September 24, 2019
by Graham E. Fuller • Blog • Tags: International Conflict, US foreign policy •
Graham E. Fuller (grahamefuller.com)
I’ve recently had discussions with friends over whether US domestic issues should outweigh those of foreign policy in the coming elections. The urgency of domestic issues are of course beyond question: health care, income gaps, appointment of more right wing judges, the environment, immigration, massive corruption in the political order, and minority rights to name the most prominent.
US foreign policy, on the other hand, is often treated more as an afterthought, involving issues seemingly more complex, more distant, more “abstract.” Witness the shocking lack of any serious discussion of foreign policy issues during candidate debates—with the exception of the brave Tulsi Gabbard who challenged the basic premises of US military-oriented foreign policy, and was promptly sidelined. (Just as the DNC has also decided the topic of global warming—perhaps the issue of the century— does not really merit separate debate, apparently too hot to handle.)
Yet “foreign policy issues” arguably cut deeper into our domestic lives than we realize. US foreign policy actually plays a significant role in the ongoing destruction of American life and wellbeing.
Bottom line, it ultimately comes down to maintenance of the American Empire. By now the term “American Empire” may be less disturbing to Americans than it once was. Most of us were brought up to view US overseas policies as “benign” and “altruistic,” whereby Washington simply serves as an honest broker or international policeman dedicated to preserving “freedom and democracy” and the “global order.” The hypocrisies of this statement of faith have of course by now been well-documented—as primarily representing the key ideological justifications of empire and global hegemony.
But the costs of Empire are not just about budgets; equally importantly they cut deeply into the national psychology and mood of our society.
First and most obvious of course is the squandering of massive sums on our military budgets that rob sorely needed funds for all kinds of alternative domestic needs—starting with the absence of a national health care program, the resulting demoralization, depression, and even some degree of national rage. “Realistically,” we are told, we can’t afford a national health plan. But apparently we can afford a military budget bigger than the next seven nations combined, including China, Russia, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and to fight endless wars. Part of these costs of Empire also include the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers and the psychological damage to returning vets faced with post-traumatic stress disorder and high suicide rates. But thank you for your service.
And it is clear how much American war wreaks damage upon the territory and the lives—and deaths—of hundreds of thousands of other peoples around the world. None of this does much for our country’s claim to leadership around the world.
Then there is the often-overlooked psychological dimension. Our foreign policy structure is based upon the concept of a world of enemies out there. We have created a cottage industry of “think tanks” in DC that works tirelessly to discover new and never-ending potential threats and dangers around the world. I know something about this because I’ve done a good bit of that kind of writing in the past myself. Not that problems and threats don’t exist around the world—they do, and everybody faces them. But few other countries operate such a flourishing market-place of threat analysis. It is even more grotesque that these paranoid fears should exist so strongly in the most powerful nation in the world, comfortably separated by seas on both sides. The constant production and discussion of such threat analyses contribute significantly to a more general national anxiety, both openly and at a subliminal level. Ultimately identifying and regularly enumerating those threats—and they never stop coming—becomes a form of geopolitical self-induced fear-mongering, a constant process of self-stimulation to keep our vigilance ever erect.
It’s not just the dark titillation of discovering how many enemies there are ranked against us out there. The greater risk is that the very constant portrayal of such a hostile forces, with lists of enemies explicitly identified and ranked, contributes to a self-fulfilling prophesy. If you are on a US enemies list, you will certainly assume that the US is your enemy, and will be treated accordingly. (Moscow, Beijing, Tehran, Caracas, Pyongyang, Havana and others take note.)
The US at one time actually had such a thing called “The Good Neighbor Policy,” many decades ago under FDR, mainly applied at the time to Latin America; it emphasized non-interventionism and non-interference. A similar approach, dedicated to searching out common interests, rather than military alliances to meet threat perceptions, might be worth reconsidering for Washington today in a multi-polar world.
It is important to remember that neither geopolitics, nor resource maps, nor history make conflict inevitable. People decide on whether to seek conflict, or not. There is nothing inevitable about it.
So how do personal relationships between leaders affect the nature of their state-to state relations? In a time of multiple tensions around the world, is it not almost willfully blind that top global leaders should not meet each other one on one, regularly, for hours, even days, to establish personal relationships as well as to get to the the sources of potential conflict. How real are the nature of the frictions? And how might they be walked back? Presidential spear-carriers setting the agenda for a one-hour meet between their leaders simply will not do it. If relations are troubled there is all the more reason for Americans to spend considerable personal time with Putin, Xi, Rouhani, Kim and others. This is basic to any human relationship. The personal relationship between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev at a key point in the Cold War demonstrated significant power in overcoming “inevitable friction” with the Soviet Union. Centuries of hostile German-French relations suddenly turned around at the end of World War II. It was not “inevitable” that they must perpetually clash.
Then there is the question of abuse of American ideals. All our wars are waged as exercises to “promote freedom” or “protect human rights.” Yet such self-delusion opens the door to massive domestic corruption, on two levels. First, foreign countries line up to flood the US political system with monies in the forms of unofficial bribes, consultancies, PR, and dedicated think tanks—countries such as Israel and Saudi Arabia leading the pack. Russia is a piker compared to that kind of unapologetic exercise of naked foreign influence in the heart of Washington and Congress. Values such as “promoting freedom and protecting human rights” acquire a cynical taste in the mouth when they are so self-seekingly and selectively applied.
Let’s remember that domestic corruption (the buying of influence) is further abetted by the huge US security and arms industry, along with a few special billionaires like the Las Vegas casino magnates, the Adelsons, huge Republican donors with their self-proclaimed sole focus upon Israel. These groups have a major financial stake in prolonging wars and military sales, generating “contributions” of millions of dollars that go straight to Congress (“reelection costs,” you know), further consuming monies that should be available for urgently needed alternative domestic use.
And then our imperial foreign policy serves to create among Americans a deep and unhealthy fear of the Other —Arabs, Iranians, Muslims in general, Mexicans, Chinese, Russians, Latinos, swarthy peoples, “Them.” This fear, ironically, seems especially deeply rooted among American white males— who otherwise actually make up the most privileged and secure population perhaps in the history of the world. Perhaps they sense such privilege growing increasingly precarious.
And finally, the constant impression that we may now be losing our empire, of a century’s standing, causes deep national dismay and depression. Indeed that we should be slipping behind in international power and influence seems nearly inexplicable to so many in the US. Why are we no longer leading the world on every issue any more? Why are we not intervening here, there, and elsewhere to establish or reaffirm our global leadership? Where did we go wrong? Who do we blame for our loss of global leadership and how can we be great again?
It is remarkable to note how routinely every piece of bad news on the international scene is now attributed in the US media to some kind of failure of American leadership. If we were on the job, as we used to be, surely these things would not be happening. This decline of American pre-eminence creates an unremitting sense of slippage and loss, coupled with resulting deep domestic malaise; it contributes to a destructive syndrome of helplessness, powerlessness, and the need for reassertion which can end up in personal or national lashing-out.
Surely these momentous issues deserve detailed and searching discussion. But where is it? Foreign policy seems to be a political third rail that no one dares address. Perhaps it cuts too close to the bone of our sense of national prestige and power to question it. And by now there may be too many forces in the country whose private interests determine that we not have any such searching discussion at all. But it is at our peril.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World and Islam; his first novel is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan”; his second novel is BEAR—a novel of eco-violence in the Canadian Northwest. (all on Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com