Causes and Consequences of Our Foreign Policy in the Middle East and What It Means for Americans

by Karen Kwiatkowski, February 22, 2008


[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 21st century.

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 in Kabul.

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 refugee camps.

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 anymore.

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 of ourselves.

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 the State.

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, and anti-liberty.

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 American public

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 own backyards.

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 perspective

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