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U.S. Foreign Policy: Question All Assumptions

U.S. Foreign Policy: Question All Assumptions

By Ivan Eland*
January 17, 2005

Post-World War II U.S. foreign policy, including that of the Bush administration, has been based on certain assumptions about the nature of the world. Unfortunately, most of those assumptions are suspect.

The most notable assumption is that if the U.S. government (USG) does not dominate the globe militarily and ensure security through wanton armed interventions, the world will fall apart. Yet the USG did not even exist for the vast majority of recorded history and the world got along just fine using what scholars call a “balance of power” among great powers. In fact, often times the USG has invaded other countries and removed their governments for no good reason—for example, the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 and the recent invasion of Iraq. Other times, the USG has used the CIA to remove a foreign country’s more democratic government and replace it with a less democratic one that was friendlier to U.S. interests—for example, in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Apparently President Bush—who, according to Time magazine, reads only books that reinforce his prejudices—loved a recent book that argues that U.S. hegemony has deep roots in American history. That statement would be true if one inserts the words “post-World War II” before the words “American history.” For most of U.S. history, the United States did not seek hegemony over other countries and pursued a policy of deliberate independence from most overseas disputes.

Such examples of recent aggressive U.S. behavior should cast doubt on a couple of other assumptions held by the U.S. policy elite and general public. The first is that democracies are more peaceful than more authoritarian governments. Scholars have shown that no empirical support exists for this proposition. In fact, newly minted democracies go to war at greater frequency than more autocratic states. The second is that democracies don’t go to war with each other—the democratic peace theory. Although the validity of this theory is disputed among scholars, opponents of the theory convincingly argue that even if wars among democracies are rare throughout history, democracies are also rare. But examples of wars between democracies do exist—for example, the Boer war at the turn of the twentieth century, World War I, and the American Civil War.

Yet according to Time, President Bush is also enamored with the Natan Sharansky’s book The Case for Democracy, which argues that security of the world depends on using any means necessary to support democracy. Even if democracies ultimately went to war less than more authoritarian nations and if they never went to war with each other—dubious propositions—the costs of all of the wars needed to convert autocratic countries to democracies would be too high. In addition to expending much blood and treasure, all U.S. wars have eroded civil liberties at home. Even if the USG could militarily convert all of the nations of the world to real democracies (most democracies in the developing world are fake)—and the record here is not good—the United States could very well endanger its own democracy.

The last assumption—given to us by the president but eagerly embraced by the interventionist foreign policy elite—is that al Qaeda is attacking the United States because of its freedoms. The Defense Science Board, made up of high-powered consultants to the Department of Defense, recently issued a report debunking this notion and accurately noting that al Qaeda attacks the United States because it hates U.S. interventionism in the Islamic world. However, the U.S. National Intelligence Council—a consensus of the U.S. intelligence agencies—apparently still doesn’t get it. The council recently released a forecast for the next 15 years predicting that the Iraq war and other conflicts will create a professional class of terrorists for whom political violence will become an end in itself. The council also predicted that al Qaeda will be replaced with more diffuse Islamist extremist groups that will oppose globalization in Islamic societies and argued that a new U.S. counterterrorism strategy should promote education and political and economic development in the Islamic world, in addition to using military power.

Unfortunately, the council buys into all the myths about why al Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups attack the United States. Although their killing of innocent civilians is reprehensible, such groups are excessively demonized by implying that they kill people merely for fun. It is possible to vehemently disagree with the methods of these groups without assuming that they have no motives for what they do other than their bloodthirstiness. In a somewhat contradictory vein, the report seems to argue that these groups are attacking the United States because they oppose globalization or because they have arisen from societies that are uneducated, poor and democratically challenged. These are all self-serving conclusions designed to mask the real reason that al Qaeda and like groups attack the United States.

Osama bin Laden has been very clear about why he targets the United States. Time and again, he has listed specific items related to U.S. intervention in the affairs of the Islamic world—especially the USG’s propping up of corrupt regimes in Arab nations. Bin Laden’s heinous deliberate attacks on civilians should not be condoned, but he does have a motive beyond merely getting a thrill out of killing.

All of this leads to the inescapable conclusion that the USG runs a “Tarzan” foreign policy—that is, “Me good, you bad.” The USG’s propaganda machine excessively demonizes the motives of anyone or any country that takes actions the United States does not like and asserts that U.S. motives are only idealistic and pristine. No one in the Islamic world—or in the entire world, for that matter—believes the latter. The USG’s propagandistic “hoo-ha” is really meant for the American public, the only party that has been bamboozled into believing it. Why doesn’t the public ask its government to explain why Saddam Hussein’s unnecessary invasion of Kuwait was bad and President Bush’s unnecessary invasion of Iraq was good? Also, why don’t they ask if killing innocent civilians, even as collateral damage, in an unnecessary and aggressive invasion is any better than deliberately targeting them as bin Laden does?

These are politically incorrect questions, but the American people should start asking them of their government. Instead, by accepting questionable assumptions on the part of its government, the American people are allowing it to unnecessarily turn the greatest nation on earth into an international rogue state.


*Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute in Oakland, CA., and author of the book, Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy: Rethinking U.S. Security in the Post-Cold War World. For further articles and studies, see the War on Terrorism and

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