US foreign policy’s current challenges

I’ve been thinking recently about critiques of US foreign policy and the sense that it rarely seems to achieve its goals. One example is the sense that the US is drawing down its focus on the Middle East after decades of deep involvement that began to increase rapidly with the Gulf War of 1990.

The argument is that the US is shifting to confront near peer rivals Russia and China and that the Middle East doesn’t matter as much for a variety of reasons. The interesting thing is that even as this meta narrative exists, there are also concerns from Washington that China is making inroads in the region, such as brokering the Saudi Arabia-Iran reconciliation; and doing deals in the Gulf, as well as talking to Ankara and other countries; there was even concern about China’s interests in Israel.

So how does this work? On the one hand some policy experts say “the region doesn’t matter” and they even make negative comments like “who cares about the Gulf, it’s just a gas station for us”…and some of them even say the same thing about Israel “it doesn’t match our values, we should not support it as much”…but then they also say “we don’t want Saudi/UAE/Qatar/Israel/Egypt etc” talking to China and the Russians.

So on the one hand the theory is that the region doesn’t matter, but also that US partners shouldn’t be talking to US adversaries…but also that the US itself wants to engage with China and not have a “new Cold War”…which all ends up with a lot of mixed messaging. How can you withdraw from a region, while also not wanting others to enter the vacuum.

Increasingly in the Gulf there is pushback. Qatar and Turkey already work with Iran and other countries and don’t care what the US has to say; in fact Doha got rewarded for hosting the Taliban and talking to Iran by being upgraded to a major non-NATO ally; by contrast UAE and Saudi got more critique and they increasingly say they are pursuing independent policies.

So what accounts for the US seeming to step up to bat again and again and just not get a base hit, let alone a home run, on foreign policy?

There may be several factors. First of all there is a lot of internal divisions in the US about what the US “should” be doing. There are still liberal internationalist types, and former neo-cons; there are still those who believe the US should support democracy against authoritarianism; but there are also a lot of voices who are more openly critical of the world, and want very narrow policies (ironically this was the celebrated doctrine that led to victory in the Gulf in 1991, narrow achievable goals); and there are a lot of voices on the Right who are more isolationist. There is also a tendency on both the left and right in some sectors to simply dislike, almost by knee-jerk, US partners and allies. For some this means disliking Ukraine, simply because the Biden administration backs Ukraine (i.e foreign policy is domestic policy, so therefore whatever country a political enemy likes, one must be against); and there are those who openly dislike Israel, the UAE and Saudi, and in fact the more there was the Abraham Accords, the more they have groups that advocate against the US working with Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi and the UAE. That camp basically prefers Iran and that’s about it. There is also a phenomenon of various “lobbies” for certain countries, where each policymaker has their favorite and foreign countries exploit this by working with think tanks that hire former officials in order to warp policy in Washington. Ankara, for instance, has its “Turkey first” crowd; and Doha as well.

But what are the large brush strokes that lead to problems abroad? First, there is a tendency toward arrogance which was bred of the 1980s and 1990s victory of the US in the Cold War. This tends to dismiss other countries and simply see them as “gas stations for America” or “we give you money, do what we want” and then it turns out no one likes to be treated in a “transactional” relationship. In fact some policymakers have said the US has no allies only interests, no friends at all; so the countries can read that also in US media and get an idea of where they stand. They can openly read US articles advocating abandoning Taiwan; or saying the SDF are “temporary, transactional, tactical” partners; i.e the US encouraged a group to send thousands to die fighting ISIS and then says “adios.”

Then there are the policies that seem to openly advocate destroying countries. The “one state” lobby in the US, for instance wants to turn Israel into Afghanistan and force it to annex Gaza and plunge it into endless war; they basically want to take a friendly country that may have some flawed democratic aspect and is involved in a long conflict; and destroy it. Countries that see US experts saying “let’s destroy the lives of 20 million people for fun” in articles in respectable US magazines, start to wonder what’s going on. They want a partner that values their country and lives, not thinks of them as pawns to be chucked out and crushed.

And then there is “realism” and those who simply argue that the US has only “interests” and have argued the US should work with Russia, China and Iran. US partners abroad wonder why it is that the “realists” never seem to think US interests involve supporting friends, as JFK said “support any friend.” And they wonder, why is it that the adversaries always get the support?

Then there are those who get tired of interacting with naive policymakers. These are the folk who thought the Taliban were moderate, who thought Nouri al-Maliki should be empowered because “Iraq needs a Shi’ite strongman”…who systematically always back the wrong people abroad, whether it’s thinking authoritarians in Ankara are “Islamic democrats” or thinking the MB would be good for Egypt, or maybe the army coup in Sudan is good, or maybe HTS should run Damascus, or Hamas and Hezbollah are part of the “global left” and they should be empowered…those folk always find every extremist far-right religious group abroad exotic and want to empower them; and the people being massacred tend to get tired of it. When Israel was told, a few years before Assad began massacring people, that it should give the Golan back and have the UN or “peacekeepers” run it, Israel would have known that this is the model that was done in Lebanon and led to Hezbollah running half of Lebanon and stockpiling 200,000 rockets. “Peacekeepers” seem to always bring war, not peace.

So when you start to add up that foreign policy melting pot salad and look at how foreign countries are just totally perplexed by it, it’s understandable why the US often seems to face more uphill battles abroad or policy failure. When newspapers crow about how China or Russia is having so much “success” in Africa, it’s not because the US was so unsuccessful, it’s just that in the end of the day the US largely was chaotic and not really engaged and adversaries simply moved into the vacuum.

A lot of the critiques of the US stem from being over-reliant on the US, thinking it can solve lots of problems. The Syria conflict is emblematic of a lot of this. Some people wanted the US to help the rebels get rid of Assad, and then blamed the US for not doing so, and now blame the US for the success of the regime in normalization. But what they don’t ask is what else happened. How did Russia swoop in and Iran and Turkey; what did those countries do to ruin the rebellion cynically. Too much expectations also lead to frustration. And the domestic politics takeover of US policy; the sense it changes every four years and can’t be relied on, leads to some countries hedging their bets.

So the mix of naivety, arrogance, “interests-driven” policy, and domestic politics has all sabotages US policy. And yet, for all that chaos, the US is still quite successful on the world stage and the conspiracy by which Russia, China, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and others openly want a “multi-polar” world and want the US to decline, is still an uphill struggle for those countries and their friends in groups like SCO, BRICs, CICA, etc that all work to undermine the US and entice US partners away from Washington’s consensus on things like Ukraine or other issues.

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