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The Limits of Number One

We do not, as Madeline Albright did, think the price is worth it.

Security measures after US drone strike in Kabul
Security forces control vehicles at a checkpoint as security measures tightened after the US drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the capital Kabul, Afghanistan on August 3, 2022. (Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The world is a mess, but Washington is determined to fix it. The secretary of state flies around the globe issuing instructions to friends and foes alike. When foreign officials refuse to listen, Uncle Sam dons his mailed fist.

First come sanctions to back his commands. Washington’s ability and willingness to conduct economic warfare is nonpareil. The U.S. and its allies understandably fret over Chinese economic coercion, such as trade restrictions, bans on tourism, and restrictions of investment. However, the Treasury Department issues new economic sanctions almost daily. Thousands of governments, businesses, officials, and others are presently on its naughty list.


With nary a thought, let alone serious debate, Congress also penalizes other nations—friends as well as foes—that flout its will. Worst is imposing economic sanctions on already impoverished populations in an attempt to oust or influence their governments. Americans pay for such controls, which greatly complicate international investment, trade, and services, but foreign peoples suffer far more.

Sanctions are notable for both their harm and their ineffectiveness, as seen in Cuba, Venezuela, Syria, Iran, and North Korea. When the U.S. targets the entire economy, the resulting hardship is widespread and sometimes deadly. American officials know the harm caused to innocents, but simply don’t care. For instance, when confronted with the mass death of Iraqi children from sanctions, Madeleine Albright’s infamous response was: “We think the price is worth it.”

Alas, little practical has been achieved at such high human cost. Although U.S. sanctions ultimately might weaken target regimes, Washington has failed to enforce its will against any of its adversaries. Despite years, even decades, of sanctions, Cuba remains communist and Venezuela remains authoritarian. North Korea has not abandoned its nuclear weapons, Syria has not ousted Bashar al-Assad, and Iran has not abandoned its nuclear activities. Washington also has tried targeted sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act, but they have even less impact on hostile governments.

Sanctions have, however, uniformly intensified antagonism toward America. Targeted states have sought assistance elsewhere, especially turning to Russia and China. Washington’s “hostile policy” has become another justification for North Korea’s nuclear program.

Ongoing sanctions against Afghanistan and Russia are likely to fail in much the same way. A year on and the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan is growing more radical as its people suffer ever more from economic collapse. Moscow is escalating its military campaign against Ukraine. Although the Russian economy will suffer further, especially in high-tech fields, Moscow will remain able to deploy a substantial military. The regime may end up looking a bit like a large North Korea: poor and isolated, but doubly belligerent.


Washington’s second tool of intervention is military action. Resist America and Washington is ever ready to bomb, invade, and occupy your nation! The cost of this policy is enormous, starting with the Pentagon budget. Last month, the lame duck Congress approved a record $858 billion in “defense” (really offense) outlays. The so-called global war on terror alone will ultimately cost, including care for wounded and disabled service personnel, about $8 trillion. That accounts for roughly a third of the current publicly held national debt.

Even more tragic are the lives lost and maimed. A conservative estimate of the total dead in America’s wars over the last two decades is about one million. However, by some measures, the number of Iraqis killed in the aftermath of Washington’s invasion alone approaches that number. U.S. deaths, service personnel and contractors, have been in the thousands. Official statistics undercount injuries, which are in the tens of thousands. Better medical care has saved many who would have died in previous contacts, but rampant suicide has increased the death toll, adding more than four times the number of those killed in action, and thousands live with severe injuries and PTSD.

Nor are Americans the only ones to suffer. Allied troops, especially local forces, have suffered tens of thousands of deaths. Hundreds of thousands of civilians have died in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Tens of thousands in Afghanistan. Thousands or tens of thousands – the estimates vary widely – have died in Libya. Large numbers have been injured and millions displaced in these conflicts.

