US foreign policy is a danger to the United States and to the world, and it has been for some time. As President Dwight Eisenhower famously foretold in his farewell address of January 1961, the Military-Industrial Complex (MIC) now transcends political parties and administrations, keeping the country embroiled in perpetual wars. These military adventures, especially the covert operations led by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), undermine political stability in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Central Asia. They incite what they claim to be fighting and preventing: terrorism. As a result, US citizens are left poorer and less secure, to say nothing of the effect on citizens of other countries like Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen, to name but a few. Yet this is not the only way to deal with current challenges, as those in power so often claim.
Every president since Eisenhower has grappled with the MIC, and the relative roles of the military and diplomacy in foreign affairs. President Barack Obama has displayed unaccustomed ambivalence about the power of the MIC. He is an unhappy warrior, engaging in many overt and covert operations in the Middle East and Africa but also resisting many calls for expanded military operations, especially for more “boots on the ground” in Syria and elsewhere. Notably, Obama dramatically expanded covert operations in general and drone warfare in particular, and also prosecuted more whistle blowers than all other administrations combined. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, has been a life-long advocate of the MIC. As senator and secretary of state, she enthusiastically backed every CIA misadventure that came along, from Afghanistan and Iraq in the early 2000s to the recent debacles in Libya and Syria. As senator, she enthusiastically and provocatively campaigned for NATO enlargement to the borders of Russia in Ukraine and Georgia. It is hard to recall a proposed military action that Clinton has opposed.
Safety, security, and democracy in the United States call for nothing less than ending the CIA’s secret wars. There is no institution in modern US history that has a deeper and more chronic record of failure. The CIA’s history of mayhem and the ensuing “blowback” of terrorism and criminality should lead US citizens to reverse the fateful decision of the 1947 National Security Act to create not only an intelligence agency (which was needed) but a secret army as well, which has been a recipe for continued disaster. The CIA dangerously combines the United States’ massive firepower with a preternatural self-righteousness that dates back to the founding of the first English settlements in America. As a result, the United States is seen not simply as a nation-state, but also as a sacred cause. This explains US leaders’ self-delusion about US wars, wherein they understand the country’s causes as the world’s causes, and the United States as the savior of liberty and freedom around the world. One can say fairly, if unconventionally, that the CIA wars are a kind of “American jihad,” where the fundamentalism is the belief in US exceptionalism.
The early English Protestant settlers viewed their settlements as the “new Israel,” one that would conquer the North American continent through God’s grace. It was the same zealous spirit, in essence a civil religion, which also led English armies elsewhere to conquer large parts of the world for the British Empire. As English fighters took India, Africa, and much of the Middle East, their English cousins in North America fought their way across the continent to create an empire built on the subjugation of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans. On their way to continental conquest, the English Americans would of course claim the right to their own empire distinct from the motherland.
Even when the United States was still a newborn country hugging the Eastern seaboard of North America, the expansionist appetite was large. Americans fought wars off the Barbary Coast of North Africa in the 1790s, and by the 1820s claimed all of the Americas as a kind of protectorate under the Monroe Doctrine. The wars with the native populations; the rise of the King Cotton slave society; the Civil War; and the construction of continental-scale infrastructure, absorbed the phenomenal energies of the English-Americans in the nineteenth century. Yet as soon as the continental conquest was finally complete, the United States quickly turned its attention abroad, beginning with the Spanish-American War of 1898, the opening of Asian markets under US gunboats, and the beginnings of empire in the Americas and Asia. Theodore Roosevelt issued his corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, declaring the US right to intervene “as an international police power” across the Americas.
As US economic and military power soared in the early twentieth century, Britain’s imperial reach also continued to expand, seemingly inexorably. World War I brought about the collapse of four empires (the Prussian, Russian, Hapsburg, and Ottoman empires). Britain, and to a lesser extent France, moved in to claim the spoils, most notably in the Middle East. Today’s Middle East conflicts involving Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, are shaped by the cynical power plays by Britain and France a century ago. As has been rightly noted, the Versailles Peace Treaty ending World War I was a “peace to end all peace.”
