Our Ridiculous Foreign Policy Debates
Michael Cohen offers some advice to foreign policy policymakers and pundits:
To put it bluntly, not everything fits neatly into our preconceived framing devices, and certainly not everything is about the United States. Other countries have agency, too, and can make decisions that affect their national destiny, independently of the United States.
Americans are not the only ones that respond to foreign events this way, but it seems to be more common in the U.S., especially among people that pay the most attention to foreign affairs. Because the U.S. is involved in so many places, it is usually possible for some connection to be made between a given event and some recent U.S. action, but that doesn’t mean that the latter caused the former. Because our foreign policy debates treat almost every foreign problem as one that the U.S. is obliged to address, and because far too many people in those debates credit the U.S. with enormous power to “shape” events, many Americans take for granted that if something happens overseas that the U.S. is in some way responsible for causing or “failing” to prevent the event in question. It is not an accident that these arguments are almost always made by people that have never seen a crisis or conflict that they didn’t think the U.S. should take part in. Everything isn’t about the U.S., but they very much want the U.S. to be meddling in everything, and so they try to make everything be about us in one way or another.
Cohen happened to be referring to the absurd claim that U.S. policy in Syria led to the “Brexit” vote, but he could just as easily have been referring to any number of other events in recent years that have been blamed on the U.S. when many others are far more directly responsible. Syria hawks have often been the biggest offenders when it comes to making these accusations. They tell us that there would have been no conflict in Ukraine if Obama had just bombed Syria as they demanded. Whatever happens to be in the news at the time, they will seize on it and say that it happened because they didn’t get their way on intervening in Syria. All of the hawks’ claims are absurd on their face, but they are repeated often and shamelessly enough that they begin to influence how these issues are understood. Further, by claiming that every event they don’t like over the last few years is the product of not attacking another country they try to make an attack seem more desirable. Of course they deny the agency of other states and groups. The main thing that they’re trying to do is to get the U.S. more deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, and they don’t care how they do it.
If there is an “ISIS-inspired” attack somewhere in the West, they will declare that it is because the U.S. hasn’t ensnared itself deeply enough in Syria and because it earlier tried to extricate itself from Iraq. The more direct and logical explanation that these attacks are at least partly responses to the bombing of Iraq and Syria over the last two years is never even considered, because that would require admitting that military action can have adverse and undesirable consequences for our security. One thing we can reliably expect from hawks is that they will deny that the U.S. has responsibility for any of the things that it actually does overseas while gnashing their teeth over the responsibility we supposedly have because of the things that our government hasn’t done. That is why they will try to pin Syria’s horrific humanitarian crisis on the U.S. because of our “inaction” while completely ignoring the equally horrific humanitarian crisis in Yemen that the U.S. has been helping to cause. This is all part of the ludicrous kabuki show that our foreign policy debates have become. We don’t debate the administration’s actual record, but instead allow both sides to fight over an invented one while overlooking the real costs and consequences of U.S. actions.