Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Price of American Incompetence

In so many countries over the last several decades, the price of American incompetence has been paid in the blood of innocent people in the places that Washington arrogantly presumed to "help."
yemen airstrikes sa'ada

Stephen Walt comments on the implications of our government’s evident lack of competence:

A third pillar, however, is broad confidence in U.S. competence. When other countries recognize the United States’ strength, support its aims and believe U.S. officials know what they are doing, they are more likely to follow the United States’ lead. If they doubt its power, its wisdom, or its ability to act effectively, U.S. global influence inevitably erodes. This reaction is entirely understandable: If the United States’ leaders reveal themselves to be incompetent bunglers, why should foreign powers listen to their advice? Having a reputation for competence, in short, can be a critical force multiplier.

The U.S. has had the luxury of being able to bungle things for decades at relatively low cost to ourselves, but that time is coming to an end. Ever since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has been able to make some staggering blunders without significantly compromising its position in the world, but over time all of these blunders have had the cumulative effect of proving that U.S. “leadership” is neither stabilizing nor wise. Because the U.S. has been able to get away with making such major blunders, there have not been enough demands for accountability for the policymakers who led the country into one failure after another. There has been no real penalty for costly incompetence, and so many of the same people that led us down the wrong path before are still in positions of influence and authority now. Trump’s election just accelerated the process by putting grossly unqualified yes-men into top positions in government to serve an even more unqualified president. For most of the last twenty years, the U.S. has been poorly led. For at least twelve of those years, we have had presidents who knew nothing and didn’t care to learn more. Administrations that promote ideologues and disparage expertise are bound to be tripped up by obstacles that they fail to see, and they will drive the country into a ditch over and over again while congratulating themselves on their fine steering.

One thing that all of the post-Cold War administrations share is an unfounded confidence in their own ability to achieve major goals overseas. They have invoked what the U.S. did decades before they were in power as proof of what the U.S. could do in their own time, but they were usually kidding themselves. On the whole, U.S. foreign policy over the last thirty years has been remarkably unsuccessful. U.S. policies have failed in part because their supporters made the mistake of thinking that there was something inherently efficacious about American “action” in the world. If the U.S. decided to “act,” these people assumed that success would follow. Iraq war hawks imagined that their fantasies for post-invasion Iraq would work out because “we did it” in Germany and Japan without paying any attention to the historical context of those earlier efforts or the unique conditions that prevailed in those countries after the war. They also spun implausible fantasies that post-invasion Iraq would be like post-1989 Europe without bothering to learn anything about Iraq’s history and people. The war’s supporters assumed that the U.S. would succeed in Iraq because the U.S. had prevailed at other times under completely different circumstances. In short, they didn’t think they needed expertise or know-how, and it showed.

Bush and Trump stand out as unusually incompetent presidents in this period, but Obama made his fair share of blunders. Besides escalating and prolonging a war in Afghanistan that couldn’t be won, Obama launched multiple illegal wars with little or no thought as to how they would turn out. He enabled the Saudi-led war on Yemen that marks its fifth anniversary this week, and he ordered intervention in Libya without thinking through what would follow from regime change there. In so many countries over the last several decades, the price of American incompetence has been paid in the blood of innocent people in the places that Washington arrogantly presumed to “help.” Tens of millions are still paying that price today, and they will keep paying until we acknowledge that our government lacks the competence and knowledge to police and oversee the affairs of other countries. Our government doesn’t know what it is doing abroad, and it is high time that it scaled back its ambitions.