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Expect the Unexpected

In my younger years, my mother tried to manage my expectations in the maddening way that mothers do. Whenever I was worked up at the prospect of some unwanted turn of events, she’d reliably intone: “always expect the unexpected.”

In 2016, that folksy translation of Heraclitus [1] could have stood rather more mention than it received, particularly among the Washington establishment. That Hillary Clinton would win seemed self-evident to the ruling class [2], with even the most cautious of the major vote predictions—Nate Silver’s comparatively staid map at FiveThirtyEight—giving Clinton an overwhelming shot at victory.

But now Election Day is come and gone and that same elite will have to work with the most unexpected president of all, Donald J. Trump.

How that will shake out is difficult to predict [3], but in the meantime, there is a clear lesson here for Washington in general and the foreign-policy establishment in particular: you don’t know as much as you think you do.

This unadmitted ignorance was previously displayed for those with eyes to see it in the Libya debacle, perhaps not coincidentally Clinton’s pet war. Cast by the Obama White House as a surgical display of “smart power” that would defend human rights and foster democracy in the Muslim world, the 2011 Libyan intervention did precisely the opposite. There is credible evidence [4] that the U.S.-led NATO campaign prolonged and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis, and far from creating a flourishing democracy, the ouster of strongman Muammar Qaddafi led to a power vacuum into which ISIS and other rival unsavories surged.

The 2011 intervention and the follow-up escalation in which we are presently entangled were both fundamentally informed by “the underlying belief that military force will produce stability and that the U.S. can reasonably predict the result of such a campaign,” as Christopher Preble has argued in a must-read Libya analysis at Politico [5]. Both have proven resoundingly wrong.

Before Libya, Washington espoused the same false certainty in advance of intervention and nation-building Iraq and Afghanistan. The rhetoric around the former was particularly telling: we would find nuclear weapons and “be greeted as liberators,” said [6] Vice President Dick Cheney. The whole thing would take five months or less, said [7] Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. It would be a “cakewalk.” [8] As months dragged into years of nation-building stagnation, the ignored truth became increasingly evident: the United States cannot reshape entire countries without obscene risk and investment, and even when those costly commitments are made, success cannot be predicted with certainty.

Nearly 14 years later, with Iraq demonstrably more violent and less stable than it was before U.S. intervention, wisdom demands we reject Washington’s recycled snake oil.


Recent polls [9] (let alone the anti-elite backlash Trump’s win represents [2]) suggest Americans are ready to do precisely that. But a lack of public enthusiasm has never stopped Washington from hawking its fraudulent wares—this time in the form of yet-again unfounded certainty that escalating American intervention in Syria is a sure-fire solution to that beleaguered nation’s woes.

We must not let ourselves be fooled. Rather, we “should understand that we don’t need to overthrow distant governments and roll the dice on what comes after in order to keep America safe,” as Preble, reflecting on Libya, contends [5]. “On the contrary, our track record over the last quarter-century shows that such interventions often have the opposite effect.”

And as for the political establishment, let Trump’s triumph be a constant reminder of the necessity of expecting the unexpected and proceeding with due (indeed, much overdue) prudence and restraint abroad. If Washington so grossly misunderstood the direction of its own heartland—without the muddling, as in foreign policy, of massive geographic and cultural differences—how naïve it is to believe that our government can successfully play armed puppet-master over an entire region of the world?

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time, Politico, Relevant, The Hill, and other outlets.

12 Comments (Open | Close)

12 Comments To "Expect the Unexpected"

#1 Comment By KevinS On November 23, 2016 @ 1:09 am

“let Trump’s triumph be a constant reminder of the necessity of expecting the unexpected and proceeding with due (indeed, much overdue) prudence and restraint abroad.”

And let’s hope and his appointees get the message as well…

#2 Comment By Uncle Billy On November 23, 2016 @ 8:48 am

Regime change does not work. How did it go in Iraq? Libya? Syria? We have this assumption that the secular tyrant we are throwing out, will be replaced by some benign, pro-western government, which respects the rights of women, religious minorities, etc. It never happens. The secular dictator is replaced by Sunni fanatics who gleefully murder anyone they do not like.

