Monday 6 February 2023

Get Ready For The Next Idiot Crusade

Western foreign policy circles have lately become very interested in the Left and its rhetoric. United States government bodies are holding meetings on “decolonising Russia”. Venerable publications such as Foreign Policy have picked up the insult “tankie,” previously used by Communists to attack each other.

Supporters of NATO may as well be quoting Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book as they rail against the chauvinism of Western leftists. Or, in more modern social justice terms, those leftists are guilty of “West-splaining” and ignoring the agency of the oppressed.

All this may seem to be a result of the Great Awokening, the seeping of identity politics into elite institutions. In fact, it’s a rehashing of an American foreign policy debate that took place several decades ago.

After the US defeat in Southeast Asia, the American elite shrank from imperial ambitions and began a period of self-examination. But viewing “Vietnam syndrome” as a disease to be overcome, the Reagan administration attempted to restore US honour and vigour through proxy warfare in the Third World.

At home, the new strategy meant out-flanking doves from the left. American foreign policy was cast in terms of supporting underdogs against Soviet imperialism. The Reagan administration sold anti-communist militants in liberal or even far-left terms — and tried to deflect attention away from repressive pro-American governments to plucky “freedom fighters” whenever possible.

There’s no fun in arguing that the establishment foreign policy is correct, and that the most powerful country on earth should continue to crush its wicked enemies. It’s much more effective to call for defending America’s downtrodden friends against some privileged elite. The strategy largely worked, as Democrats shifted from dovish critics in the 1970s to full-throated interventionists by the 1990s.

The hawkish consensus grew stronger and stronger until the War on Terror led to another round of tragic overreach. With the excesses of that conflict, the liberal base once again turned against military intervention, dragging Democratic leaders back into the anti-war camp, perhaps a bit reluctantly. Right-wing doves also began to find their voice.

The effects of “Iraq syndrome” are now fading. With the Russian-Ukrainian war raging and an uprising in Iran, hawks seem to have the answers that doves do not. So, the old Reagan-era rhetoric about freedom-fighting has come back, this time phrased in the dialect of the modern Democratic Party.

The Vietnam War had left America in a state of serious crisis. Veteran cold warriors were despondent. They saw the inward turn as cowardice in the face of the Soviet enemy. The 1979 revolutions in Iran, Nicaragua, and Grenada seemed to confirm the image of US weakness.

In 1980, the election of Ronald Reagan gave hawks an opening. His administration dramatically stepped up support for proxy forces in Central America, southern Africa, and the Muslim world. And after violent infighting broke out within Grenada’s revolutionary government, American paratroopers landed on the tiny Caribbean island to restore the old regime.

These conflicts mattered little to American interests. That’s precisely why the administration chose to escalate them, the historian Greg Grandin argues in Empire’s Workshop. Washington could afford to fight for its honour in places like Cuito Cuanavale and the Miskito Coast without running risks that could cause discontent at home.

With the material escalation came a new kind of rhetoric. Liberal doves and left-wing revolutionaries no longer owned the cause of “anti-imperialism”. Instead, the real anti-imperialists were rebels within the Soviet bloc: the counter-revolutionaries (“Contras”) of Nicaragua, the UNITA guerrillas in Angola, and the brave mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan. And the real running dogs of imperialism were peaceniks who used their Western privilege to deny Third World militants their right to receive weapons and money from the CIA.

“Who among us would tell these brave young men and women: ‘Your dream is dead; your democratic revolution is over; you will never live in the free Nicaragua you fought so hard to build’?” Reagan asked in a 1984 speech. Despite its verbal disdain for leftist and liberal gadflies, the Reagan camp tried very hard to win their support for the Central American proxy wars. A public relations campaign was waged to highlight the Nicaraguan regime’s godless, drug-dealing, illiberal, human rights abuses.

Left unsaid, of course, was Washington’s continued support for repressive anti-communist regimes in the same region. Reagan consistently praised the reformist attitudes of the Guatemalan and Salvadoran leadership whose US-trained death squads were assassinating priests and raping charity worker nuns.

