Thursday, March 03, 2016

The Problems of Boomer Foreign Policy

 [I wrote this post before going on vacation early this week.  I am sure you are expecting to read about the primaries and Donald Trump--but that will have to wait a week. Stay tuned!]

Last Sunday and Monday, the New York Times printed an enormous two-part article on the role of the US government in general and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in particular in Libya.  It was a terrific and terrifying piece of journalism, one which, in a rational world, might have some important influence on the election campaign.  If I had to guess, I would speculate that perhaps 10,000 of my fellow Americans will do what I did and read it from start to finish.  Essentially, the article tells how Hillary Clinton, goaded by aides and friends with one eye on the 2016 election, took the lead in pushing for military action to insure the fall of Muammar Qadaffi. She took credit for a brilliantly successful operation, and then sat back while Libya descended into political chaos and now, civil war, with disastrous consequences all over the Mediterranean region, including in Europe.  The article is a not reassuring regarding the kind of President Hillary Clinton would be, and I hope any Democrats still on the fence will give it some thought.  But my task here, as usual, is to put these events within a broader context, and in this case the appropriate context is very clear.  The Libyan disaster is the latest of a series of initiatives undertaken by Mrs. Clinton's (and my) Boom generation, beginning with her husband's decision to go to war against Yugoslavia in 1999, exploding into a regional crusade under George W Bush, and proceeding, with only slight interruptions, through the Obama Presidency.  The premise of those policies is that the United States has the right and the duty to make its values prevail anywhere in the world, that it need not take any account of local political realities, and that it can do all this at a very low cost.  Many have tended to associate this policy with neoconservatives (whose leaders now are Boomers), and my friend Andrew Bacevich simply sees them as the logical outgrowth of US policy since 1947.  I however am afraid that my own generation really needs to take the blame.   The reason these policies have continued through three administrations is that our foreign policy establishment has literally no coherent alternatives to offer.

The best way to begin this discussion is to go back to the last Administration in which Boomers did not run foreign policy, that of George H. W. Bush, and look at its major foreign policy initiatives.  Confronted with the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet Union, Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker--from the GI and Silent generations, respectively--did not take these huge events as a signal to push US influence as far as it would go.  They promised Mikhail Gorbachev not to extend NATO into Eastern Europe, and they even indicated that they would prefer to see the USSR survive.  In El Salvador, they actually settled a war against Marxist revolutionaries through compromise, the only time the US has ended a major counterinsurgency effort, I believe, in that way.  Most of all, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, they did not go to war until they had secured the support of the whole UN Security Council through very careful negotiations, and they limited their goals to expelling Saddam Hussein from Kuwait.  In June of 2001 [sic], at the commencement of the Naval War College, I heard former President Bush explain--at least as well as I or any of my colleagues could have--why going to Baghdad would have been a dreadful mistake in a commencement address.  It turned out to be a eulogy for the era of sanity in US foreign policy.

Bill Clinton, the first Boomer President, moved only slowly to introduce Boomer foreign policy, but he made at least two key steps.  First of all, he enlarged NATO.  Secondly, in 1999, after reaching a peace accord in Bosnia, he went to war with Yugoslavia to prevent the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo--even though Russia and its new leader, Vladimir Putin, totally opposed this step.  That was the end of the new world order that his predecessor had hoped to bring about.  And in a signal of things to come, even though the war eventually detached Kosovo from Serbia and completed the destruction of Yugoslavia, the result of the conflict was that the Serbs, rather than the Kosovars, were largely driven out of the territory that they had shared.  Meanwhile, Clinton, going with the conservative flow as he so often did, put his signature to a "law" committing the US to the goal of overthrowing Saddam Hussein.

The Bush Administration, we now know, came into office determined to achieve that goal, and 9/11 became the excuse to do so.  There is no need to rehash the details of that decision or to remind anyone of the chaos that it unleashed across the Middle East.  Barack Obama became President in large part because Hillary Clinton had voted for that war, but when confronted with the Arab spring in 2011, he also regarded it as an opportunity to dethrone tyrants and spread democracy.  In the same year, that led to the decision to support European military intervention against Qadaffi, ostensibly for humanitarian reasons, but then to bring down his regime as well.  The Times article shows that Clinton and her team decided that overthrowing Qaddafi would be one of her signature achievements.

