Pascal-Emmnauel Gobry says that America’s biggest foreign policy problem is that the U.S. cannot be trusted. This is what he means:
What do the following groups have in common? Koreans above the 38th parallel in 1953; South Vietnamese in 1975; anti-Taliban Afghans in 1989; Iraqi Kurds in 1991; Somalis in 1993. Here’s the commonality: They all put their trust in the United States of America, and they got screwed as a result.
States are, in Nietzsche’s words, the coldest of all cold monsters. But not all states are as untrustworthy as the United States. Imperial Britain was ruthless. But it was rationally ruthless. This is not the case for America. When America intervenes in a country, forms local alliances, and then screws its allies, it is almost never because of cold-hearted calculation. Most of the time, it is because of frightened improvisation. All the cases I have laid out involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict, primarily for domestic political reasons, rather than reasons of national interest.
Please understand my point: In each of these particular cases, you can debate the case for or against what America did, and in some, or even many, America might have even done the right thing. But you are still left with the problem that groups of non-Americans trust the American state at their own peril.
There’s no question that the people in many other countries that have believed unrealistic American promises (or what they understood to be American promises) have later come to regret it. Gobry’s list could be expanded to include nations that expected U.S. intervention on their behalf because they read too much into government propaganda or official policy statements that weren’t as meaningful as they thought them to be. The Hungarians in 1956 mistakenly expected the U.S. to help them against the Soviets, because that is what the “rollback” doctrine implied and it was what they were being told by our propaganda outlets, but there was never any chance that this would happen. The Georgian government misread praise from Washington, military aid and training, and support for their NATO aspirations as a green, or at least yellow, light to launch an offensive against South Ossetia in the foolish belief–encouraged by more than a few American politicians and newspapers–that the U.S. would protect Georgia against the Russian response. These calamities might have been avoided or been made less disastrous if the U.S. had not been so quick to make promises or implied guarantees that it was never going to back up in practice.
Most of the examples that Gobry cites are also products of unrealistic, ideological overpromising to nations that were ultimately not remotely as important to the U.S. as Washington pretended they were a few years earlier. So Gobry is almost completely wrong when he says that the U.S. left its would-be allies in the lurch because of “frightened improvisation.” In almost every case, the U.S. cut its losses once it was no longer prepared to pay the costs required to pursue its earlier goals.
The U.S. became involved in almost all of these countries out of overreaching and hubris. The U.S. has routinely underestimated the obstacles that would confront Americans in these countries, it has underrated the capabilities of its adversaries (and overrated those of its local clients), it has set goals that could not possibly be reached at acceptable cost, and it has grossly overestimated the competence of our government to build or sustain governments in places that we don’t understand very well. The surprising thing isn’t that the U.S. pulls back after overreaching, which leaves its local clients to fend for themselves, but that there continue to be local people that think that this time it will be different for them. The problem here isn’t that we can’t be trusted. No state can be trusted to absorb significant costs for the sake of unnecessary and unwise missions without end, and yet the U.S. keeps taking on these missions with alarming regularity.
In other cases, such as Afghanistan at the end of Cold War, this was not really a case of the U.S. being untrustworthy or “screwing” the people it had previously supported. A transactional patron-client relationship isn’t as meaningful as an alliance to either party, and it is often dissolved when one or both sides no longer needs it. One could think of a number of other proxies that the U.S. used during the Cold War that it felt no obligation to continue supporting once the Cold War ended, but that doesn’t tell us very much about how reliable the U.S. is as an ally or generally how trustworthy it is. One might ask whether supporting many of these proxies even made sense in the first place, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too concerned that this support didn’t continue indefinitely.
The reference to the Kurds in 1991 in this context is bizarre. Between the establishment of the northern no-fly zone and Operation Provide Comfort, the Kurds were the one group in Iraq after the Gulf War that the U.S. treated reasonably well. The more relevant example from 1991 was when the first Bush administration recklessly urged an uprising against Hussein, once again creating the false impression that the U.S. would support the people that took up arms, and then stood by as it was crushed. Once again, the major mistake was to encourage rebellion while having absolutely no intention of providing aid. The U.S. wasn’t betraying real allies in this case. Rather, it encouraged people to start a losing fight on the phony pretext that the U.S. would be their ally. Would-be insurgents should know by now not to trust the U.S., and we should know better than to encourage them. Unfortunately, very few people seem to have been paying attention.
Gobry says that all of his examples “involve America pulling out of a half-finished conflict.” That raises two questions: half-finished for whom and what would “finishing” the conflict involve? The Korean War ended in a stalemate where it should have ended even earlier. It ended up “half-finished” because the U.S. wasn’t prepared to “finish” a war that involved China, and for that Americans and South Koreans should be very grateful. In Vietnam, the U.S. left the war “half-finished” because “finishing” it wouldn’t have been worth the huge cost to both Americans and Vietnamese. Rather than treating the Gulf War as finished and successful, the U.S. committed itself to more than a decade of bombing Iraq that helped pave the way for the later war. That also could not be “finished” except at an unacceptably high cost. Instead of limiting its goals to humanitarian relief in Somalia, the U.S. gave itself a far more ambitious goal that it wasn’t prepared to see through. The pattern is hard to miss: we charge into countries we know little or nothing about, attempt to achieve things that would realistically take decades if they are even possible, and then predictably tire of the effort once we realize that it was never a good idea. The solution is not to find a way to become better at supporting U.S. clients and proxies in countries of marginal importance to U.S. security, but to stop putting ourselves in a situation where we have to con locals into supporting our latest ill-conceived project.
Gobry tops all of this off with an invocation of the discredited “credibility” argument:
In the meantime, the world is kept sorta-peaceful and sorta-prosperous because all over its map are, ahem, red lines, drawn by American security guarantees. But, if America continues to be so untrustworthy as an international actor, how long until there is a “bank run” on American security? Already, Chinese officials are watching America’s response, or lack thereof, to the defiance to Uncle Sam’s global order in Ukraine and Syria. The world is a big chessboard, and moves in one place affect the rest of the board.
This is as wrong as can be. For one thing, U.S. security guarantees to its treaty allies are of a completely different kind than U.S. commitments to clients and proxies. More to the point, what the U.S. does in one place doesn’t usually affect “the rest of the board” in the way that Gobry means. Even if the U.S. is perceived as having let down its local clients in one place, this has no relevance for what it will do in other places, nor is it important in shaping what other states expect the U.S. to do. The fall of South Vietnam and the overthrow of the Shah were the most dramatic reversals for U.S. policies in their respective regions during the Cold War, but this didn’t tell other governments anything about U.S. commitments to its allies in East Asia and Europe. And why would it? Jonathan Mercer noted in an article last year that the Soviets were puzzled by the extent of America’s commitment to South Vietnam:
Similarly, Ted Hopf, a professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, has found that the Soviet Union did not think the United States was irresolute for abandoning Vietnam; instead, Soviet officials were surprised that Americans would sacrifice so much for something the Soviets viewed as tangential to U.S. interests [bold mine-DL].
If the Soviets viewed the end of the Vietnam War this way, is it at all likely that China–or any other state–is going to judge U.S. commitments to its real allies based on what it does or doesn’t do about internal conflicts in countries where the U.S. has little or nothing at stake? No, it isn’t. The problem with the “credibility” argument isn’t just that it’s false, but that it creates perverse incentives to embark on and to persist in stupid and unnecessary policies for fear of what “they” will think of us if we don’t.