There is no accountability in U.S. foreign policy. Policymakers commit horrendous blunders and crimes, and they go on to suffer no meaningful consequences for what they have done. Virtually nothing is learned, and U.S. foreign policy carries on much as it did before. Foreign policy pundits routinely advocate for the most destructive and reckless actions, and their advocacy contributes to enormous and costly disasters, and yet they keep their positions and reputation. When the next crisis or conflict appears on the horizon, the same people that cheered on the last disaster are still there to urge us on to the next one. Members of Congress that make the loudest calls for U.S. intervention and “leadership” are almost never punished at the ballot box, and they are more likely to be lauded than condemned for their belligerence. Representatives and senators that support endless war are returned to Congress almost automatically, and most of them never have to fear paying a political price for sending Americans to fight and die in unnecessary wars. We all know this to be true, but why is it so?
First of all, the public pays scant attention to foreign policy and most voters don’t base their votes on these issues. Politicians and policymakers can get away with a lot of bad votes and decisions without having to face an angry backlash from voters for the simple reason that the voters don’t know what they’re doing and don’t care even if they find out. Our government runs amok around the world in no small part because we allow them to and never do anything to rein our political leaders in. In just the last twenty years, that has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, the displacement of millions, and the ongoing starvation of millions more. There is no accountability in foreign policy because we regularly fail to make our political leaders pay a price for their foreign policy errors, and we fail to do that because most of us pay no attention to the horrific costs that these millions of people around the world are being forced to pay. Today we are failing the people of Yemen. Yesterday it was the people of Iraq. Tomorrow it will probably be the people of Iran or the people of some other country that is not yet in the interventionists’ sights.
Another reason is the failure of the media. Hawkish politicians and policymakers are rarely subjected to the scrutiny that their destructive policies warrant, and their self-serving justifications are usually accepted at face value. Media accounts frequently frame foreign policy issues to make hawkish and aggressive policy views seem reasonable when they are usually anything but that. Journalists’ fear of appearing biased leads has the perverse effect of freeing hawkish politicians from having to provide evidence to support their inflated claims about foreign threats and their absurd predictions for easy, cheap military intervention. The “debate” over the nuclear deal with Iran is an instructive example. On one side, you had the vast majority of arms control experts who endorsed the agreement as a worthwhile nonproliferation deal that would do what it was intended to do, and on the other you had an army of ideologues and opportunists telling every lie they could think of to advance their cause. Once Trump was in office, the latter prevailed and years of lying paid off for the hawkish opponents of the agreement. The success of nuclear deal opponents was the clearest sign that our foreign policy debates are hopelessly skewed in favor of the side most willing to spread lies and distort evidence in support of their goals.
Lobbying groups working on behalf of arms manufacturers and foreign governments create strong incentives for members of Congress to fall line, and they raise the political price of dissenting from the consensus view. Add to this a mind-numbing ideology that tells politicians that they should muffle their criticisms of U.S. actions abroad in the name of patriotism, and you have a recipe for foreign policy debates always skewed in favor of intervention and “action” at the expense of genuine U.S. security interests. Congress’ acquiescence to executive overreach makes it even easier for members of Congress to wash their hands of new U.S. wars, and for its part the executive branch doesn’t call attention to its multiple illegal wars overseas. Both the legislative and executive branches simply skip debating new wars beforehand, and then they usually face little pressure to end those wars because there is so little attention being paid to them.
Growing opposition to U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen is a notable and important exception to this trend, and it suggests that there may still be a chance to rein in some of our government’s worst abuses. Even so, it has taken more than three years for opposition to our Yemen policy to reach a point where it has a realistic chance of ending U.S. involvement. The fact that the U.S. has been involved in backing the war on Yemen for all this time without debate or authorization is a testament to the lack of accountability in U.S. foreign policy. If there were real accountability, the supporters of this indefensible policy in Yemen would be voted out in disgrace, but that isn’t going to happen. The most we can hope for is to force an end to the despicable policy that the government conducted in our name for years without consent or the approval of our representatives. The war on Yemen is a perfect example of how we have no accountability in our foreign policy and why we desperately need it.