There are no Muslim Thomas Jeffersons lurking in the shadows, ready to leap out and practice “democracy.” We always hear about “moderate rebels” but they do not exist. The people who gain power after the dictator is deposed are the ones who are the most violent and ruthless. This is the real world in the Middle East. The Middle East is not some high school student government, that these neocons were involved with in their youth. The Middle East is a snake pit and can only be governed by an iron fist, not a high school civics textbook.

#3 Comment By Pluribus On November 23, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

A profound point. They don’t even understand America, and yet they confidently prescribe for other countries.

We have a basic problem of foreign policy expertise and competence. The imperial Brits had some notion of how to go about this kind of thing. We don’t have the first f***ing idea. And half the time we’re only acting because foreign agents have paid off some American politicians to start demanding “action”.

It’s a very old, very tired ripoff scheme, but for the foreign countries it works quite reliably. Israel just got a huge boost in the welfare payment we send it every year instead of doing something to help Rust Belt America. Saudi Arabia has our moral and logistical support as it commits atrocities in Yemen. The current Egyptian torturer in chief is still on the American dole to the tune of billions a year.

All money that should have been spent on America. All that energy and focus should have been expended on America, too.

It’s the kind of thing Trump could end on Day One of his presidency – and that we expect him to end.

Get the foreign parasites off our back, Donald, and start helping Americans.

#4 Comment By CascadeJoe On November 23, 2016 @ 6:14 pm

Great, succinct article.

#5 Comment By Eric V Hutchins On November 23, 2016 @ 6:45 pm

You do have a very good point there. Fifty miles inland from either the east or west coasts, not even maps help them. They are lost.

#6 Comment By Fran Macadam On November 23, 2016 @ 7:00 pm

Had not Trump carried so much personal negative baggage the backlash against the status quo consensus forever war policies would have been perceived as even more pronounced.

#7 Comment By Bob On November 24, 2016 @ 4:04 am

Add to all of the above, the fact that North Korea specifically cites Libya as a reason for them to develop nuclear weapons.

#8 Comment By Andres On November 24, 2016 @ 11:43 am

Ms. Kristian,

I agree with one of your central arguments: “the United States cannot reshape entire countries without obscene risk and investment, and even when those costly commitments are made, success cannot be predicted with certainty.” However, has the President-elect signaled that he is interested in non-intervention or moderate use of military power?

#9 Comment By Bob K. On November 24, 2016 @ 4:46 pm

The heartland of the USA wasn’t given the sobriquet “flyover country” by our Washington elites because they held it in great regard!

#10 Comment By Eric Siverson On November 25, 2016 @ 9:51 am

So our educated elite that have been ruling this country were not able to sell their idea of utopia to the Islamic world . It looks like their dreams of doing good have stirred up more hate for us than ever existed before . I don’t think they realize it yet . But the NWO elite have stirred up this very same hate for them in our own country too . Trump is calling for unity now . But oil and water can’t be mixed . We now have opposite dreams What we need is separation . Where we have a right for self determination . I don’t want the other side to ever get a chance to vote in my countries elections ever again . And I will never vote in the other sides country ever again . Neither side has any intention of living under the other sides understanding of our counties constitution .We need a divorce because we don’t agree on some very simple important issues right and wrong , good and bad , hot and cold . Unity is now impossible separation is our only honest answer .

#11 Comment By David Naas On November 25, 2016 @ 4:41 pm

When confronted with a devastating loss, the Left always whines, “But, our *intentions* were good.”

Considering how the Left’s fascination is with Death, of the unborn, of the old, of the disabled, or even “Mo-mar”, one wonders how they can even claim to have good intentions* (other than for their own convenience, that is.)

#12 Comment By Professor Guntram F. A. Werther, Ph.D. On November 27, 2016 @ 10:26 am

One way to perhaps improve outcomes for the USA is to draw attention to a debate within the intelligence community as to its existential purpose: Is intelligence to ‘shape the future’ (the progressive view) or to ‘understand the future? (the traditional conservative view)’. In the former view, you ‘own’ your change efforts, and those have not often been pretty. In the latter view, you study change as it is and try to intelligently accommodate oneself to emergences that one can, albeit imperfectly, foresee.

Nobody with sense thinks the human world is random – or we be toys of the gods – but simultaneously the longstanding conservative view has been that we are not as smart as we think we are…So easy does it.