Causes and Consequences of Our
Foreign Policy in the Middle East and What It Means for Americans
by Karen Kwiatkowski
[The following is the text of
a speech given at Virginia Tech on February 12, 2008]
I want to thank the Libertarians at Virginia
Tech, the Political Science Club and the Institute for Humane
Studies for the kind invitation to speak to you tonight.
I want to talk about the "Causes
and Consequences of our Foreign Policy in the Middle East and
What it Means for Americans." The original title of this
speech was "Causes and Consequences of our Foreign Policy
in the Middle East and What it Means for Libertarians." But
I interchanged Americans for Libertarians. To paraphrase John
F. Kennedy in Berlin, 1963, in times like these, when the American
dream seems overwhelmed by what has become known as the American
empire, perhaps we are all libertarians.
Let me start first with the consequences
of our foreign policy in the Middle East, circa 2008.
We are nearly five years past the moment
where George W. Bush declared "Mission Accomplished."
400,000 to 1.2 million Iraqis are dead by our decisions and actions.
Over two million are internally displaced, and over two million
Iraqis have fled the country.
5,000 Americans are dead (soldiers and contractors) as a result,
30-50,000 physically injured, and over 100,000 mentally disturbed,
receiving or awaiting treatment.
Army and Marines are morally and physically bankrupt - and burdened
by executive pressure for more forces in Afghanistan, Pakistan
and trouble in Iran.
A trillion dollars has been spent, another trillion to be spent
before we are finished - and if McCain has his way, we will never
be finished, and we will bleed ourselves for the duration of the
Beyond Iraq, we have Secretary of Defense Bob Gates alternately
screaming in an empty room and crying in despair because NATO
won't pick up the slack of propping up our preferred government
The one republic with nuclear weapons and a means to deploy them
is led by an unstable dictator, threatened by his own subordinates,
at odds with his very powerful and well-funded intelligence arm,
and disliked by the majority of his citizens. And in case you
were wondering, I am talking about Perez Musharraf.
Jordan, once reliable and trustworthy, is feeling the heat of
over two million unemployed and impoverished Iraqis swelling their
Syria - who helped us with torture and renditions after 9-11
- has been both accused and attacked by her neighbor, our other
nuclear-armed friend in the region.
Lebanon suffered a silly war in the summer of 2006 - a war that
was considered an embarrassing defeat for Israel, and a war that
Washington, D.C. collaborated on and quietly cheered.
Our steadfast friends, the House of Saud, don't understand us
We publicly threaten Iran for all kinds of reasons, even though
Tehran is signatory to and compliant with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation
Treaty, and even as we happily work with all kinds of Iranian-backed
interests in southern Iraq.
Four key undersea communication cables get cut in a week, isolating
and seriously degrading much of the banking and communication
traffic for our friends in the region, including in Dubai, which
just bailed out some of our banks and credit card companies. Instead
of decrying bad cable construction, and offering to send our own
teams to help repair these cables in the Red Sea and the Persian
Gulf, our government has said nothing. The entire region thinks
we did it, either to send a message, test a military strategy,
or to funnel information into a channel our vast intelligence
bureaucracy can monitor.
The price of oil, adjusted for inflation, is not yet at the level
of the 1979 oil crisis. But it is within 10% of that. Given the
drastic increase in global demand for oil today, relative to that
in 1979, our foreign policy in the Middle East might be said to
be harmful, but not disastrous. But you must consider two things
- the amount of oil the United States imports from the Middle
East is around 10-15% of all the oil we import - but interfering
with the free market in this region costs the American taxpayer
billions and billions every year in maintaining a large overseas
military presence, military and economic aid to major and minor
allies in the region, the costs of periodic off-the-book interventions,
like Iraq, and the costs involved with protecting your countrymen
from people who hate you enough to want to kill you and topple
your tall buildings.
Such is the state of the Middle East, and such indeed are the
consequences of our foreign policy.
It would be easy to blame the current
situation in the Middle East on George W. Bush, or easier yet,
Dick Cheney. But to do that would be to ignore our foreign policy
over the past 80 years in that region.
It would also be easy to suggest that
the situation in the Middle East is not the result of our intentions,
but rather our poor judgment, our misunderstanding of Arab or
Persian culture, our lack of sophistication, or even our own democratic
system here at home where we shift diplomatic course with each
shifting president, and elect Congresses that reflect the changing
priorities of the American people, year by year.
It would be easy to say that most of these
policies were pursued under the auspices of the Cold War, where
we were forced to take sides around the world in order to stop
a communist world revolution, to avoid world socialism.
It would be easy to say all of this. But
none of that would be true.