Rather than recapitulate the article, which I recommend in the strongest terms, I want to fill in one of its gaps.  The parallels between both Clinton's words  and US deeds in Libya on the one hand, and similar statements by her predecessor (and fellow Boomer) Condoleezza Rice on her watch and the mistakes of the Bush Administration on the other, are simply astonishing.  In neither Iraq nor Libya did the US administration have any idea what would happen after the dictator had fallen and relied upon mindless optimism.  In both cases, they relied on would-be local "leaders" whose main qualification was speaking English, making their ideas accessible to US policy makers--and in both cases, such leaders, most of whom returned from exile, turned out to have no local support worth mentioning.  In both cases elections were designed to establish democracy but instead triggered the fragmentation of the country (as I noticed here when the first elections in Iraq were held.)  And in both cases, Rice and Clinton insisted on willfully denying evidence that their policies had been disastrous.  In 2006, in the midst of a war between Israel and Lebanon, she insisted on describing the conflict as part of "the birth pangs of a new Middle East," and renounced any attempt to maintain the status quo ante.  Donald Rumsfeld had similarly dismissed the chaos in Baghdad that followed the US invasion as a "messy" consequence of a new freedom.  Two years ago, Clinton tried to deflect questions about the impact of Qaddafi's fall by complaining about "American impatience," saying that transition to mature democracy "doesn't happen overnight."  In one of his periodic laments about the failure of Iraq to make greater progress, President George W. Bush complained that the US could not find the Iraqi Nelson Mandela, the miracle man who would bring democracy and order, because Saddam Hussein had "killed all the Mandelas."  The Times reports that State searched futilely for a Libyan Mandela as well.

Clinton, the story shows, lost interest in Libya in her last year as Secretary of State, in large part because she wanted to repeat the experiment yet again in Syria, where Boomers of both parties have criticized President Obama--not a Boomer, and proud of it--for not moving more aggressively against Hafez Assad and not once again putting the prestige of the US and the fate of a nation in the hands of mythical "good guy" rebels.  President Obama, the Times story shows, has some good instincts about intervention, but as he showed in Afghanistan as well, he has an unfortunate tendency to compromise with more aggressive, older subordinates, leaving him, often, with the worst of both worlds.  Since leaving office, Clinton has explicitly repudiated Obama's maxim, "don't do stupid stuff," as a guide to the foreign policy of a great power, which, she argues, needs a better "organizing principle."  At the same time, she has blamed the President for the decision on Libya.  Like George W. Bush, she is utterly incapable of ever admitting a mistake.

Not only is Libya now a haven for ISIS, but in another parallel to Iraq, the many, many weapons that Qaddafi cached around the country are falling into dangerous hands all over the region.  Extremists in Libya threaten both Mali and Egypt.  And supposed US allies, the UAE and Qatar, are funding extreme Islamist militias.  Worst of all, Libya's collapse has contributed mightily to the European refugee crisis.  But Clinton still argues that Assad, in Syria must also go.

John Kerry, born on the cusp between the Silent and Boom generations--and the son of a GI diplomat--has moved the United States in a different foreign policy direction.  Clinton's statements on Iran suggest that we would never have reached the nuclear agreement with that country had she remained Secretary of State.Bernie Sanders, another Silent, has explicitly criticized her preference for regime change.  But remarkably, the Boom generation, whose views were initially shaped by the Vietnam War, has not produced a single major political figure or high foreign policy official who has consistently opposed military intervention to transform foreign nations.  Boomers in academia, finance, and foreign policy, have all generally pushed for one particular set of new departures in their fields, and the results are around us for all to see.

Several of my most devoted readers--people of considerable accomplishment themselves--have periodically suggested that I drop generational theory from these posts.  I must admit that this leads me to imagine Galileo hearing from friends that he really ought to give up the idea of a heliocentric solar system, or Einstein being told that he could be a great physicist if he would simply give up this relativity nonsense.  (Before you accuse me of grandiosity, let me point out that I did not discover the generational cycle in American life--Bill Strauss and Neil Howe did.  I will claim credit for one thing:  I am never jealous when smart people come up with something that I know I could not have done--I am simply grateful.)  Boomers have done more than any generation to create the polarized climate of opinion in which we live, and they can't stand the idea that they might have anything in common with people on the other side of the political fence.  Yet younger generations have no trouble figuring this out.  It is because of generational theory that I have been able to contribute something original here, and I know it is  no accident that it has struck such a chord among Americans of many ages, all of whom discovered it more or less by accident.


