Iraq fundamentally changed U.S. foreign policy from engagement with adversaries to one of threats and outright intervention aimed at forced exile or assassination of enemy leaders. The roster of dead, or soon-to-be terminated, includes: Saddam Hussein executed by hanging, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, and Afghanistan’s unofficial emir Osama bin Laden shot at point-blank range, Slobodan Milosevic dying in prison while awaiting a verdict, and Egypt’s deposed chief Hosni Mubarak now on his death-bed. The coercion-prompted heart failure of Vanuatu’s president in Washington went uncelebrated.
Given the track record, it can be assumed the secret White House hit list includes Iran’s boss Mahmoud Ahmadinejed, Syria’s Bashar Assad, Sudan’s Omar Bashir (also under indictment by the international war-crimes court) and North Korean Kim Jong-Il, who died over the weekend from a heart attack. With one misstep, many other impertinent leaders could easily qualify for an assassin’s bullet or a Predator strike: Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Russian Vladimir Putin and even reluctant allies like Pakistan’s Asif Ali Zardari, Afghan’s Hamid Karzai and business partner Hu Jintao in China, just to name a few. Under the new rules instituted by George W. Bush and implemented by Barack Obama, nobody is safe.
The official end of the Iraq War, and soon the Afghan intervention, brings to a close the “war on terrorism.” In its place, the new normality looks to be a global reign of terror. Any perceived misconduct will be met with destruction of the offender’s capital, ending in capital punishment. This stern Pax Americana will be permanent because there can be no going back to the former engagement policy since promises or trade-offs can no longer be trusted after the spilling so many barrels of blood
Gradualism, the attitude required for engagement, was the guiding assumption behind the creation of the United Nations. After the horrors of World War II, the Roosevelt and Truman administrations could reasonably expect the majority of nations to opt for economic progress and political reform in their evolution toward democracy. The Cold War and Stalin’s tyranny challenged that notion of progress by nations. Ironically, it was the conservative hawks Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher who breathed new life into engagement policy, arguing that the growth of a market economy would influence authoritarian systems to gradually accept the necessity of democratic reform.
Engagement was wildly successful, prompting the return of democracy across Eastern Europe. With assurances of non-intervention from the West, Mikhail Gorbachev ended the Soviet domination over much of Europe and instituted parliamentary reforms that quickly ended single-party rule. Meanwhile, China went from being an exporter of violent revolution to an industrial partner of the West, and much of its strict ideology melted away as prosperity revived. The same happened in Vietnam and Cambodia.
Engagement Has Limits
Other isolated regimes, especially the so-called rogue states, showed much higher thresholds to change, due to geopolitical tensions with neighboring nations and internal stresses. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was a classic example of a state with a frozen mindset. Externally, the Sunni-dominated government was locked in military standoff with Shiite-dominated Iran, and at home, the Sunnis comprised a demographic minority versus restive Shiites and Kurds. Today, the situation in Syria is similar, although with an opposite ratio of majority Sunnis aligned against the governing minority Alawites, a Shiite subgroup.
Democratic progress toward majority rule can have negative consequences. Not all multi-ethnic or multi-religious states are capable of making near-complete democratic transitions as did Singapore and Malaysia in the 1960s. With the mid-1960s massacres in Indonesia, regime change led only to a more repressive tyranny. In Tunisia, the seedbed of the Arab Spring, supporters of the triumphant Islamic parties are demanding that girls wear veils to school. The new "moderate" Libyan government promises Sharia law.
The revival of religious-based restrictions across North Africa proves that democracy is not synonymous with personal freedom. Pluralistic societies can have deep-seated reasons for resisting genuine democratic change, a fact that is overshadowing the upcoming 2012 presidential elections in the United States.
Leading into temptation
When gradualist reforms hit finite limits due to domestic constraints and geopolitical pressures, the temptation for Washington and its allies is to militarily impose a new order in the name of democracy. At an impasse, the engagement policy then becomes quite the opposite of semi-voluntary reform. Instead it can be used as an instrument to defang the targeted regime. Under sanctions, both Saddam Hussein and Gaddafi agreed to destroy their weapons of mass destruction. When their deterrence capabilities were eliminated, Baghdad and Tripoli were bombed.
Broken engagement has spurred the remaining rogue regimes to revamp their military forces and cease any meaningful cooperation with the West. Iran has reinvigorated its challenge to the U.S. military by seizing a high-tech drone and blinding a satellite with a powerful laser.
On the surface, Myanmar has opened up to the West, and even North Korea has vowed to end uranium enrichment. Given the larger international reality, however, the appearance of conciliatory moves by these Asian regimes could only be intended to buy more time to upgrade their national security. Under the post-Iraq rules of conduct, the so-called rogue regimes have only one hope for long-term survival, and that is for the United States to suffer a major catastrophe. The prospects are not impossible, given that an increasingly belligerent Japan was knocked off the world stage, nearly overnight, by the Fukushima nuclear disaster. That unexpected event drastically altered the balance of forces in Northeast Asia.
Time in not on America’s side. The spiraling national debt, race-based politics at home, cyber-sabotage, climate change and job losses are chipping away at the imperial edifice. The policy of regime change is thereby flawed because if the United States does slip, nobody is coming to its rescue in its hour of need. To the contrary, the knives will be gleaming. A weakening American needs friends, not ever-more enemies.
Regime Change is Un-American
Over the decade since 9/11, Americans have been far more successful than their Founding Fathers at hastening the deaths of autocrats. Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration of Independence, also wrote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and of tyrants.” Tyrannicide is worth dying for, he argued. American independence was won, however, without enjoying the full satisfaction of chopping off the autocratic head of King George III. Instead of sailing to England to wreak vengeance on the royals (they actually had a naval vessel called The Tyrannicide), the hardy settlers focused their attention on the more pressing task of nation-building – debating a constitution, expanding interstate commerce to replace dependency on Europe, and forming a federal government to ensure defense and build roads.
Jefferson, an admirer of the French Revolution and Napoleon Bonaparte’s military campaigns against autocrats, was an early advocate of foreign intervention. Under his presidency, the United States launched its first overseas expeditions, known as the Barbary Wars aimed at regime change in what is now Libya and Tunisia.
In contrast, President George Washington had warned against entanglement in foreign adventurism, either for or against European powers. His skepticism was rooted in his earlier experience as a military commander in the French and Indian Wars along what is today the Canada-U.S. border region. As depicted in Cooper’s “The Last of the Mohicans,” the liberal and democratic-minded French were nonetheless capable of unleashing a dirty war of ambush, feigned truces and scalping against American settlements, showing no mercy to women and children. The elder general understood that diplomacy is best used to separate nations and their interests rather than to “entangle” them in alliances and wars. Refusing to be crowned king of America and an utter recluse when it came to foreign policy, Washington realized that by taking the fight against tyranny too far, one risked becoming a tyrant himself.
Self-containment is not isolationism, since leadership by example is far more effective in winning new friends than telling others how to govern their lives. Over the decade, from Iraq to Libya, Americans have allowed themselves to become hopelessly entangled in crises not of their own making. This is not heroism. It is folly. As for the problems of the world, fools rush in where wise men dare not go.
Yoichi Shimatsu, former associate editor of Pacific News Service and editor of The Japan Times Weekly, dispatched this commentary from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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