After World War II, the United States replaced Britain as the world’s dominant imperial power. America’s post-war rise to global preeminence fully fit the country’s two-century-long self-image as the world’s exceptional nation whose success reflects God’s special grace. US exceptionalism was further underscored by the country’s new self-defined role as the world’s redeemer of freedom, the leader of the so-called free world, and the only hope against Soviet expansionism. As Eisenhower declared in his 1953 inaugural address, “destiny had laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world’s leadership.”
Consistent with the 1904 Roosevelt Corollary applying to the Western Hemisphere, and the many US military interventions in the Americas that followed, post-World War II US foreign policy leaders acted as if they had the prerogative—even the responsibility—to intervene anywhere in the world to overthrow governments deemed to be hostile to US interests. To carry out this writ, they turned frequently to the CIA, which had been established by the 1947 National Security Act. The very name of the agency was a misnomer. While the agency does collect intelligence, it has had a much larger role in practice: to enforce American hegemony through covert operations, using assassinations, coups, false-flag attacks, social destabilization, rigged elections, kidnappings, gun-running, drug trafficking, torture, and other extraordinary means, brazenly brushing aside US and international law. There are many histories of the CIA that document these various modes of operation, including Kinzer (Overthrow and The Brothers), Talbot, Blum, and Weiner, among others.
A country with a self-appointed global mission has a special problem: every place on the planet becomes a test of the global mission, a measuring rod of god’s grace, and a mirror to judge whether the nation is up to its appointed role in history. From the late 1940s onward, there was no place on the planet too remote, too small, too insignificant to risk America’s indifference, to risk a failure of will. Any place could become a beachhead of subversion and Soviet expansion, a threat to the American purpose. US strategists were of course most attracted to places with special strategic or commercial importance (such as oil-rich states), but even places utterly insignificant from an economic or military perspective (such as Granada or Guyana) would also attract US attention and CIA interventions.
With every place a threat, the United States would have to fight endless wars, mostly covertly, to fulfill its mission in history, in the belief that just one falling domino, one victory by a US foe, could spell the reversal of US might. The popular board game Risk provides some insight. In that game, the winner is the country that places its armies on every country on the board. Even when a player has the overwhelming advantage, an opponent’s piece on just one territory is a threat. That single place can be the launching pad for recapturing the neighboring countries and ultimately the whole world. For a self-appointed leader of the world, there is no victory except a total victory. The CIA’s covert efforts have therefore never ceased. CIA-led coups, assassinations, and destabilization stretch over nearly seventy years, including: Syria (1949), Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Congo (1960), Cuba (1961), Vietnam (1963), Brazil (1964), Saudi Arabia (1964), Ghana (1966), Bolivia (1968), Chile (1971), Afghanistan (1979), Iran (1980-87), Nicaragua (1985), Bosnia (1995), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003), Haiti (2004), Libya (2011-present), and Syria (2011-present), to name just a few of dozens or hundreds of secret (yet documented) wars. A careful look reveals the overarching truth about these CIA operations: they have typically produced chaos rather than a compliant regime. Even when the CIA is successful in “installing” a regime, such as Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran in 1953, the blowback decades later (in the Iranian Revolution of 1979) can be enormous.
One common self-justifying claim is that the United States adopted its global mantle reluctantly, against a long-standing isolationist preference, and only as necessary to defend freedom during the Cold War. This view is wide of the mark, as events since 1991 have made vividly clear. The US quest for global preeminence did not start with the Cold War, nor did it end there. In fact, the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union was the occasion for an unprecedented expansion of US power into a purported “vacuum” left by the end of the Soviet Union. Yet the US government misjudged badly, as did Britain a century earlier. The collapse of an empire, whether the Ottoman Empire during World War I or the Soviet Empire in 1991 (irrespective of the differences), does not create a vacuum to be filled by another outside empire. It creates a demand for legitimate governance. Just as Britain denied the Middle East its self-governance after World War I, the United States continued to deny the Middle East its self-governance after 1945 and beyond the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.
