Monday, March 28, 2011

American Foreign Policy: Kaplan Right and Wrong on Morality in Foreign Policy

Robert Kaplan wrote a recent article in the Wall Street Journal that hit some right notes on Foreign Policy, but also broke loose a few stinkers.  The Middle East Crisis Just Begun.

The good:

Our most important national-security resource is the time that our top policy makers can devote to a problem, so it is crucial to avoid distractions. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the fragility of Pakistan, Iran's rush to nuclear power, a possible Israeli military response—these are all major challenges that have not gone away. This is to say nothing of rising Chinese naval power and Beijing's ongoing attempt to Finlandize much of East Asia.
To his he adds:

We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power.

This is reasonably true.  He goes on to list out or recent interventions in the Balkans, etc and why Libya intervention doesn't hurt the US and giving up leadership in that role leaves us free to concentrate on our other problems.  He does not list out any activities prior to the 90's as if Fukuyama was correct and it was, indeed, the end of history when the USSR fell.  However, it is part of our foreign policy history that, during this time, the US made most of it's decisions on who to support under the aegis of "bad and worse".  Worse, during the Cold War, was always Communism.  Therefore, the US made it it's business to support anyone who was not Communist, despite the fact that many regimes were definitely oppressive and autocratic. 

What the US understood at the time was "help yourself, before you can help others".  The US had to survive as the strongest free nation, however it could, or it would be unable to support or defend any other free nations, much less the United States.  It did support freedom and democracy where it could, but, when it came down to a choice between populations where Soviet influence was strong or attempting to enter and a ruling dictator that could be influenced by the West, the US would choose the dictator. 

The 90's, as Kaplan points out, was about maintaining the "status quo".  That the US does better where the world is stable, even if half of it is controlled by tin pot dictators.  Investment capital, imports and exports flow, keeping the US economy and GDP rising at a steady pace.  This was important, per Kaplan, because the USSR did not represent the last enemy of the United States.  Hence his discourse on Iran, China and the ever growling Bear of Russia. 

However, this is where Kaplan begins to advocate for the "status quo" as the best hope for the United States to remain on top and not dragged down into every event that represents some form of democracy.  He points out that democracy (democrateyya) in Pakistan would be a crazy idea, as if anyone was advocating that the land of the Taliban and their various fellow travelers, replete with nuclear weapons, was a candidate for real freedom and democracy. 

No one has been calling for democracy, inside or out of Pakistan for Pakistan.  Not even the revolutionaries in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia or the burgeoning event in Syria.  Even these democracy minded people don't believe that democracy is what Pakistan would get should military rule disintegrate.  That is a red herring and Mr. Kaplan is wise enough to know that.  Yemen is the great unknown.  The US knows that Saleh was basically a career criminal keeping all the other career criminals and jihadists down on the farm.  That does not mean that there are not some forces inside of Yemen who are not criminals and jihadists. 

There has been a long standing low key civil war with inter-tribal conflict as a highlight.  Democracy, whatever its form, is likely to be short lived.  That is if it can remain a single state at all.  The likelihood of Yemen becoming "Balkanized", breaking up into small states with hostiles in the north and south going into internecine civil war, is all but inevitable.  Interesting that Kaplan suggests that the US "stay the course" and not intervene on anyone's behalf.  As if the US was interested in doing so. 

His point worth repeating here is: 

We should not kid ourselves. In foreign policy, all moral questions are really questions of power.

If Yemen goes awry, it would become a hostile neighbor to the Saudi's south and a point of serious problems for trade routes as well as oil distribution in the region.  The problem here is that the US actually has few options.  It can't really support Saleh in the degree that he would require to stay in power and there are no powerful  alternatives that we would like to see in place such as any liberal force in the body politic. 

This isn't a question of morality v. power or morality v. status quo.  This is an issue of reality that the US is going to have to come to grips with, regardless of the outcome.  The same must be said of Saudi Arabia.  This is an example of Mr. Kaplan's argument, but hardly states the case for an over all US foreign policy.

The problem is Mr. Kaplan's main point.  That the US should, in fact, maintain whatever status quo exists in the Middle East in the face of the Iranian problem and the growing Chinese and Russian problems.   He misses several key factors.

Starting with the revolutions, with or without the US, these initiatives were going forward.  The US did not start them nor have a hand in them directly.  Indirectly, constant interaction with the US and other western nations is bound to have an effect on how people see their own situations and, to paraphrase the president, formulate their own aspirations.  Directly, the deposition of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the struggling, though still existent democracy there, put the idea into the people of the region's minds that dictators were not really the all powerful, indestructible, all controlling entities over any people unless the people allowed them to be.

