn’t steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.” Armed with this received wisdom, Obama brought about the Iran nuclear deal, rewarding an inveterate enemy with American blood on its hands with a glide-path to possessing nuclear weapons, and an upfront bribe of $150 billion. One of the bright stars of Trump’s foreign policy is withdrawing the US from this act of appeasement. But his willingness to negotiate with the mullahs and make concessions, if realized will in the end tarnish that achievement.
The core mistake of moralizing internationalism is the failure to recognize that every human does not have the destiny, but only the potential for endorsing and accepting Western ideals like human rights, free enterprise, separation of church and state, sex equality, and peaceful coexistence. Just removing a tyrant and flooding a country with NGOs, infrastructure, foreign aid, and democracy seminars are not enough to overcome deep-seated religious and cultural beliefs and practices. First those who resist these improvements have to be beaten into submission, as the Romans and British showed. Idealists who support their faith in democracy promotion by citing Germany and Japan after WWII forget that those nations had been bombed into near extinction first, then given the help to develop into liberal democracies.
More important, we have to accept the tragic “awful arithmetic,” as Lincoln put it, the calculation that some people die today so more people can live tomorrow. But to do that, we must have the moral nerve based on our certainty that our way of life is not just different, but better, because it produces for the most people civilized peace, freedom, and the opportunity to improve their lives.
In the end, our foreign policy is muddled not just because we continue to chant the mantras of the “rules based, democratic international order,” even as we are befuddled when the enemy doesn’t go along and continues to challenge our interests and security. It is also muddled because a significant number of Americans, as the current crop of Democrat presidential primary candidates shows, no longer have that belief in America, and do not believe that America is not just worth dying for, but killing for.
Donald Trump was elected in part because he stood against that old, flabby consensus of moralizing internationalism. He promised to put America’s interests and security first, not the multilateral, multinational sacred cows of the UN or the EU, both of which have been camouflages for powerful member-states’ national interests. Yet his faith in his diplomatic “deal-making” prowess, his correct reading of the electorate’s dislike of “foreign entanglements,” and democracy’s traditional preference for butter over guns–– all have led him to seek deals with aggressors who also know that we are loath to wreak the sort of destruction necessary to stop their aggression, and then to leave behind indefinitely the fortified outposts necessary to monitor and punish those who violate our interests.
As long as our fossilized idealist paradigms guide our foreign policy, we will have to live with this muddle, even as our enemies grow stronger in their power to do us harm. Continuing to appease aggression like the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabia will dangerously hasten that growth.