Bozon said...

Great wide ranging essay.

One of the problems I have, in trying to comment, is that there is so much here to comment on.

There is so much with which I disagree in American foreign policy, and its whole modus operandi, since long before 1947.(Since the founding really.)

Part of that which you take up, with much of it, I agree. I go farther back than Boomers, and it seems to me unhelpful not to go back a couple of hundred years, in talking about some of these issues, in the Balkans, the Middle East, Russian and Austrian designs on Istanbul, German aspirations, British fears re India, etc.

I have seen that you don't want to get into civilizational discussions, for reasons I can well imagine, but that is where it has to go, like it or not, eventually, in my judgment, Western liberalism or not.

I think that trying to stop Saddam, especially merely on moral grounds, was an enormous blunder, and had cascading consequences later, and on that issue I trust we agree to disagree.

Had we reasoned that it was necessary to take over that area for oil resource reasons, I could have much better rationalized the decision; but no, that was not the reason at all! It was on moral grounds!

We agree that toppling Qaddafi was an enormous Hillary blunder....

American military involvement in the Muslim world is itself normally a civilizational blunder for the West. I sense that you agree with this, but cannot put it this way, really...

all the best

sglover said...

I have seen that you don't want to get into civilizational discussions, for reasons I can well imagine, but that is where it has to go, like it or not, eventually, in my judgment, Western liberalism or not.

That broader perspective is necessary if only because it's the best way to deflate the delusional bubbles of people like Clinton, Wolfowitz, et al. Iraq, Libya, Syria -- these societies didn't just pop into existence when they started showing up on CNN. They're the product of millennia of history, and that history is set in perhaps the most dynamic region in human experience, the crossroads of Europe, Asia and Africa. Against that, our Beltway Caesars are going to set up suburbia with a few well-aimed bombing missions and a "moderate" "government" constructed from a gang of hotel exiles?!?!

I really wish that Sanders would bring up Clinton's horrible foreign policy record and ideas more often and more emphatically. At a minimum it'd be a good tactical move. And it's not too difficult to establish a connection between extravagant foreign adventures, and increasingly shabby public goods and services back home.

On another note, I'm tempted to read Strauss & Howe, but mostly because I enjoy Dr. Kaiser's writing. On it's face, though, I have to say that it sounds like an exercise in fitting facts to match a preconceived conclusion. We all do that -- looking for patterns is what brains do -- but of course it's easy to fall into self-deception that way. Also, if I understand it correctly, Strauss & Howe claim to have a theory specific to American history. I'm very sceptical that it even makes sense to talk about such a thing; the perspective seems too narrow. I mean, I can imagine theorizing about how, say, geography and demographics might yield a certain social structure, or how one social structure might transform into another. Broad strokes on big canvases. It's hard to believe claims that a theory can make successful predictions for a particular society, with all its quirks and accidents, on a time scale of decades.

I doubt that this is the first time anybody's mentioned these qualms. Anyway, I'll move S & H further up the reading queue. But while we're on the subject, I wonder if you're aware of Peter Turchin and his "Cliodynamics" work? In particular, the Seshat project looks like a very interesting and promising approach to history.

Gloucon X said...

“Boomers have done more than any generation to create the polarized climate of opinion in which we live, and they can't stand the idea that they might have anything in common with people on the other side of the political fence. Yet younger generations have no trouble figuring this out.”

If by this you think that those born after 1964 are going to be a generation of raging political moderates, I think you’re going to be gravely disappointed. The first returns on this idea are already coming in and they don’t look promising, nor are hopes for a younger generation of politicians who prefer a less aggressive foreign policy. Ted Cruz’s(b1970) language consists of phrases like ‘carpet bombing’ and “I will rip to shreds this catastrophic Iranian nuclear deal.” Marco Rubio(1971) vows to take a hard line against 'Russian aggression' and to give 'lethal military assistance' to the country of Ukraine if he is elected president. He also wants even more Nato expansion, including being open to entry by Ukraine. According to you, this cannot be happening since only Boomers are advocates of aggressive foreign policy. What gives?

Wes Volkenant said...

Here's a link to an interesting piece at VOX, on the rise of Authoritarianism in America. I believe you've addressed this previously Dr. Kaiser, using some of the thoughts from John Dean about these conservative authoritarians....