Not to drift off into any ideological meanderings, but the founders of the United States were correct when they pointed out that government comes from the people, even despotic forms, and that people will suffer them as the only form of government they know so long as those "evils" are sufferable.  It isn't a new strain of thought.  It is that vision writ large when we see any popular revolt, much less ones that are calling for real government by the people in the form of a democracy.

It means that the vaunted "status quo" is only the "status quo" so long as the people in any form of majority go along with it.   That means clearly that the US trying to hold on to the status quo does not make itself stronger, but puts itself in a weak position, unwilling and unable to contend with a rapidly changing world.  An idea that is woefully ironic considering that the idea of a free people with a free market and free ideas are better suited to responding rapidly to any changes within and without. 

Worse, it may be framing the US in the same position we framed the USSR all those decades ago.  A power set on maintaining tyrannies all over the world for the sole benefit of maintaining the United State's position at the top of the world.  A position that would not be so threatened if the United State's internal policies were not possibly more detrimental to the great "engine of democracy" than it's foreign policy.

Second, for some reason, beyond a brief mention of Al Qaida, Mr. Kaplan skips completely over the events of September 11, 2001.  As if to say that event was not a policy changing event or that we should not recognize that it is the Salafist Wahabi teachings of the Saudi Kingdom's pet religious projects internally and abroad that brought about that event.  Nor are we to imagine that as a real threat.  As if to brush off that event and the problem of our on going association with the Saudis as inconsequential to the greater problem's facing the US today.  The worst is that Mr. Kaplan does not even begin to imagine that these terrorist organizations are, in fact, proxies in many degrees of all of those other "larger" threats the US faces.

The rise of this theocratic ideology and it's spread through out the Middle East in conjunction with the Iranian version and the ongoing attempts to take down the control of the Pakistani military government to obtain access to it's arsenal makes it a threat equal to or more imperative than the other three threats.  That means that it is imperative for the United States to have a foreign policy that directly counters that ideology.  It cannot be war alone.  Neither does the support of authoritarian states crush the ideology.  It formed full and well beneath the umbrellas of these regimes, regardless of their attempts to crush it.

The single largest threat that the Salafist Wahabi strain of ideology identified to its existence was the spread of freedom and democracy.  It is the most powerful threat against any oppressive or authoritarian regime.  Every enemy of the United States and free nations around the world identifies it and knows it.  It is difficult to comprehend how Mr. Kaplan fails to do the same.

Third, Mr. Kaplan seems to have donned a pair of blinders to the truth of history.  Democracy and freedom have been on the rise for decades.  The number of states that have risen to throw off dictatorships and tyrannical states to become, in fact, functioning democracies, has increased, not decreased.  It is difficult to accept, under that premise alone, that the US should do anything (or nothing as he would have it) to maintain the status quo.  Particularly as it is the rise of these states that has provided markets for US products and allies along the way.  The challenge here would be for Mr. Kaplan to explain how that has been detrimental to the United States.

Fourth, in that same vein, it was the stated US policy during the Cold War that defense of democracy and freedom abroad meant the extended defensive line for the United States instead of a United States alone and under siege within it's own borders.  When it comes to the issue of Iran, Mr. Kaplan seems to insist that all of these impending democracies, such as Egypt, and any changes in countries bordering Saudi Arabia, makes all of those states weaker against Iranian influence and outright hegemony. 

The problem with that analysis is the assumption that a democratic Egypt, or instance, would not have it's own national interests to protect.  Interests that align more directly with the US and the West in general than with Iran's plan for the Middle East.  It also ignores the possibility of Egypt rising as it's own center of influence on the region, against Iranian attempts at influence.  Even as a democracy. 

No one in Egypt, in act, is calling on the Iranians to help them establish their democracy or invest in their country.  Not the MB, the socialists or the liberals.  They are not calling for the Chinese to come and help them.  Even if, as Mr. Kaplan supposes, these events play into China's hand by the US acting in these events  and giving the Chinese direct access, it is incorrect to believe that supporting freedom and democracy as opposed to maintaining dictatorships and authoritarian regimes makes the US weak. 

The point here is that, if these democracy movements are tethered to the natural inclination of people to be free and have a voice in their government instead of bought and sold dictatorships, it pushes the boundaries of freedom out.  Those types of democracies are by nature western leaning.  By fiat, it reduces the boundaries that the Chinese, Russian's and Iranians can ever hope to become a direct or controlling influence because in real democracies, the people are not interested in living in or supporting the types of authoritarian, theological or oligarchic regimes these nations represent.

Mr. Kaplan's main point, that foreign policy is about power and not morality is only partially true.  When morality supports the position of power, ie the spread of freedom and democracy makes free nations stronger, then it seems entirely immoral and detrimental, even to a utilitarian foreign policy supported by Mr. Kaplan, to accept the stats quo as the United States' best interest in foreign policy.

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