U.S. Foreign Policy: Inept, or Something Else?

"Possible explanations can become needlessly complex. It is coherent, for instance, to add the involvement of leprechauns to any explanation, but Occam's razor would prevent such additions unless they were necessary."  I think we can rule out leprechauns ...

“Possible explanations can become needlessly complex. It is coherent, for instance, to add the involvement of leprechauns to any explanation, but Occam’s razor would prevent such additions unless they were necessary.” I think we can rule out leprechauns …

Dan Mason

What follows is a subject for open debate. It is a very serious subject, and I have had trouble solving the dilemma to my personal satisfaction. Please feel free to offer other conclusions because this really perplexes me. Here it is:

Why does US foreign policy/military interventions appear to be completely inept?

I have been asking myself this question, framed in various ways, for a long time. I mean, let’s face it, the 21st century has been pretty terrible for America so far. Anybody can list the failures, and many of these failures were both predictable, and predicted.

It really goes back to the Viet Nam war. After Viet Nam American intervention got into high gear with a military presence nearly everywhere on the planet. At first, the constant display of American power may not have been welcomed, but it was thought necessary as a counter against perceived Soviet and Chinese aggression. As the world changed, the Soviets seemed less of a threat, Nixon made nice with China, and the perceived aggression from the communist-bloc countries waned. But the American military presence, and American intervention, continued to grow nonetheless. Now, as the only superpower, America is increasingly thought of as a bully, interfering in places where we are not wanted, often with disastrous results.

I take it as a given that there are a lot of very smart people who have a major influence on US policy. Some may believe they constitute a hidden cabal of “illuminati,” but I believe there are small groups as well as individuals who simply have great influence in the halls of power. These are not necessarily the O’Reillys or Clintons or Kochs or any of the other seekers after personal legacy and power. They are in the military, CIA, NSA, Rand, GE, Morgan Stanley, and a hundred other places. Their number is relatively small, but they can tap legions of the best and brightest for answers to questions that most people wouldn’t even think to ask.

I also believe that the various war colleges and think tanks continuously run through every possible scenario that they can imagine to prepare for every possible outcome. Ike once said something like “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” Anyway, Tom Clancy said it was so, therefore it must be.

If we have so many smart folks with such huge resources doing so much planning, how can we continue to make grievous foreign policy errors? Why does US foreign policy and military interventions appear to be completely inept?

When I run into a problem that doesn’t make sense I tend to drag out Occam’s Razor. If I apply the Razor to my initial question, the only place it works is with the word ‘appear’. Is it possible that US policy is not as inept as it appears? If I accept that US policy is not as inept as it appears, I must be misinterpreting the objective of the policy. OK, so let’s try to reinterpret a few things, with the old premise followed by the new premise (old/new):

1) Win the Iraq, Afghan wars/Contain the mess: The elected Pols and their appointees foisted unwinnable wars on a frightened and gullible public using Goebbels “Big Lie.” A cowed military initially tried to push back a little, but they weren’t willing to risk anything important. By any possible accounting the wars went badly, very badly. The “surge” was really just a bandaid operation that bought some time. There was no real pacification (who wants to stand next to an Iraqi soldier whose family was shredded by an American bomb a few years earlier?) The Sunni/Shiite rift is now more severe than it has been since the Iran/Iraq war. A US “win” in either Iraq or Afghanistan is no longer realistic.

The last thing we want is to just cut and run. America must wrap these two wars up with a ribbon. Anything less would be viewed as a failure by the entire planet. As I see it, the only option is containment. Iraq and Afghanistan are broken beyond repair, and the only resolution will be for the different factions to fight until they wear each other out. I think that is the objective, but ISIS has thrown a huge wrench into that plan. The hope is that we can get away with using only token ground forces. Any thoughts of pacification are now over. It is down to McCain’s Bomb, Bomb, Bomb. If, when, the mess does spread? Well, bombs are relatively cheap.

2) Let’s see how far we can push the Russians without starting WW3/Contain the Russkies: No doubt about it, America’s proxy military (NATO) has pushed east in an effort to box the Russians in. The US (NATO) has been relentlessly pushing to the very borders of Russia with only the Ukraine left as a buffer. The US instigated an uprising in Kiev in an effort to knock Russia off-balance, yeah that Kiev (first capitol of the Russ people.) We attack countries on the other side of the globe, and accuse the Russians of imperialism in their front yard.

