- How to describe U.S. foreign policy over the last couple of decades? Disastrous comes to mind. Arrogant and murderous also seem appropriate.
- The US-created fighting force morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but no president, including Biden, has honestly explained the basic facts to the American people.
- U.S. foreign policy suffers from systematic flaws in the thinking of the informal policy collective which former Obama aide Ben Rhodes dismissed as “The Blob.”
- American interventions—imposing economic sanctions, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations, unleashing drone campaigns, underwriting tyrannical regimes, supporting governments that occupy and oppress other peoples, displaying ostentatious hypocrisy and bias, and more.
During the past 60 years, the United States has suffered a series of failed wars in Indochina, Central America, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. Each of these wars produced mayhem and suffering, followed by an American retreat. While the U.S. has always argued that success needed just one more surge or bombing spree, the truth has been simpler and sadder. Ours have been wars of hatred, not logic, and doomed to fail — at a mind-boggling human and financial cost.
The U.S. didn’t want to save the Vietnamese, Cambodians, and Laotians, who were despised in US popular culture; America wanted to stop communism and the supposed “falling dominoes” across Southeast Asia. The U.S. didn’t want to save Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and others in poverty-stricken Central America; it wanted to stop leftist radicals who threatened American investments in the region. America didn’t want to save the Iraqis, Libyans, and Syrians; it wanted to topple regimes and replace them with US-backed regimes.
And the U.S. cared not a whit about Afghanistan, a point confirmed repeatedly by President Biden in recent days. Biden has noted, approvingly, that the United States went to Afghanistan for one reason and one reason only: to get Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda after 9/11, not to help the people of Afghanistan.
Since 9/11, Washington has been extraordinarily active militarily—invading two nations, bombing and droning several others, deploying special operations forces in yet more countries, and applying sanctions against many. Tragically, the threat of Islamist violence and terrorism only have metastasized. Although Al Qaeda lost its effectiveness indirectly plotting attacks, it continues to inspire national offshoots. Moreover, while losing its physical “caliphate” the Islamic State added further terrorism to its portfolio.
Three successive administrations have ever more deeply ensnared the United States in the Middle East. War with Iran appears to be frighteningly possible. Ever‐wealthier allies are ever‐more dependent on America. Russia is actively hostile to the United States and Europe. Washington and Beijing appear to be a collision course on far more than trade. Yet the current administration appears convinced that doing more of the same will achieve different results, the best definition of insanity.
The US-created fighting force morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban
Tellingly, Biden has not been truthful about the real origin of US intervention in Afghanistan, following a pattern set by his predecessors. America’s intervention in Afghanistan goes back to 1979, more than 20 years before 9/11, when the CIA secretly trained, armed, and funded Islamic jihadists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union. The US-created fighting force morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban, but no president, including Biden, has honestly explained the basic facts to the American people.
America’s culture has often been hostile toward the non-European world — the “shithole countries” in Donald Trump’s disgusting yet telling phrase. For the past 60 years, the United States has waged war after war for America’s narrow interests alone and has created havoc, destruction, and death in its wake.
In pulling the United States out of Afghanistan, Biden showed scant sympathy for the Afghan people. He mocked the idea of “nation-building,” an American phrase of scorn that seems to mean being naïve enough to try to help another country. Is it any surprise that the regime in Afghanistan propped up by American power crumbled so rapidly just as America departed?
Lest any American mistakenly think that much of the roughly $1 trillion the US spent in Afghanistan for war and reconstruction went towards nation-building, it did not. Perhaps 2 percent of the total US spending went for purposes such as health, education, and civilian infrastructure. Almost all the money went for military and security purposes — troops, armaments, Afghan security forces, and the like. After 20 years, we left behind a country where 38 percent of the children are stunted due to chronic undernutrition.
