The time is long past when the United States should stop viewing itself as a baby-sitter, cop, fireman and all-purpose rescuer for many nations of the world. We’ve been filling that role for at least a couple of decades now, and it’s time to stop. As 2014 begins, I would give my left arm, or other less useful parts of my body, if on this date one year from now every one of America’s sons and daughters would be home – permanently – from Iraq, Afghanistan, and most of our other self-appointed war zones and outposts in the Mideast and Africa.
And I would not weep if we also reduced our military presence in Germany, Japan and South Korea. For more than 60 years we have kept massive forces in those countries, on alert and prepared for enemy assaults that have become less likely with each passing day.
As long as the Soviet Union was a force to be reckoned with, Washington’s leaders – in either party – could justify flexing our muscles overseas to carry out the containment strategy that was the U.S. foreign policy foundation from 1945 onward. But by 1990 the Soviet Union – and the Communist threat that was part of the package – had begun to crumble. We entered the 1990s with what seemed to many to be military and economic clout to spare.
At about the same time, according to some experts, our longstanding Soviet bugaboo was replaced by the “failed nation” theory of foreign policy. This was the belief that the major threat to our nation lay with regions and countries such as the Mideast, Somalia, Haiti and the Balkans, which were repeatedly areas of turbulence, chaos, conflict, disease and (later) terrorism. Proponents of the failed nation camp suggested that such nations might eventually export their troubles directly to the United States and to our interests around the world.
These beliefs had relatively few backers until September 2001, when Mideast terrorists took command of four U.S. commercial airliners and caused the death of about 3,000 innocent American lives. From that point on, U.S. foreign policy focused on hate-filled – and very clever – enemies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and scattered terrorist training centers in northeastern Africa.
The U.S. and some of our allies declared war, not on other governments, but on confirmed and suspected terrorists. The west sent thousands of armed men and women, plus well-paid and sometimes ill-disciplined mercenaries, to find and kill the terrorists. There was a high degree of logic in such a policy. But there soon came an expansion of such a goal. It came to be known as “nation building.” The assumption was that unless a fragmented Humpty Dumpty nation dominated by one or more terrorist groups could be re-organized along democratic lines, the potential for further terrorist attacks on western targets would always be there.
Now, a dozen years later, it’s clear that nation-building hasn’t worked, especially in the Mideast, where tribal and religious loyalties (and conflicts) are far stronger than any democratic instincts that might be instilled. The allies have lost thousands of our warriors in battle and have spent many billions of dollars in warfare costs, training of foreign militia and payment of bribes to cooperative native leaders. Some improvements have been made. But current indicators point toward the likelihood that, as western troops are brought home, chaos, corruption and terrorist domination will again reign supreme.
By now the U.S. and our partners in nation-building should have learned our lesson: it is virtually impossible for outsiders to invade a shambled nation or region and re-construct it, with any realistic hope that it will endure. Such a hope is even more unrealistic when the invaders have caused the death of thousands of civilians in the course of “liberating” them from the terrorists who may or may not have been among them.
In decades to come, the USA will continue to wage war on terrorists, both foreign and domestic. New methods of fighting those battles will evolve. None of them will be perfect. But none of them should permit our sending large contingents of troops on ill-defined missions, for undetermined lengths of time, into semi-civilized regions whose occupants may not need, want, or even know how to be saved. This is not isolationism. In view of world history since 2001, it is simply common sense.