Tuesday, October 2, 2012

In Defense of Non-Interventionism: A Third Option in the Middle East


I recently wrote a response to a friends article in the JHU Politik, a student run political publication here at Hopkins. You can read the full magazine here. My essay, which advocates a non-interventionist foreign policy, is re-posted below:

Henry Chen’s recent article “In Defense of the Arab Spring” effectively discredits the pursuit of regional stability through the suppression and containment of foreign democratic uprisings. However, it fails to address another important alternative to current U.S. policies abroad; as such, it poses a false choice between two different types of intervention, without adequately justifying any intervention in the first place. The best way for the United States to both serve its short-term interests and enhance its long-term security is to end its material entanglements in the Middle East altogether.

American history is rife with ineffective and counterproductive meddling abroad. Chen’s article admits the failure of one such case: the 1953 CIA-initiated coup in Iran. The article presents the disastrous long-term consequences of these actions as evidence that imposing Western ideology on faraway peoples is shortsighted and misguided. It correctly argues that America should use more foresight when considering such measures in the future, but then fails to apply that same standard to recent U.S. involvement in the Arab Spring.

Many people distinguish between these cases by citing a different motivation. Intervening to spread democracy, they argue, is different than intervening to spread capitalism or pro-Western sentiment. But just like any other ideal, democracy does not exist in absolute terms. It exists only in degrees, and the presence of some degree of democracy does not guarantee moral behavior now or in the future. Adolf Hitler, Vladimir Putin, and the Muslim Brotherhood were each democratically elected; they also each have characteristics that the United States might not want to be associated with. It is highly uncertain whether the governments the United States is installing, funding and protecting will turn out to be any less oppressive than the regimes they replaced. In a region as turbulent and unpredictable as the Middle East, the U.S. cannot afford to bet its image on the outcome of such risky experiments.

The true lesson from Iran is not that the foreign government propped up by the United States was insufficiently democratic. Nor is that the lesson from our support of Saddam Hussein, or the Mujaheddin  or Mubarak. The true lesson is that in a complex region with complex interests at stake, it’s often difficult even for well-meaning policymakers to objectively discern who the “good guys” are. It’s even tougher to determine whether or not they will remain good. The United States has an atrocious track record when it comes to making that determination, and when it chooses incorrectly it has real consequences for our nation’s safety and message. Ideologically, it damages America’s image, decreases its influence abroad and diminishes the appeal of democracy to subsequent generations. Morally, it renders the United States partially responsible for foreign atrocities. And practically, it wastes money and weakens our security by inflaming anti-American sentiment across the globe. The recent protests occurred in part because the Middle East does not want to be America’s playground for experimental regime change any longer. If the newly installed governments turn out to be less than ideal, it will only engender even more hatred and extremist violence against the United States.

America’s dark history of botched intervention in Middle Eastern affairs demands that it use its money and military more selectively. Its current debt crisis necessitates that restraint. Democracy can be a tremendous force for good in the world, but that does not mean externally orchestrated regime change, nation building and monetary aid are effective ways to spread it. Rather, the best way to attract foreign nations to democracy is to make our own democracy as appealing as possible. When we instead appoint ourselves as uninvited arbiters in their regional disputes, we rather closely resemble the dictators we depose.

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