2003 September 24 Wednesday
Adam Garfinkle Challenges Convention Wisdom On Foreign Policy Mistakes

In an essay entitled "Foreign Policy Immaculately Conceived" in Policy Review Adam Garfinkle challenges a number of popular criticisms of US foreign policy in the post-World War II period.

The immaculate conception theory of U.S. foreign policy operates from three central premises. The first is that foreign policy decisions always involve one and only one major interest or principle at a time. The second is that it is always possible to know the direct and peripheral impact of crisis-driven decisions several months or years into the future. The third is that U.S. foreign policy decisions are always taken with all principals in agreement and are implemented down the line as those principals intend — in short, they are logically coherent.

Garfinkle delves into the US alliance with the Shah of Iran and argues that the US intervention and the Shah's own decisions as ruler of Iran yielded many benefits to Iran and to the US and that some of those benefits are surprisingly long-lasting.

More than that, though the immaculate conceptionists tend not to know it, the shah granted the vote to women in 1964. It was this act that first galvanized clerical opposition to the regime and was the catalyst for the first occasion upon which Ruhollah Khomeini went out and got himself arrested. We know how the story turned sad in 1978, but the success of the shah’s reforms went so deep in Iranian society that the rule of the Islamic Republic will, in the end, not stick. Perhaps the best illustration of this is that the mullahs have not dared suggest that the vote be taken away from women, though this is precisely what their theology would mandate. The clerical regime’s reticence on this score defines a significant limit, a social red line, that leaves open a dynamic in which the empowerment of women may well drive Iranian society toward pluralism, the flowering of liberal constitutionalism, and eventually democracy.

Even that is not quite all. Immaculate conception theorists hold that once the shah was restored, his repressive misrule made the Ayatollah Khomeini inevitable. Not only is the shah’s repression distorted and exaggerated in their telling of it, but it was the bungling of the Carter administration that allowed the clerics to seize power. Illustrating the difference between an ignoramus and a fool, some of that administration’s cabinet members not merely believed — they actually said it publicly — that Ayatollah Khomeini was a “saint” who would soon retire from politics. Worse, the administration actively dissuaded the Iranian military, via the infamous Huyser mission among other modalities, from preventing the mullahs from taking power. Supporting the shah was good policy. Failure to adjust when the shah’s touch slipped was unfortunate but not fatal. The mismanagement of the endgame was disastrous, but it was also entirely avoidable.

Garfinkle cites a number of examples of past US foreign policy positions which are criticised today by people who ignore the context in which those decisions were made. Many such criticisms show a fundamental ignorance of what was at stake during the Cold War that made those decisions so compelling at the time.

Read the essay in full. His views of the decisions taken by the Bush Sr Administration during and immediately after Gulf War I and the reasons for those decisions are particularly interesting.

Update: To illustrate Garfinkle's first point about how foreign policy critics will argue that the US is doing something in foreign affairs for just a single reason: There are many people who argue that the US overthrew Saddam Hussein just for oil. Then there are others who say the US did it to protect Israel. Then there are others who say the US did it just to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But in reality the US government weighs a long list of factors and typically has many reasons to take any one action and many other reasons not to do so. Among the arguments for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was the desire to stop the US from being blamed for the continued poverty in Iraq that was at least partially a product of the UN sanctions for which the US was seen as the main promoter and enforcer. Another reason was to see if democracy introduced in one Arab country might spur reforms in other Arab countries that made terrorism less likely. Still other motives can be listed that were certainly weighed by the Bush Administration.

Even when an interest is listed (e.g. oil) one still needs to think thru what exactly that means if we are to understand exactly is the US national interest. In the case of oil a rather simplistic argument has been made in some quarters that the US just wants to pump the oil and make a big profit off it. In this extreme view the assumption is that the US will make more from controlling the oil fields and producing and selling the oil than it costs to seize and hold the country that has the oil. As we can see from the recent Bush Administration budget request for rebuilding Iraq that argument is not credible.

While the most severe critics of US policy with regards to Middle Eastern oil are obviously wrong in their statement of American interests the US really does have a large national security interest in Middle Eastern oil and politics. But many defenders of the US government Middle Eastern policy tend to argue that oil does not serve as a motivation for US actions in the Middle East because they don't want to admit to any selfish interest on the part of the US in setting US policy toward the Middle East. These defenders of US policy are essentially trying to argue that the US has no interest in who controls the oil fields. But oil is obviously a very big factor in US decision-making and this denial is unconvincing and leads to conspiratorial theories about what motivates US policy. Yet the real motives in US policy are obvious. During the Cold War the US long sought to keep Middle Eastern oil fields out of the control of the USSR. The US has also sought to block the rise of a regional hegemon whether it was Iran under Ayatollah Khomeini or Iraq under Saddam. The main US interest in Middle Eastern oil is that no one power controls it or is in a position to prevent it from being developed and sold. That interest is shared by a great many other countries. But the bulk of them are willing to stay silent about it and let the US do the dirty work and to take the criticisms for interventions in pursuit of that interest.

While there were many motives for fighting both Gulf wars there was an obvious oil-related US motive in both cases: The first war sought to prevent Saddam from keeping Kuwait's oil and eventually threatening Saudi Arabia's oil fields. The second war allowed Iraq to safely (at least hopefully) come out from under UN sanctions and to have large amounts of money invested in the development of its oil fields. This is not to say that the second Gulf war was fought solely to increase Iraqi oil production. But that was certainly one of the many motives for it.

One unfortunate outcome of the debate about US foreign policy toward the Middle East is that interests are misrepesented and denied and therefore policy debates do not converge toward the best policy choices for dealing with the interests at stake. This is seen most clearly in the case of oil because American and world dependence on Middle Eastern oil combined with the conditions in the Middle East make energy policy an important US national security issue. The simplistic postures taken by too many debate participants ("it is all about oil" vs "no, it is all about stopping terrorism and WMD proliferation") prevent a proper consideration of what the US ought to do about energy as a national security problem. We spend a lot of money for military purposes and in foreign aid in part (though not solely - the US has many interests after all) due to that dependence on Middle Eastern oil. In my view the amount that we spend for national security due to our oil dependence is enough to fully justify the expenditure of tens of billions per year on basic research in a Manhattan Project effort to develop cost-competitive replacements for Middle Eastern oil.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2003 September 24 03:22 PM  Politics Grand Strategy


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