In explaining America’s exit, Biden played the typical American foreign policy tune, that the world is a very dangerous place filled with foes of America. The job of the president, Biden emphasized, is to protect America from those enemies, just no longer in Afghanistan. Here is how Biden summarized the global scene:
“This is a new world. The terror threat has metastasized across the world, well beyond Afghanistan. We face threats from Al Shabab in Somalia; Al Qaeda affiliates in Syria in and the Arabian Peninsula; and ISIS attempting to create a caliphate in Syria and Iraq, and establishing affiliates across Africa and Asia … And here’s a critical thing to understand: The world is changing. We’re engaged in a serious competition with China. We’re dealing with the challenges on multiple fronts with Russia. We’re confronted with cyberattacks and nuclear proliferation. We have to shore up America’s competitive[ness] to meet these new challenges in the competition for the 21st century.”
Here is what he should have said instead: All countries — including the United States, members of the European Union, Russia, China, Iran, and, yes, Afghanistan — are destabilized by the COVID-19 pandemic; the effects of the climate crisis (floods, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, heatwaves); widening income inequality further dividing the haves and have nots; the upheavals of digital technologies; and the dangerous political influence of plutocrats. All of these are shared problems across the globe, and all require intensive global cooperation rather than confrontation.
Albright typifies the arrogance and hawkishness of the Washington blob.
U.S. foreign policy suffers from systematic flaws in the thinking of the informal policy collective which former Obama aide Ben Rhodes dismissed as “The Blob.” Perhaps no official better articulated The Blob’s defective precepts than Madeleine Albright, United Nations ambassador and Secretary of State.
First is overweening hubris. In 1998 Secretary of State Albright declared that “If we have to use force, it is because we are America: we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger here to all of us.”
Even then her claim was implausible. America blundered into the Korean War and barely achieved a passable outcome. The Johnson administration infused Vietnam with dramatically outsize importance. For decades, Washington foolishly refused to engage the People’s Republic of China. Washington‐backed dictators in Cuba, Nicaragua, Iran, and elsewhere fell ingloriously. An economic embargo against Cuba that continues today helped turn Fidel Castro into a global folk hero. Washington veered dangerously close to nuclear war with Moscow during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 and again two decades later during military exercises in Europe.
U.S. officials rarely were prepared for events that occurred in the next week or month, let alone years later. Americans did no better than the French in Vietnam. Americans managed events in Africa no better than the British, French, and Portuguese colonial overlords. Washington made more than its share of bad, even awful decisions in dealing with other nations around the globe.
Perhaps the worst failing of U.S. foreign policy was ignoring the inevitable impact of foreign intervention. The U.S. would never passively accept another nation bombing, invading, and occupying their nation, or interfering in their political system. Even if outgunned, they would resist. Yet Washington has undertaken all of these practices, with little consideration of the impact on those most affected—hence the rise of terrorism against the United States. Terrorism, horrid and awful though it is, became the weapon of choice of weaker peoples against intervention by the world’s industrialized national states.
The U.S. record since September 11 has been uniquely counterproductive. Rather than minimize hostility toward America, Washington adopted a policy—highlighted by launching new wars, killing more civilians, and ravaging additional societies—guaranteed to create enemies, exacerbate radicalism, and spread terrorism. Blowback is everywhere. Among the worst examples: Iraqi insurgents mutated into ISIS, which wreaked military havoc throughout the Middle East and turned to terrorism.
Albright’s assumption that members of The Blob were far-seeing was matched by her belief that the same people were entitled to make life-and-death decisions for the entire planet. When queried 1996 about her justification for sanctions against Iraq which had killed a half million babies—notably, she did not dispute the accuracy of that estimate—she responded that “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” Exactly who “we” were she did not say. Most likely she meant those Americans admitted to the foreign policy priesthood, empowered to make foreign policy and take the practical steps necessary to enforce it. (She later stated of her reply: “I never should have made it. It was stupid.” It was, but it reflected her mindset.)