The Central American dirty wars did provoke some grumblings from liberal media but Congressional Democrats attacked the irregularities of the Iran-Contra affair more than the conflict it was designed to fund.

Reagan was less willing to defend South Africa, whose Apartheid system hit too close to home for American audiences, so he switched from his usual revolutionary fervour to the language of “constructive engagement” and gradual reform. All the while, he materially backed South Africa in its border war with Angola.

This pattern should be familiar to anyone who follows modern-day American thinktanks. Those who want to strangle the last Iranian general with the entrails of the last Shi’a Muslim cleric praise Saudi Arabia’s crown prince as a flawed but necessary reformer; those who consider the Russian intervention in Syria a genocidal act are open to the idea that Saudi bombs saved Yemen’s secular institutions.

In any case, Reaganism seemed to work. The Soviet bloc broke up just after Reagan left office, leaving the United States as the sole superpower. Even the Communist government of Vietnam was eager to mend ties with Washington. It was the dawn of the new American century. Liberals had something to be excited about, too. The end of the Cold War meant the end of many proxy conflicts, opening space for human rights activism and peacebuilding initiatives.

Apartheid loosened its grip, Latin American governments allowed for “truth and reconciliation” commissions, and the United Nations brokered ceasefires around the world.When atrocities did happen, as in Rwanda or Afghanistan or Tibet, humanitarians like Samantha Power believed that America had simply chosen to forsake its “responsibility to protect” the world’s oppressed.

Washington felt increasingly perky. Proxy warfare gave way to a new age of direct intervention. The first test cases were against Panama and Iraq, two former US client states that had gone off the ranch; both crumbled quickly against American arms. “By God, we’ve kicked the Vietnam syndrome once and for all,” President George H.W. Bush declared in 1991. As direct US interventions expanded under Bill Clinton — sending troops to impose an end to the Balkan wars and partition former Yugoslavia — they did not seem to cause the sort of unpopular consequences that war in Vietnam had. That is, until the War on Terror.

For most Americans, the September 11 attacks were a cause for revenge. For members of the security elite, that anger was a golden opportunity to tie up unrelated loose ends, like the troublesome regimes in Iran and Iraq. And for the intelligentsia, it was the pinnacle of humanitarian crusading. Democratic and Republican elites alike embraced chest-thumping rhetoric about civilisational victory and maudlin pity for repressed Muslim women.

The media and thinktank circuit amplified Arab voices who wanted their countries to be liberated at gunpoint. “Are the peoples of the Middle East somehow beyond the reach of liberty? Are millions of men and women and children condemned by history or culture to live in despotism?” President George W. Bush asked in a 2003 speech.

The campaign to “liberate” Iraq somehow left the country less functional and more brutal than it had been under a besieged bunker state. Up-and-coming Democrats rode a wave of anti-war sentiment in the 2006 midterm elections, as hawkish stances became a mild embarrassment for Democratic leaders.

A young candidate, Barack Obama, snatched the Democratic nomination from establishment stalwart and Iraq War supporter, Hillary Clinton. He went on to win two presidential terms on the promise of scaling back US interventions, especially in the Middle East.

The centrist Brookings Institute declared in 2013 that Vietnam syndrome “has now returned unmistakably”, and in fact “had never really left”. The reckoning after the War on Terror was never as thorough as the post-Vietnam retrenchment, however. And without mass military conscription, most Americans had experienced the violence in the Middle East as nothing more than a media phenomenon. The Obama administration’s new “light footprint” strategy — in other words, a return to proxy warfare — meant that even the media stopped paying attention to the wars.

Perhaps most importantly, there was no ripping off the bandage. After its 1970s withdrawal from Southeast Asia, the United States had watched the region’s wars burn themselves out from a distance. However deadly those wars became, they were definitively over by 1991. American diplomats returned to Vietnam in 1995 as guests of a stable, sovereign state.