Admittedly, Washington has not directly caused most of the harm, though U.S. airstrikes killed more civilians than successive administrations admitted. Rather, America’s specialty has been to wreck governments and divide countries, inviting and sustaining brutal conflict and mass killing. Washington also has underwritten other combatants, such as Saudi Arabia, which continue to commit murder and mayhem even as prospects for success disappear. None of America’s recent wars have yet delivered the promised peace, stability, prosperity, and democracy.

Washington has perfected drone warfare, too, visiting death upon innocent and guilty alike in faraway lands. Although this practice is more restrained than full-scale invasions, the very convenience of death by drone makes this tool too easy to use. Although an effective weapon, drones have been used carelessly and promiscuously, with murderous effect. The spectacle of Obama officials sitting in comfort debating who to kill highlighted the corrupting effect of power.

Worst are “signature” killings based on behaviors seen rather than actions observed. An example of the sort of appalling mistakes that inevitably result is the Kabul strike during America’s Afghan exit, which killed an aid worker and several children. Unfortunately, deadly drone attacks animate retaliation from terrorists, including American citizens. To its credit, the Biden administration has tightened rules governing use of drones.

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been by far the world’s most dangerous nation. Although Russia is now a contender for that title after last year’s invasion of Ukraine, America has attacked more countries, created more chaos, and caused more civilian casualties than has Moscow even now. For China, one would have to go back a half century to the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution to find its government causing comparable human harm, and that was to its own population.

America remains the world’s most powerful nation, with the largest economy, greatest cultural influence, and deadliest military. Yet Washington’s foreign policy has failed badly, and most dramatically when the U.S. has intervened most forcefully, with economic sanctions or military forces. The failure of America’s grandiose attempts at international social engineering were tragically illustrated by the spectacle of people falling off planes leaving Kabul airport.

In broadest terms, the U.S. won the Cold War by constraining Moscow through credible threats rather than offensive action. One major conflict, the Korean War, ended in a rough draw, while preserving South Korea’s independence. With the exception of a couple quick in-and-out invasions, such as Grenada and Panama, Washington’s other armed interventions were mostly tragic disasters, particularly Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Even those that resulted in few U.S. casualties, such as America’s Balkan attacks, failed to eliminate ethnic division and deliver liberal democracy. None defended serious, let alone vital, U.S. interests. Economic warfare has turned out no better, with Washington mostly impoverishing local populations while engaging in hypocritical virtue-signaling.

It is shocking that members of the blob, which former deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes called the foreign policy establishment, have been so consistently incompetent while suffering few professional consequences. This lack of accountability is scandalous. However, Washington elites have never hesitated to callously rationalize sometimes prodigious foreign casualties.

For instance, Albright arrogantly insisted that the U.S. look further into the future than other nations, justifying America’s consistently aggressive and militaristic policies. Her opinion is widely shared in Washington despite being obvious nonsense, given the multiple catastrophes caused by U.S. interventions over the last couple decades. Who other than a revolving door Washington apparatchik would judge America’s efforts to be farsighted and successful?

Nevertheless, as noted earlier, Albright dismissed the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children with the quip: “We think the price is worth it.” No doubt George W. Bush in Iraq, Barack Obama in Afghanistan, and Donald Trump in Yemen thought similarly. Yet imagine how Americans would respond if a foreign official—Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, for example—made a similar claim. What if the Russian president explained that the civilian toll in the Ukraine conflict was unfortunate, but necessary. After all, his nation exhibited unique foresight and the price of its actions was “worth it.”

It is easy to justify any cost, no matter how high, if someone else is paying. U.S. foreign policy today is not just foolish and counterproductive. It also is deeply immoral. Washington has turned people into a means for Uncle Sam’s ends, leaving them to pay what often has been the ultimate price.

The next administration should relearn such foreign policy virtues as humility, compassion, restraint, empathy, pragmatism, and realism. The world is not a global chess game in which American policymakers are entitled to wreak havoc while sacrificing U.S. military personnel and foreign civilians alike as so many gambit pawns.