The US expansion of power after the Soviet collapse has been manifested in two main ways. First, rather than dismantling NATO once the Soviet threat was over, the US government expanded it into the former Soviet satellite countries, thereby placing NATO ever closer to the Russian border. NATO expansion included the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania in 2004; and Albania in 2009. In 2008, the US invited Ukraine and Georgia to join NATO, as the US security state was eager to push NATO right up against Russia’s western and southern borders and to flip Russia’s warm-water Crimean naval base at Sevastopol into a NATO facility. Second, the US government has moved to overthrow Soviet-allied governments in the Middle East and replace them with regimes friendly to the United States. This game plan was adopted in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War (1990). General Wesley Clark had recounted a conversation he had in 1991 with Paul Wolfowitz, then the Deputy Secretary of Defense under Defense Secretary Richard Cheney. Wolfowitz explained to Clark: “But one thing we did learn [from the first Gulf War] is that we can use our military in the region – in the Middle East – and the Soviets won’t stop us. And we’ve got about 5 or 10 years to clean up those old Soviet regimes – Syria, Iran [sic], Iraq — before the next great superpower [viz. China] comes on to challenge us.”
Contrary to Wolfowitz’s naive assertion, Russia did not simply roll over and play dead. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia to cut short that country’s move to join NATO. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Eastern Ukraine to prevent Ukraine from falling into NATO hands. In the Middle East, Russia has backed and armed Iran against US attempts to destabilize the Iranian regime, and it has strongly defended its ally Bashar al-Asad against the efforts by the CIA, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey since early 2011 to overthrow Asad.
Both the British and the Americans have shown no scruples in backing despots and terrorists to pursue their efforts. One part of that effort, both by the British and the Americans, has been the penchant to support Sunni fundamentalists (aka jihadists) as mercenary forces. During World War I, the British Empire backed the local ruler Ibn Saud in wars of conquest in the Arabian Peninsula, believing that Ibn Saud would be loyal to British suzerainty. Yet Ibn Saud, and the new state of Saudi Arabia, championed a fundamentalist Islamic creed, Wahhabism, that has fueled the Sunni jihadists of recent decades, including al-Qa‘ida and the Islamic State. It is worth emphasizing that the British supported Ibn Saud to defeat the much more moderate Hashemite rulers of western Arabia (the Hejaz), in no small part because the Hashemite ruler Sharif Hussein objected to Britain’s growing intrusion into the Arab region, and notably, to the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, which was designed by Britain to be a reliable ally of Britain on the Eastern approaches to the Suez Canal.
After World War II, the US government picked up where Britain had left off. It embraced Saudi Arabia, Wahhabism and all. It repeatedly teamed up with Saudi rulers to deploy jihadist forces to fight US foes. Most notoriously, the CIA and Saudi Arabia joined forces in Afghanistan in 1979 after the Soviet invasion to field an army of Sunni jihadists known as the Mujahideen. The CIA’s lead partner on the ground was one Osama bin Laden, who would go on to form al-Qa‘ida (“the base”) from the core of the Mujahideen. Not for the first time, a CIA-supported organization went on to become America’s bitter enemy, the classic blowback that occurs after siding with hyper-violent groups with their own interests. The United States’ own purposes are of course neither clean nor pure. The first and most direct is to project US power. There are now around eight hundred US military bases in eighty countries, the most extensive projection of military power in history. The second is economic: to secure trade routes, pipeline routes, oil fields, and other resources, or to forestall taxation or expropriation, at the behest of US commercial interests. The third is to gin up business for US arms sales; every arms client of Russia is a lost client of the United States.
The US government has also continued its semi-secret alliance between Saudi Arabia and the CIA for all of the reasons just mentioned: military bases, oil, arms sales, jihadist forces when and where needed, and opposing Russia. The alliance survived the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which the terrorists were Saudi nationals largely backed by Saudi funds. Americans literally did not know what hit them when it comes to al-Qa‘ida, the Islamic State, or other Sunni jihadist groups. These groups are supposedly America’s greatest foe, yet such groups have at one point or another been supported by the United States and its purported ally, Saudi Arabia, and have been deployed as part of CIA-Saudi operations—even if only initially.