The Russians aren’t trying to expand anywhere. They are reacting against American attempts (successful) to put a fence around them. I think the Russians are done and are willing to pull some kind of trigger if the US keeps it up. Putin has made his red lines pretty clear. Hopefully, America will be satisfied with what has been accomplished in containing Russia. To paraphrase an old Chinese expression: corner bear, lose face.

3) Challenge China in Asia/Contain the Chinese: A few hundred years ago China was the most advanced country on earth. Things changed, and went downhill. The Chinese remember, and they are throwing off a collective shame at having let things get so bad. That is over now, they are back, and they want their proper place in the global pecking order. They want to be first again. The USA says “settle for second.”

The Chinese push for control of worthless scraps of land (Daiyou/Senkakku islands.) China pulls a replay of the Monroe Doctrine and declares the South China Sea to be their version of the Caribbean. They begin a massive upgrade of their military (monetarily a pittance by US standards.) The US pushes back with symbolic overflights in areas where China has unilaterally (any other way?) declared no fly zones. The pushing and shoving will take some time before the boundaries solidify. Containing China will not be easy. They know what the Americans are up to because it is the same thing the Chinese are up to. Tip: Don’t buy property in Taiwan.

So, my best guess is that US long term strategy is all about containment, and maintaining the status quo with America as the world’s only superpower, for years maybe, not decades, certainly not centuries. I don’t think it is a secret, it just isn’t publicized. Just because I think some very smart people may be advocating it as policy doesn’t mean that I think it will be successful, I have my doubts.

The world is a much, much smaller place than it was when I started traveling overseas. There is no longer any room for more than one superpower. Soon there won’t be enough room for even one, and that is a recipe for conflict. The obvious winners would be those that Ike warned us about over sixty years ago, the Military Industrial Complex and multinational (read Stateless) corporations. I see no other beneficiaries, in any country. Even if the containment policy is effective, we will derive no good from it.

The US military published the results of a study on climate change recently. The conclusion was that global warming is real, and a major threat to military operations (mainly logistics.) That was published. I think they looked into the abyss and it scared the crap out of them. That was not published.

Look at a globe. North and South America are Islands with North America easily defendable against anything but nukes. Bomb, Bomb, Bomb cannot conquer territory, but it can quickly stop an invasion. If Russia and China can be kept contained and off-balance, then when the climate/population tipping point is reached then they will both end up fighting for survival against each other and everybody else they border on. Middle East oil will still be there. The USA will be able to watch from afar.

Please feel free to use a flamethrower on my thoughts above, but also try to answer the original question.  Inept — or something else?

Through an unbelievable stroke of luck the US Army drafted, then trained Dan Mason as a telecommunications tech and sent him to Thailand during the Viet Nam war. So began a thirty-five year adventure, working and living overseas, to include Thailand, W. Germany, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hong Kong, and China.  Those experiences helped him to see and absorb different perspectives on world events and to read behind the headlines.

16 thoughts on “U.S. Foreign Policy: Inept, or Something Else?

  1. Containment essentially means maintaining the status quo, but for whom? The powers that be always seek to maintain — and to expand — their power. But I do agree that corporations, banking and finance, the military-industrial complex, and other, largely faceless, entities are calling the shots. They profit and prosper best from a global containment policy based on military action.

    And what are they containing? Is it Russian power or Chinese ambitions? Perhaps. But they’re also containing meaningful change while pushing back at any reform movement that smacks of what they term “socialism.” They want to preserve their power, profits, and privileges. They don’t want to share; indeed, they don’t believe they should share. It’s all theirs because they are “the masters of the universe.”

    But they are so fixated on short-term profits and “stability” that they are ruining the planet over the long term. And the militarized policies they pursue, bombing and so on, are sowing the seeds of another crusade, unleashing forces that they won’t be able to control in places like the Middle East.

    Think, for example, of oil and gas. There are so many trillions of dollars of that stuff still in the ground. So oil companies fund studies to deny global warming. They keep the price fairly low to encourage consumption. They discourage efforts at alternative fuels. Irrational? No. Not if your goal is to maximize profits for the few while minimizing change for the many. Meanwhile, the global mission of the U.S. military further ensures massive consumption of fossil fuels to power all those ships, planes, tanks, and so on.