In fact, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney
came of age and were inspired by a foreign policy of force for
both prestige and perceived profit. To be strong as a nation,
for Dick Cheney as for Kermit Roosevelt, Jr. required aggression,
manipulation of other governments, and subterfuge. How many of
us here in the United States study the CIA coup in 1953 (or countercoup,
as Kermit called it) that reinstated the Shah in Iran, and voided
democracy in that country until populism and anti-Americanism
boiled over in 1979? Operation Ajax, we called it.
Our foreign policy may seem disorganized,
but in the Middle East it has been deliberate and in many ways,
well thought out. It has not shifted dramatically from president
to president. Jimmy Carter is often seen as a very different political
person than a Dick Cheney, a George Bush, or even a Ronald Reagan
or Bill Clinton. Yet events in the late 1970s under Carter's executive
watch were both a maturation of the actions of previous Republican
and Democratic presidents, and set the foundations for our present-day
policies. Do we remember the Carter Doctrine, and the establishment
of Central Command? This history was made in my lifetime, and
for many of you, only a few years before you were born. Carter
set a direction, followed by Reagan and Bush. Clinton left his
mark with a pseudo-war that gave us brand new bases in Bosnia
and Kosovo - not outposts of southern Europe, but rather forward
bases for the Middle East and Caspian Sea theaters.
What seems to be lack of sophistication
is nothing more than might making right. When one is a great country
in the world, who needs manners?
We have followed in the Middle East, before,
during and after the Cold War, a policy of remarkable consistency.
To admit that we have behaved much like the colonial powers we
once admired, and have perhaps subconsciously stepped into a role
the British Empire had long recognized was impossible and unsuitable
in the late 20th century, is hard to do.
Can we gracefully untangle ourselves from
what has been a quite purposeful foreign policy, over many decades?
Well, just as in the 12-step programs, admitting we have a problem
is the first step. I want to now address the very needed fourth
step in a typical 12-step process - to make a searching and fearless
moral inventory of ourselves.
I've mentioned Iraq as only one of our
challenges in the region, only one example of our disastrous foreign
policy. But this foreign policy is continuous, near uninterrupted
in the Middle East, throughout much of the 20th century and into
the entire 21st so far.
I think a quick analysis of what led Americans
into Iraq may serve as a model for understanding how we have pursued
such similar policies in the region over many decades, and it
will explain something about ourselves, as well as our government.
It will help us make that searching and fearless moral inventory
How did we get into Iraq, just this latest
time in 2003? I think we can safely talk about five key factors,
five integral preconditions for this foreign policy disaster.
It took 935 lies repeated ad nauseum
by the government, both political parties and mainstream media.
I encourage you to read the Center for Public Integrity's latest
study entitled Iraq: The War Card, just out. It also took millions
of Americans eager to believe those 935 lies.
It took an obscene war enthusiasm among the elites in Washington.
By obscene, I mean "disgusting and morally offensive, especially
showing total disregard for other people."
It took a long-term plan by the Pentagon and Congress to reposition
and expand the overseas military presence and budgets to Central
Command and European Command (contrary to all logic and expectations
after the Cold War ended).
It took an unusually persistent warfare state mentality among
the common people. This persistent warfare mentality is relatively
new in American history - perhaps coinciding with the preeminence
of the public education system at the primary levels.
It took a lot of money being made by government-connected industries
as a result of, and printed on behalf of, state expansion and
war. Incidentally, this includes money made in the energy markets
via government induced limitations of oil supply as part and parcel
of a battle for influence over oil and gas supplies. In the 1970s,
OPEC could nearly close off the global spigot. Today, OPEC controls
only 40% of oil production. Perhaps the actions of our current
military cartel in the Middle East have more in common with the
once powerful OPEC cartel than meets the eye.
What kind of foreign policy is this, and what has caused it? Well,
let's review these five preconditions as if we were conducting
a searching and fearless moral inventory.
Sin number 1. We suffer an overabundance
of state propaganda that takes the form of outright lies, oft
repeated. I'd like to quote Aldous Huxley, from his Propaganda
in a Democratic Society:
In their propaganda today's dictators rely for the most part on
repetition, suppression and rationalization - the repetition of
catchwords which they wish to be accepted as true, the suppression
of facts which they wish to be ignored, the arousal and rationalization
of passions which may be used in the interests of the Party or
One need only to remember George W. Bush's
famous line, in Rochester, New York on May 24, 2005, and I quote:
"See in my line of work, you got to keep repeating things
over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind
of catapult the propaganda."
If I could match this particular problem
with one of the seven deadly sins, this one is sloth - a simple
lack of willingness to find the truth, and bear it up, by government,
by media, and by the people.