The costs of the US global strategy continue to mount. The United States is engaged in perpetual war in a growing number of countries. Sunni terrorist blowback has become entrenched, and is now almost a daily experience in some places in the world. The US government budgets a fortune on its military, roughly seven hundred billion dollars per year in FY17, or around two billion dollars per day, adding in the Pentagon ($590B), the intelligence agencies ($54B), homeland security ($47B), and other programs ($60B), and not even including the vast outlays for veterans, ($179B). Tensions rise with Russia, and Russia and NATO-member Turkey came dangerously close to outright conflict in Syria.
Obama deserves credit for acknowledging some of the hard truths concerning America’s failed foreign policy. In the recent Atlantic Monthly interview, he describes how Washington unthinkingly drifts toward war; how the Pentagon repeatedly “jammed” him to escalate military force; how the “playbook” responses of the foreign policy establishment “tend to be militarized responses”; how US allies in the Middle East, notably Saudi Arabia and Turkey, tend to “exploit American ‘muscle’ for their own narrow and sectarian ends”; how some military leaders “believed they could fix any problem if the commander in chief would simply give them what they wanted; how foreign-policy think tanks in Washington “are doing the bidding of their Arab and pro-Israel funders; how America’s Sunni Arab allies foment anti-American terrorism; how it “became obvious to Obama [in 2014, three years after the start of the CIA-backed Syrian War] that defeating [ISIS] was of more immediate urgency than overthrowing Bashar al-Assad; how “Putin acted in Ukraine in response to a client state that was about to slip out of his grasp, and [did] exactly the same in Syria; and how “the competition between the Saudis and Iranians … helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen.”
Yet, there is also much to bemoan as well in Obama’s reflections and actions. Most obviously, despite his misgivings, he went along with the CIA, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey in the Syrian war. He exceeded the UN Security Council mandate in Libya by using NATO forces to topple Muammar Qaddafi. He expanded covert operations, in particular drone warfare. And he displays the typical US arrogance that the United States must lead because without it, nothing good happens in the world. “The fact is,” says Obama, "there is not a summit I’ve attended since I’ve been President where we [the US] are not setting the agenda, where we are not responsible for the key results. That’s true whether you’re talking about nuclear security, whether you’re talking about saving the world financial system, whether you’re talking about climate.” What makes this statement utterly misguided is that the United States was the main cause of the financial crisis, and the major laggard, not leader, on climate change during the past twenty years.
The path back to safety for the United States is actually not that hard to envision. The US government needs to stop playing Risk, with a base in every country, and start playing diplomacy, forestalling wars by finding strategies of mutual accommodation with the other powers. The United States and Russia’s security and economic interests in fact generally coincide in both Europe and in the Middle East. Both benefit from peace and open markets. Both are highly vulnerable to jihadi terrorism. It is mainly the US-provoked expansion of NATO eastward and the US-led wars in the Middle East that provoked the return of the Cold War with Russia. More generally, the US government should start playing by the international rules it did so much to establish seventy years ago with the birth of the United Nations. Several times in the past fifteen years, the United States pursued unilateral military actions without the backing of the UN Security Council. When the government proposed the Iraq War to a Security Council vote in 2003, it was soundly rejected by the other states but the United States did not listen, to horrendous results. The same occurred in the cases of Syria and Libya, when Russia and other Security Council members warned the US government of the dangers of its unilateral actions. How much better off the country would have been to listen to the counsel and objections of the other great powers!
Of course the truly needed approach to foreign policy is a positive agenda, not merely the negative agenda of avoiding wars. The entire world has signed on to the urgent agenda of sustainable development: promoting economic progress, social inclusion, and environmental sustainability. A truly successful and bold foreign policy would focus on positive problem solving—regarding climate, poverty, smart cities, job creation, and other common interests—with the rest of the world. The UN World Humanitarian Summit will convene, appropriately, in Istanbul on 23-24 May 2016 to consider solutions to the world’s humanitarian crises. The conference will take place, almost to the day, on the hundredth anniversary of the signing of the infamous Sykes-Picot Treaty, the odious secret agreement between the British and French empires to carve up the carcass of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. A century of big-power double-dealing, secret diplomacy and wars is long enough. Let us commence a century based on UN diplomacy and sustainable development rather than war.