    We’re caught in a feedback/consumption loop based on aggression that even our bountiful planet can no longer sustain. But don’t tell the “makers” that. They want to keep “making” by consuming everything for the taking. And in that false name of “making,” the drive for more “taking” drives U.S. foreign policy.

  2. Dan.. Your ‘tongue in cheek’ critique of US foreign policy is ‘right on’. You ask ;”why are we so inept “. It is our history that makes our policies so inept. The newly freed ( from English rule) colonies set ‘mercantilism’ as a national goal and nothing could stand in the way of a successful sale. We sent our primitive fleet to Tripoli to defend our trade in the Mediterranean. We beat the savages who were interfering with our ‘trade’ and that victory for our mercantile class (read today 1% ers) has driven our policies since then.

    You are too young to remember but prior to WW II “isolationism” was the policy of the 1% to keep us out of European entanglements as Hitler was ramping up the takeover of Europe. The Bush family was happy doing business with Nazi Germany and saw no need to change that situation. We could sell to both sides. Mercantilism has no “moral” side.

    After WW II our 1% ers saw the opportunity to secure the world as our “market” and from our secure location in North America with no pesky neighbors (the Monroe Doctrine precluded that) and their narrow “mercantile” view it was a do able project.

    So today that “do able” policy has succeeded in destabilizing the Middle East, Europe, and is on its way to the same in
    Asia. In following this insane policy our 1% ers have ruined not only our economy but the world’s and maybe only national penury will forestall wars.

  3. B. Taven is correct. The problem is not new. In fact, it goes back to the very first dealings of the colonists with the First Nations they met here. Every war we have gotten into (other than the Revolution, the Civil War and the Second World War, and there are some questions to be still resolved regarding these) were the result of what historian Marc Bloch meant when he wrote, “Misunderstanding of the present is the inevitable consequence of ignorance of the past.”

    There is likely no country in existence – or that ever existed – that is so ignorant of the past in every situation in which it finds itself.

  4. We have previously discussed here on TCP that “ineptitude” isn’t really pondered in the corridors of power. Keep blowing stuff up, keep the contracts for replacements flowing to the “Defense Industry” and everybody’s wearing a happy face. When occasionally some US personnel get blown up overseas, well, they’re expendable, they signed up to kill and die, right? The combined might of the US Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines could not defeat the guerilla fighters of Viet Nam, because the latter were engaged in a desperate struggle to defend their land against foreign aggressors. Ineptitude and failures in the decades since then? Well, try this for an explanation: no one nation, regardless of a $1 trillion annual outlay for military/intel ops, can possibly control the whole bloody world!! Shouldn’t that be obvious? Is it not insane to believe such a thing is possible? But greed and hubris sweep this inconvenient truth under the carpet. I am not about to expend time and energy trying to concoct a “winning game plan” for US imperialism. I am utterly opposed to the phenomenon in the first place.

  5. Goodness, much to comment on here. First, one thing I learned a long time ago is that people get lost in the forest of details and innuendo. At some point you get thru the forest and take a good look from above that the truth is usually very simple, and stated in 1 liners. However, getting there is the problem.

    One of the biggest problems in the ‘dilemma’ presented here is a belief system that is not addressed. To do this realistically, the rose colored glasses need to come off I think this requires a willingness to look at the core belief systems that drive people, including our history. This is never done with either honesty and truth. History is always written by the ruling elite to justify its behavior, politicies, belief systems.

    This country, truth be told, was begun by the losers of European aristocracy and the very poor. Both came here with highly damaged egos. And more so, they came free from the constraints of societies run thru rigid standards and cultural mores and values. Lots of room for narcissism and egoism to thrive here.

    So when I remove the rose colored glasses I see a country always based on hubris, greed and prejudice. Morality, ethics, mutual respect? A fantasy. Many groups came for their own survival reasons but that had nothing to do with respecting others doing the same. It is still the same today.

    Fast forwarding, we have a ruling elite that has always supported fascism and elitism over the masses. Amazing that we ever got a document like the Constitution of the Bill of Rights voted into being. They are good tools that people continue to use, but hey get subverted by those in power. Witness Citizens United!

    The economic institution is and always is the controlling social institution in avery society. All others develop or change to support the economic one. Capitalism is the one that gained power here. It was always about the belief in the power of money and by any means necessary. Capitalism stands in direct opposition to Democracy which demands more equitable participation of the mass of people. Capitalism, finds Democracy very messy which is why the US has overturned every duly elected Democratic state. and installed dictators.
    Of course the public is repeatedly informed that we fight for democracy every time we overturn another duly elected govt that does not subscribe to US dominance.

