As the crisis in Iraq worsens nearly daily, a quiet calm seems to have come over US politics. Republicans want to blame Obama for this, but know that they can’t. More to the point, there doesn’t seem to be anything proactive we can do, at least not anything different from what we tried twice before. There is simply far too much blame to go around for it to land squarely on anyone here in the US.
What is different this time? Apart from the horrible loss of life a decade ago, apparently for little gain, there is a big change in the US. Our energy independence makes any arguments based on “strategic resources” much thinner than the blood of American soldiers. Between this crisis and Ukraine it has become clear that we have limits and have to learn to be OK with that.
But there is more to it. It should be obvious by now that US foreign policy can no longer be about control but stability. And that, by itself, should be a pivotal change.
After WWI it should have been obvious to everyone in the world that the US was the largest power on the planet. It wasn’t. Not only did European empires scoff at our grand plans to democratize the world, the US itself wasn’t remotely interested in being tied to world politics. We simply weren’t set up for a large standing army and an international presence.
After WWII, the lesson was learned. More to the point, there was an effective bogeyman in Communism that did need to be confronted. The Eisenhower Doctrine was essentially “The Soviet Union must be contained,” and that had a reach everywhere in the world. We were engaged to fight a monolithic enemy that might strike next anywhere. The issue was control – either we had a nation on our side or we didn’t. We could easily look the other way at brutal dictators like the Shah or Pinochet as long as they were on “our side.”
The fall of the Berlin Wall should have ended that policy, but our military spending has only increased since then – from about $550B per year (in today’s money) in 1988 to over $700B today. The world only became more dangerous and much of that danger threatened our most important import – oil.
It’s always been about oil, which since the end of the Cold War has been by far our biggest import. There is no other reason to explain our constant commitment to control around the world.
But that has changed. We don’t need to control oil fields around the world because two thirds of our oil comes from North America. Energy independence has freed us from the horrific expense in blood and money that marked the last two decades of nearly constant conflict. We no longer need to control the world.
What we need is stability.
As powerful as our military is, our great strength remains the US Dollar, the greenback that is the standard unit of exchange for 85% of all trade around the world. Our economy is more important than anything else, and it depends on reliable supplies of good and markets to sell our products. Disturbances are what cost us money, not lack of control. We pay for things rather than demand them at gunpoint.
The problem with stability is that it’s possible to look at it two ways. In the short term, there is still room to see dictatorships like al Sisi in Egypt as friendly or useful because he appears to keep order. Over the long haul, however, that only makes the eventual revolution in Egypt that will finally overthrown the military order much nastier and destructive. Over the long haul, stability must be sustainable – and that means democracy, equity, and a sense of unity.
What should we do to promote that kind of stability around the world? The first thing is to stop supporting military structures like the one in Egypt. The second is to admit our mistakes and honestly make an effort to start over, which is probably what s happening in the negotiations with Iran. We also need a strong commitment to genuine democracy, which has already shown its value in South America.
In short, our goals are now the same as those shared by freedom lovers around the world. The Great Convergence between the developed world and the developing is a good thing for us, and we need to embrace it happily.
It is time for us to put down the weapons and fight for peace. It’s actually very much in our best interests, too.