Sin number 2 is obscene war enthusiasm
among the elites and politicians. Where else do we find similar
enthusiasm for war and expansion of influence? We find it in imperial
models from the ancient past, and in fascist models from the more
recent past. We find war enthusiasm occasionally in religious
extremism, for example the Crusades or in modern Islamic or Christian
fundamentalism. We find it among the insane, and the unaccountable.
Its cure is a recovery of sanity, and active pursuit of humility.
If Sin #2 is lust, then Sin number 3 could be considered pride.
We seem to have a state passion for expanding military might around
the world, and a popular misconception by many Americans that
military might must be constantly expanded or else it means we
are losing something. This militaristic lust, often couched in
words like spreading Christianity to native Americans, spreading
Protestantism to the already Catholic Filpinos, spreading democracy
and freedom to countless others everywhere, describes our own
American history of the past 120 years - we might say it is modern
American tradition. We also saw this same zeal for militarily
enforcing global values in the expansionist policies of the old
Soviet Union. It is by its very nature, anti-republican, anti-democratic,
Sin number 4 could be considered wrath. We seem to have in the
country a warfare state mentality among the citizenry - characterized
by extreme and unreflective patriotism, xenophobia, national chauvinism,
intolerance and conformity all cloaked as Americanism. This warfare
state mentality has an unstated cohort - and that is the fostering
of a widespread fear of dissent. The idea that dissent is patriotic
- seen perhaps on a bumper sticker - is really not to be believed
by most people in modern day America. To have a former president
publicly state - as Theodore Roosevelt did in 1918, and I quote:
To announce that there must be no criticism of the president,
or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not
only unpatriotic and servile, but is morally treasonable to the
is today unthinkable, unpopular, and if
it does happen, ignored. That's in part because we are often angry,
and we believe that the "executive we" are never wrong.
Finally, there is a great deal of money
made in the pursuit of war and statism, at least for some sectors
of society. When we examine our historical approach to the Middle
East, it is clear that gaining and forming subordinate trading
partners, rather than free trade and competition, was Washington
D.C.'s objective. The extensive intransigence and massivity of
the military industrial complex in this country, the last remaining
American manufacturing powerhouse, has been discussed elsewhere.
But I want to say this. The idea of a corporate state, of all
employment linked to the state, all prosperity linked to government
policies, programs, and guidance - this is fascism, as Mussolini
defined it: "Everything for the State. Nothing against the
State. Nothing outside the State." You might call this sin
greed, but it is specifically the greed of the state and a small
segment of white-collar welfare recipients.
What does this mean for Americans? I certainly don't have the
solutions. I think there are a couple of simple things that everyone
can do, and I offer them here for your consideration.
If we are lied to by the state, and state-sanctioned
media, why not simply start to recognize it? It always amazed
me a few years ago, when I realized from listening to my teenaged
children, that those so-called reality shows on TV were really
staged and manipulated. I thought this new concept was simple
reality - but my children understood what it really was. Turns
out every kid I know gets this, almost intuitively. To counter
lies, whether government or our own personal lives, requires nothing
more than practiced skepticism. Not just skepticism, but daily,
incessant, constant skepticism of everything we hear from Washington
DC, its enablers, its cohorts, its well-connected media, and the
political party organizations that depend on the continuation
of the status quo.
If the elites are enthusiastic about war, cut them off at the
knees - and the pocketbook. War enthusiasm by anyone indicates
a serious psychological problem. When we see this in among the
elites and politicians - most of whom do not understand or even
recognize war, and would be frightened if actually exposed to
it - it means we should take action immediately. But the real
reason for the war enthusiasm is that they see war as a means
to an end - more political power, less scrutiny over their crimes
and misdemeanors, more money, and hence more political power and
aggrandizement. We simply need to remove the aggrandizing power
(i.e. money) from government service and from the vast nest of
vipers in Washington and elsewhere that advise and consult government.
If our foreign policy is really all about empire, and we know
that empires trump republics, then we need to get over ourselves.
As Chalmers Johnson - in his important trilogy of timely books
(Blowback in 2000, The Sorrows of Empire in 2004, and Nemesis:
The Last Days of the American Republic in 2007) - has observed,
as have many others, the empire is already ending. Whether the
American empire is understood as economic, financial, military
or ideological and political - it is already - as we speak and
live - in serious decline. We actually need do little to expedite
this decline - it is ongoing. Further, our imperial period really
began after the Civil War, in the late 1800s, and our entire national
history since then has been one of growth and now, decline, of
empire. We once exported ideas of Protestant Christianity, now
we export vague remonstrations of democracy - but it was always
about domination of trade and influence, as Marine Lt General
Smedley Butler finally realized and complained about in his famous
pamphlet entitled "War is a Racket." To deal with the
pain of a declining empire, we simply need to look on the bright
side (and help others to do this as well). We are returning to
constitutionalism whether we like it or not. I only hope we don't
return the long way through a series of mad dictators and fascist
nightmares - the way to avoid this future is to immediately abandon
our empire with honor and for the right reasons.