    My take on the question here is that our foreign policy, while making mistakes, is not a mess. It is doing exactly what the 1% want to do. It was decided a long time ago to destroy the mid-East. Chaos, war, internal civil wars–all make money for the super wealthy. Jeez, the US put millions into a neo-Nazi movement in Ukraine to destabilize that region. This country chose the new leader of that country, a man who would support the US plans for the EU and NATO. It is a vicious and bigoted administration which has slaughtered 1000’s of people over there. Of course we only get ‘news’ that trashes Russia, so much of it blatant lies. We know the public is considered collateral damage by the 1% so too bad if disrupt the social fabric of a stable population/country. The US has also been supporting ISIS. Israel has been on record supporting ISIS. Remember the US created Al Queda and trained Bin Laden. I have no doubt that the US did not kill him but it made good political reading. He did die, but most likely from kidney failure in Pakistan years before.

    So this is getting too wordy. In sum, I believe that the US, with its massive hubris and belief in its own exceptionalism is hell bent on controlling the entire world. It wants control of all the resources. It wants to eliminate many millions of people that get in the way. It thinks and believes that those in power will remain in power for many decades and their their progeny can pick up the pieces whether it be from tracking damage, climate change, vaccine damage and other drug destruction (talking about the medical ones). The prison industry is nothing more than a new form of enslavement, mainly for people of color and poor folk. This is not accidental. All one needs to do is remove the rose colored glasses and take a good look at the sum of all the alleged security laws to see how they all trash our civil liberties and move towards the militarization of the civil police structures. Those laws will apply to anyone they deem a problem, or in the way of the ruling agenda.

    The middle class was created as a barrier between the ruling elite and the poor. The middle class serves a shrinking purpose and will find itself pushed down the social ladder which has already been happening. Their children can no longer expect good paying jobs and comfortable life. When the wealth of their parents is used up, the successive generations will just be working class/poor folk with a lot of education unpaid for.

    So, no the mess, is not a mess. I do think it is intentional. It is just messy for most of the public that has no say in it.

    • For me, a “baby boomer,” the rose colored spectacles were knocked to the floor and ground into powder by the spectacle of the War Against Viet Nam being broadcast nightly on the living room TV. What is the merit of a “system” that could perpetrate such heinous crimes? Ever since, I have looked very closely at every US foreign policy and action and have found nothing I can applaud or approve of. Nothing!

  6. The USA has a large and capable military: “When you’re a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail.” Everything is not a ‘nail’, military solutions are often a delusion. Consider some wisdom from ISIL “A single political mistake (leads to) a result that is worse than one hundred military mistakes.” The USA is the ‘master’ at making ‘political mistakes’ in foreign policy.

    a big problem is: “It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.” (Walter Lippmann) Americans like to think we can control ‘situations’ and that is questionable at best, at worst American efforts have made ‘situations’ worse. A problem must be OBJECTIVELY defined and understood before it can be solved.

    American and Americans consider themselves (we) the an example to the rest of the world. ‘They’ often don’t agree, for example “… the US possesses every single NPD trait (Narcissistic Personality Disorder): harbours feelings of grandiosity and self-importance; is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success and power; believes in its uniqueness; has a very strong sense of entitlement;  is interpersonally exploitative; lacks empathy; is arrogant and haughty; feels superior, omnipotent, omniscient, invincible, immune, “above the law”, and omnipresent.” Amal Saad-Ghorayeb
    See: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/11/narcissistic-us-an-anxious-saudi-arabia-hysterical-israel-201311301119738260.html An ounce of image is worth a pound of performance, and ‘Real’ American Patriots refuse to let facts interfere with their beliefs.

    Perhaps the USA ought to invest more, time, effort & money in diplomacy and propaganda.

    • Wow! “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”!!! Talk about hitting the ol’ nail dead on the head!! Thank you, “equote”!

      • Actually it much worse than that indicates. Factions in this country want to ‘deal with’ those that may impede their will. It has happened before – if you didn’t look at the link – https://tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/jig01 – I posted regarding the ‘confederacy’ you should. America is getting there again and anyone who posts on this site … well use your imagination.