In any normal country, such a claim would be shocking—a few people sitting in another capital deciding who lived and died. Foreign elites, a world away from the hardship that they imposed, decide the value of those dying versus the purported interests being promoted. Those paying the price had no voice in the decision, no way to hold their persecutors accountable.
The willingness to so callously sacrifice so many helps explain why “they” often hate us, usually meaning the U.S. government. This is also because “they” believe average Americans hate them. Understandably, it too often turns out, given the impact of the full range of American interventions—imposing economic sanctions, bombing, invading, and occupying other nations, unleashing drone campaigns, underwriting tyrannical regimes, supporting governments that occupy and oppress other peoples, displaying ostentatious hypocrisy and bias, and more.
This mindset is reinforced by contempt toward even those being aided by Washington. Although American diplomats had termed the Kosovo Liberation Army as “terrorist,” the Clinton Administration decided to use the growing insurgency as an opportunity to expand Washington’s influence. At the 1999 Rambouillet conference Albright made demands of Yugoslavia that no independent, sovereign state could accept: that, for instance, it acts like defeated and occupied territory by allowing the free transit of NATO forces. Washington expected the inevitable refusal, which was calculated to provide justification for launching an unprovoked, aggressive war against the Serb‐dominated remnant of Yugoslavia.
However, initially, the KLA, determined on independence, refused to sign Albright’s agreement. She exploded. One of her officials anonymously complained: “Here is the greatest nation on earth pleading with some nothing balls to do something entirely in their own interest—which is to say yes to an interim agreement—and they stiff us.” Someone described as “a close associate” observed: “She is so stung by what happened. She’s angry at everyone—the Serbs, the Albanians, and NATO.” For Albright, the determination of others to achieve their own goals, even at risk to their lives, was an insult to America and her.
Alas, members of the Blob view Americans with little more respect. The ignorant masses should do what they are told. (Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster recently complained of public war-weariness from fighting in Afghanistan for no good reason for more than seventeen years.) Even more so, believed Albright, members of the military should cheerfully patrol the quasi‐empire being established by Washington’s far-sighted leaders.
As Albright famously asked Colin Powell in 1992: “What’s the use of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” To her, American military personnel apparently were but gambit pawns in a global chess game, to be sacrificed for the interest and convenience of those playing. No wonder then‐Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell’s reaction stated in his autobiography was: “I thought I would have an aneurysm.”
When asked in 2003 about the incident, she said “what I thought was that we had—we were in a kind of a mode of thinking that we were never going to be able to use our military effectively again.” Although sixty-five years had passed, she admitted that “my mindset is Munich,” a unique circumstance and threat without even plausible parallel today.
Such a philosophy explains a 1997 comment by a cabinet member, likely Albright, to General Hugh Shelton, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Hugh, I know I shouldn’t even be asking you this, but what we really need in order to go in and take out Saddam is a precipitous event—something that would make us look good in the eyes of the world. Could you have one of our U‑2s flies low enough—and slow enough—so as to guarantee that Saddam could shoot it down?” He responded sure, as soon as she qualified to fly the plane.
Anyone of these comments could be dismissed as a careless aside. Taken together, however, they reflect an attitude dangerous for Americans and foreigners alike. Unfortunately, the vagaries of U.S. foreign policy suggest that this mindset is not limited to any one person. Any president serious about taking a new foreign-policy direction must do more than drain the swamp. He or she must sideline The Blob
America’s mortal enemies are not China, Iran, and Russia. Our real enemies are the common scourges facing humanity today. Global problems cannot be solved by individual nations alone.
It is uncertain whether America will change its relentless aggressive foreign policy for our own good, and the world. Our nation has been at war for centuries. Our repeated failures have led the political right to double down, calling with increasing fervor for more weapons, and further escalation with China, Iran, Russia, and other alleged foes. Yes, we have pulled out of Afghanistan — 42 years too late — and that is good. But will the United States adopt a new foreign policy based on peace and problem-solving? That’s the real question.
Jeffrey D. Sachs is a university professor at Columbia University, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University, and president of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network.