The “withdrawal” from the Middle East was anything but. After toning down hostility with Iran, the Obama administration felt it had to compensate by deepening the American commitment to back its client states. Some reports literally described a “compensation package” for Israel, in the form of additional military aid.

The breakdown of the regional order after the Arab Spring not only brought American troops back to Iraq; new civil wars also opened countries that had been off-limits to US forces before, such as Libya and Syria. The public’s version of “Iraq syndrome” ended up being boredom with the “forever wars”, rather than active revulsion. 

Elites, meanwhile, started to feel that the violent chaos spreading through the Arab world was actually a result of Washington being too hands-off. In 2016, Donald Trump outflanked “Hillary the Hawk” from the left, excoriating both Bush and Obama for their foreign military adventures. Bush-era neoconservatives and national security apparatchiks flocked to the Democratic camp, portraying themselves as defenders of the liberal centre.

As president, Trump did escalate US military involvement around the world, including measures against Russia. He also publicly insulted the national security establishment. Democrats used Trump’s rhetoric to out-hawk him, accusing the Trump administration of selling out American power and “coddling dictators”. When Trump nearly started a war with Iran, the Democratic opposition was muddled. More than a few agreed that Iran actually deserved to be attacked.

“Iran went too far decades ago, but the question is whether there’s authorisation for this particular strike,” Democratic congresswoman Abigail Spanberger said at a February 2020 hearing. “As a former CIA case officer, I’m very happy that [Iranian general Qassem Soleimani] is dead. But we need to have strategy [sic] and we need to ensure that we are protecting the American people.”

The first months of the Biden administration were a false start for liberal doves. The new president kept Trump’s promise to withdraw from Afghanistan. The disaster that followed ended up accelerating the reversal of Iraq syndrome.

Democrats were muted in their defence of the withdrawal, while Republicans who had positioned themselves as doves in the past now attacked Biden’s supposed surrender. Many media figures who gave scant attention to Afghanistan’s crisis before or after the withdrawal were blaming Afghan misery on the US abandonment of the country.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sealed liberal hawk ascendancy. Once Ukrainians showed themselves capable of putting up resistance, it was inevitable that Western powers would support that resistance with military aid. Hawks were able to seize the political moment, claim the cause as their own, and compete over who could call for the greatest escalation. Dovish intellectuals could explain how past US action had inflamed tensions between Russia and Ukraine. They had less to contribute now that Russia had chosen to escalate past the point of no return.

The uprising in Iran complements the liberal hawk worldview quite nicely. Here is a young, Internet-savvy population clamouring for women’s rights; there is the ultra-conservative, anti-American, pro-Russian government keeping them down. Although US politicians have been very hesitant to call for direct intervention in Iran — a lingering symptom of Iraq syndrome — some Iranian opposition have held out hopes that it will come

The shift on Saudi Arabia has been the most dramatic. While murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had become a liberal cause célèbre during the Trump era, superstar liberal journalists at the Atlantic now write about the therapeutic wonders of the Saudi prison system.

Thinktanker Ali Shihabi even tried to attribute the Iranian uprising to Saudi reforms. Arabs must be subdued so that Iranian women can be free, just as black South Africans had to accept their lot so that Angolans could be free, and Salvadorans had to face summary execution so that Nicaraguans could be free.

Right-wing criticism of Biden’s foreign policy seems just as incoherent and partisan as was Democratic criticism of Trump’s foreign policy. Biden is at once a dangerous aggressor running the country into a war with Russia, and a senile appeaser selling the family farm to Iran. The prospects of a consistent dove taking over the Republican Party are not very promising.

It might turn out well in the end. Biden could really be presiding over a global flourishing of democracy. Just don’t think too deeply about what happens inside Saudi jails.

More likely, America is going through a relatively level-headed interlude until it runs into another crisis. As US confidence returns, proxy warfare will turn into direct intervention. Another sudden shock like 9/11 may jolt the country into making rash decisions. When that happens, doves will once again be too cowed or too irrelevant to oppose a dangerous escalation.

Get ready for the next idiot crusade.