If we as a people are in love with the trappings of the warfare
state, this is both unhealthy, and un-American, and we need to
end the relationship. False patriotism should be called out wherever
it is to be found - education about the integral relationship
between the warfare state and the welfare state ought to go far
to convince modern conservatives that they cannot support war
without also supporting state socialism by design, and state corporatism
by necessity. Of course, this is the crisis we see in the GOP
today, and to a lesser extent the Democratic Party. The Republican
Party today, and all of the GOP-blessed candidates love war, and
war businesses, and state corporatism, but claim to hate the welfare
state. They are hypocrites. The democratic candidates claim to
hate war, but love the welfare state, and find they cannot get
the welfare state they crave without the militarism in society
and the world they claim to hate. Real freedom frightens both
main parties, and it frightens them badly. The remedy for this
love of the warfare state at home, false patriotism, and the inevitability
of socialism in such an environment is education. We must cultivate
ourselves and our friends and those we can influence towards promoting
individuality, entrepreneurialism, self-education, curiosity and
brave persistent pursuit of knowledge This is where the youthfulness
(in mind) is so powerful, and so necessary - and we should not
only encourage young people to revel in their youthful optimism
and passion; we should encourage every American to think like
a young person.
Lastly, we must deal with, and end, the profitability of the
warfare-welfare state. This one is actually not too difficult.
Don't work for the government if you can avoid it - be entrepreneurial,
be useful, be valuable to your self, your neighbors, your community.
Understand the free marketplace of goods and ideas, and be a producer,
not just a consumer. Never support the state and always support
your community. Live like the Stoics - known as the very best
citizens of Athens, although they rarely voted - because voting
was coercion of the few by the many - stoic because they lived
their lives understanding that we could improve best that part
of the world we understood best and never from afar.
A libertarian foreign policy is often misconstrued as isolationist,
or self-centered, or both. I think however that libertarian ideas
inform what could be called a stoic foreign policy, as well as
a constitutional one - and Americans would do well to live stoic
lives themselves. I think if you study American history, our best
years were not when we were instructing the world on how they
should behave, but when we were working hard on improving our
Change for this country is not coming,
or promised, or something we can hope for. It's already here,
for those who can see it - and for libertarians, those masters
of decentralization and creativity, it is an exciting time to
be an American. Perhaps, I can put that another way. For Americans,
it is an exciting time to reconsider the sustaining ideas of liberty,
in particular, freedom from political tirades, burdensome taxes,
and tyranny from a distant capitol. And more and more of us are
doing that every day.
George Bush once said in a state of the
union address that Americans were addicted to oil. Bush was probably
apologizing for another more serious problem that is part and
parcel to our foreign policy in the Middle East. Our government
is addicted to easy power, to fantasies of empire, and it fears
real freedom, at home or abroad.
I'd like to close with a bit of ancient
history that may give us some clues to healing our modern American
foreign policy addictions.
I mentioned Operation Ajax earlier, and
perhaps the CIA sensed a bittersweet irony in naming its 1953
coup in Iran after the great Greek, son of Telamon and fellow
hero with Odysseus. At one point, after many apparent military
successes, Ajax becomes extremely jealous of Odysseus, who has
received a coveted coat of armor that Ajax felt was rightfully
his. Ajax becomes enraged and falls under a spell from Athena,
goddess of war. He goes to a flock of sheep and slaughters them,
imagining they are those who have wronged him, including Odysseus
and Agamemnon. When Ajax comes to his senses, covered in blood,
and realizes what he has done, he decides that he prefers to kill
himself rather than to live in shame.
Our foreign policy in the Middle East
has traveled a long consistent trajectory, and it is suicidal,
and it will lead us to a national suicide preceded by a total
loss of honor and dignity. Instead of pride, greed and envy driving
us to actions against the innocent that we will regret, let us,
as George W. Bush once promised to do, pursue a humble foreign
policy. To do that as nation, we must reject false national pride,
greed and envy of countries who have resources that we may feel
they don't deserve and practice religions we may not respect,
and be humble ourselves.
It won't be easy. But as the consequences
we have already seen in the Middle East make painfully and expensively
clear, the right path for our constitutional republic is actually
the one favored by the majority of Americans today. If we keep
it up, perhaps it won't be long before the hacks in Washington
start to say, "There they go, we must hurry and catch them,
for we are their leaders."
Karen Kwiatkowski, Ph.D. a retired USAF
lieutenant colonel, has written on defense issues with a libertarian
Middle East watch