Home/Daniel Larison/There Is No Accountability in U.S. Foreign Policy

There Is No Accountability in U.S. Foreign Policy

Hertog Foundation

For some bizarre reason, The New York Times asked Paul Wolfowitz to write about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East:

If we abandon the allies who made possible the victory over ISIS, and perhaps now also abandon the Afghan allies who enabled us to drive Al Qaeda out of their country in 2001, the United States will make the same mistake as Mark Twain’s cat, viewing everything in the greater Middle East through the prism of the painful experiences of the “hot stoves” — the Iraq and Afghanistan wars [bold mine-DL]. Abandoning allies who have advanced American interests, while fighting courageously for their own, is not a formula for avoiding another large-scale United States military engagement in the Middle East, but rather for ending up in another one. Next time, however, will be without the local allies we need.

Before we get to Wolfowitz’s argument, such as it is, can we just marvel at the shamelessness of Wolfowitz when he presumes to lecture anyone about sound foreign policy decision-making? Wolfowitz was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the invasion of Iraq, and in his role at the Pentagon he was also one of the top officials most responsible for the ensuing debacle. He then has the gall to liken that war and the war in Afghanistan to “hot stoves,” as if the consequences of these wasteful wars were no more than being briefly burned. What an awful way to trivialize almost two decades of failure and massive loss of life.

No one needs to hear from Wolfowitz on this or frankly any other foreign policy issue. There must be dozens of other writers who would argue for the same general position without helping to rehabilitate one of the architects of the biggest U.S. foreign policy blunder in the last forty years. If we want to know why there is no accountability in U.S. foreign policy, this Wolfowitz op-ed is Exhibit A. Former officials and policymakers can get things as wrong as can be, advocate for truly disastrous policies that claim hundreds of thousands of lives, and yet their opinions will still be taken seriously and published as if nothing had ever happened. There have been no professional or legal consequences for the officials responsible for the great crime that was the Iraq war, and instead they are asked for their advice on what the U.S. should do next in the same region that they set on fire.

The main flaw in the substance of Wolfowitz’s op-ed is that he assumes that the U.S. will always be “sucked back in” to more regional conflicts if it ever tries to leave any of them. According to this view, withdrawal is more destabilizing than intervention, and so while Wolfowitz never disagrees with the interventions he is dead-set against the withdrawals. If the U.S. can’t ever leave a foreign conflict that it has chosen to fight for fear of creating a “vacuum,” that amounts to saying that some U.S. forces must remain in these countries in perpetuity. No U.S. interests are being served by refusing to bring these wars to a conclusion. It just traps the U.S. in prisons of our own making. Instead of thinking about how to prepare local partners for the inevitable U.S. departure, our politicians and policymakers waste that time by concocting implausible stories for why we can never leave.

Syria is the more straightforward example. Even when ISIS was in control of a significant amount of territory, the U.S. did not have to go to war there. The U.S. was not defending itself, and our forces had no business going into Syria five years ago. Now that ISIS is a fraction of its former self, there is really no reason for U.S. forces to stay. The U.S. should be able to avoid another “large-scale military engagement” in the region because there is no good reason for the U.S. to get involved in another one. The idea that the U.S. has to keep forces in Syria illegally in Syria to prevent our government from launching another war on the scale of the Iraq invasion is preposterous, but Wolfowitz presents it as if it needs no argument.

Wolfowitz likes to fault the U.S. for its “inaction” in the region, by which he always means that the U.S. chose not to become even more actively involved in conflicts inside other countries. It is telling that he repeats the falsehood that the U.S. didn’t support the Syrian opposition, when support for the opposition from the U.S. and our allies and clients helped to fuel the war and keep it going longer than it otherwise might have. In one breath, he lists the terrible human costs of the war, and then in the next condemns the U.S. for not having done more to add to them. There is no acknowledgment anywhere in his op-ed that U.S. intervention frequently makes things worse, and there is no consideration that avoiding deeper involvement in these conflicts was actually in the best interests of the United States. Of course there isn’t. Wolfowitz is a tired neoconservative ideologue and he isn’t going to learn anything from the catastrophic failures of policies he supported.

Of course, there is no ineluctable force that drags the U.S. into these conflicts. It is the faulty assumptions of ideologues like Wolfowitz who imagine that there are vital American interests at stake in conflicts where there aren’t any. The U.S. is never “sucked back in.” Our government goes running back in at the first chance it gets. Sometimes this is driven by threat inflation, sometimes it is driven by headlines that prompt calls for “action,” sometimes it is driven by a misguided need to show “leadership,” and sometimes it is just old-fashioned “do-somethingism” where the U.S. intervenes because it can. It is almost never driven by a need to protect the United States or even our treaty allies. One president after another chooses to entangle the U.S. in conflicts in the Middle East that the U.S. could easily avoid. Having failed to avoid these entanglements, we are then told that disentanglement is never an acceptable option. If the U.S. is ever going to extricate itself from endless wars, we have to learn that our ongoing military involvement in these conflicts is a greater source of instability than our departure ever could be.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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