      • Interestingly, I recently watched an independently produced “western,” called “Dead Man’s Burden.” The tale unfolds in the Great State of Texas, c. 1870. Our chief protagonist served in the Union Army and the hatred he encounters upon returning home (via a meandering route; he’d been presumed dead, on the Confederate side!) palpably hangs in the air. And my, look at the progress we’ve made!! I know there are a lot of decent folks in TX, but good grief! I think I’m ready to say “Let ’em secede!!” Then they can put Confederate flags, Nazi swastikas, whatever makes them happy, on their frickin’ license plates!

      • note: Texas doesn’t allow confederate flags on auto license plates, and despite a sizable German rooted population the swastika is reviled.
        Most Texans don’t want to secede (and many opposed joining the confederacy, some paid dearly for it) (Texas politicians like Federal $ as long are there are no strings attached). Texans follow Godwin’s law just as you have. Please, avoid western movies in forming an opinion of the ‘wild west’. They are a myth, they reflect the ideals of their makers. John Wayne in the searchers bears NO similarity to Parker’s unsuccessful quest to recover Cynthia Ann and even less to Quint Johnson’s retrieval of several women from Comanche/Kiowa captivity. To understand Texas, you must consider the three motivations for humans, power, money and sex (some add ‘fame’). Texas is mostly a money culture. First there was Cotton (which required slaves in days past) and Anglo Texas ignored the Mexican prohibition of slavery to make a buck (some argue the Texas Revolution was about slavery, but I argue it was about the Anglo refusal being told what to do which is at the heart of politics here), then after the uncivil war there were cattle, which lead to the rape of the land, and finally there is oil (oil & gas IS the Texas economy) which is leading to the destruction of groundwater and fouling the air. To understand this great state: follow the money.
        Americans could learn much from Texas History (which is also the history of Mexico), but the myth of Custer, Butch Casidy & Sundance, and Jessie James are what most Americans know. MacKenzie, Pink Higgins and the Newton Boys are not mythical enough for Americans. Want to know about the dangers of immigration, read Teran’s findings from his 1828 ‘vista’ to Texas.

      • In defense of the film I cited, the dialogue sounded very authentic to the period depicted. Similarly, the dialogue in the Coen brothers’ version of “True Grit” was perhaps THE key element in its being so enjoyable for me. Though I haven’t read the original Charles Portis novel (I’ve read his first, “Norwood”), I have no doubt this version was much truer to the book than John Wayne’s version. All this being a longwinded intro to my pointing out that I was, of course, jesting about Texas seceding. According to fairly recent news reports, it took a court ruling to halt the movement to place the Confederate flag on TX license plates. It’s not like I invented that! Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas seem to be home to the politicians most intent on trying to portray human-induced global climate change as a myth. TX and OK, of course, are big into oil and gas; I think Kansans just enjoy being whack-jobs! (Oh dear, am I making enemies out there? I’ll take my chances.) I could pillory the electorate of those states for electing and then returning to office that ilk of politician…but then what can we say about the American electorate as a whole, looking back on those elected to the White House in recent decades???

        By the way, Marx and Engels corresponded with a Union general of German descent who’d settled in TX, who provided much of the information analysed for their “The Civil War in the United States.” So I do know a little about Texas history.

  7. Don Said: “Please feel free to use a flamethrower on my thoughts above, but also try to answer the original question. Inept — or something else?”

    Al McCoy will flame you thoughts and answer with a combination of inept and something else at http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176007/tomgram%3A_alfred_mccoy,_washington%27s_great_game_and_why_it%27s_failing_/
    for variations on the theme read: http://www.nakedcapitalism.com/2015/06/the-geopolitics-of-american-global-decline-washington-versus-china-in-the-twenty-first-century.html

    This is the most important topic on the website, but your article and the comments (mine included) don’t do enough to define and analyze the current situation in the world. I suspect all the criticism of the USA is just ‘pissin against the wind’ because the US may soon be a secondary player on his planet … Read the links and decide for yourself. Hopefully the comments here will multiply and increase understanding of the state of the world.

    • Thus sayeth Karl Marx (paraphrasing): “Philosophers have long worked to explain the world. The object is to CHANGE IT.” (emphasis added)

  8. US policy makers are not all inept:
    “Mr. President, I understand from what has been said that we can lick China. What I don’t understand is what we would do with China after we got them licked.” Charles Wilson, Secretary of Defense 1953.

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