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The world according to Gatsby: smash things and then retreat

Commentary: The foibles of Tom and Daisy Buchanan remind us of the US government.
Iraq attack 07 19 2013Enlarge
An attack killed two in the Iraqi city of Kirkuk, last week. As of early July, 2,600 were killed in Iraqi violence since April, nearly 200 a week. (Marwan Ibrahim/AFP/Getty Images)

OWL’S HEAD, Maine — "They were careless people, Tom and Daisy — they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that held them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made…" F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Remind you of anything?

I re-read The Great Gatsby on a plane flying home from the Middle East a few weeks back. Last time I had read it was about 50 years ago. And suddenly, at 30,000 feet above the Atlantic, anticipatory jet-lag gripping me, I had a revelation: Tom and Daisy Buchanan reminded me of nothing so much as the United States government.

Look at Iraq: terrorist explosions are going off there daily. Pick up the New York Times almost any day and hidden away in some corner — this isn't big news any more — will be a few paragraphs, headed "40 Shiites Killed in Iraq Bombings" or "Coordinated Attacks Hit 4 Iraq Cities."

As of early July, 2,600 had been killed in Iraqi violence since the first of April; that's nearly 200 a week. Iraq is on its way to a Sunni-Shiite civil war, along the lines of the one the US invasion produced in the middle of the last decade. Or maybe nothing so dramatic, just a gradual descent into failed state status.

The US, courtesy Dick Cheney, his protege George W. Bush, and the rest of the neo-con contingent — who knew no more about the Arab World than Tom and Daisy Buchanan did — "smashed up [Iraq] and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness…"

And now, as reported in The New York Times ten days ago, "President Obama is giving serious consideration to speeding up the withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan and to a 'zero option' that would leave no American troops there after next year…"

This is an understandable reaction to dealing with Afghanistan's mercurial — some would say borderline nutcase — President Karzai. But Karzai is of course our creation. And Afghanistan is Obama's "good war." One can say there's little point in further self-flagellation about Afghanistan; we went in, legitimately, after 9/11 to overthrow the Taliban that had provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda. And within six weeks, al-Qaeda was on the run, the Taliban-ruled government had collapsed; victory was ours.

Then hubris took over. Not for the first time: the Soviets and the Brits had tried to conquer Afghanistan but so too had most Eurasian armies going back to Alexander the Great. Bush could have been out of there, mission accomplished, by the end of 2001. But he dithered on, promoting democracy or some other neo-con fantasy, for the rest of his presidency.

And then President Obama, whose level of foreign policy expertise was about the same as his predecessor, and whose non-neo-con advisors were just as inept as Bush's neo-con variety, doubled down on American troops. Simultaneously, he gave the Taliban all the ammo they needed to withstand the upgraded US effort by pinpointing the US troop pull-out date: "Hang in through 2014 and it's all yours." So now, with who knows how many Afghans dead, the US is once again "retreat[ing] back into [our] money or [our] vast carelessness…"

Viewed from a different angle, President Obama's interest in getting the US completely out of Afghanistan is a positive acknowledgment that our past preference for boots on the ground has been working against US interests, often only serving to incubate those very elements we later were targeting. And how much of a difference in any case would a small contingent of 10,000 American military trainers stationed in Kabul and surrounding areas have on Afghanistan's future?

Perhaps we're finally learning some very expensive lessons: Washington has decreasing influence in key parts of the world these days and playing by Cold War rules is counter-productive. A friend of mine, a well-traveled and astute observer, was touring Eastern Europe recently, meeting with a variety of knowledgeable locals and embassy officials. He noted, in passing, how little influence the US has there, how insignificant educated Eastern Europeans found the US or its policies, a far cry from the 1990s when the US was appreciated as the key player in the newly liberated region.

Even in our own backyard, things ain't what they used to be. An article in The New York Times recently, commenting on the White House's frustration over Edward Snowden's asylum-seeking, concluded, "Washington is finding its leverage in Latin America is limited, a reflection of how a region that was once a broad zone of American power has become increasingly confident of its ability to act independently. Our influence in the hemisphere is diminishing."

And it's diminishing as well in the Middle East, where despite the tragic bloodshed, Washington has kept out of the Syrian civil war, aware that our ability to influence the outcome is almost non-existent. In Egypt, where Morsi supporters and coup backers alike are increasingly anti-American, the US has kept a relatively low profile. It's not surprising we would want to send our second highest-ranking diplomat, Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, to Cairo over the weekend, though it seemed an unnecessary, if mild, throwback to our in-your-face diplomacy for him to be — publicly — urging the Egyptian military to "hasten Egypt's return to a democratically elected government as soon as possible."

Even Secretary of State Kerry's obsession with the long-dead search for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem at least has the advantage of keeping his attention away from meddling in areas where we are not wanted. And despite ongoing pressure from Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's right-wing government, Obama clearly has little interest in choosing the war option to tamp down Iran's nuclear ambitions.

Post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq, post-Arab Spring, isolationism — a retreat to what in fact was, for a century and a half, our preferred way of dealing with the world beyond North America — has some knee-jerk appeal. But in today's overly inter-connected world, isolationism is not a possibility. An approach, however, that values long-term strategic planning, as opposed to a military response to whatever gets in our way, is worthwhile.

Obama's announced re-focus on Asia is valid, so long as the military aspect of that focus is a small part. Holding our fire in the Middle East, as we're learning to do, may be harder if the Saudi regime finally starts to totter, but what's a better option?

Treating Israel as the recalcitrant and difficult friend that it is, rather than a state whose interests match our own, would be useful: telling the world, in specific detail, what a two-state solution must consist of; and explaining to the Israeli public at the same time the alternative (the non-Jewish or non-democratic option of continued settlement and continued occupation of the West Bank); and then, stepping aside.

It's time our European allies picked up some of the NATO costs. Serious talks are in order, over the next few years, about reducing our military presence there and closing most of the bases we maintain, or letting the Europeans pick up the tab. Or not: what's the real threat? A Russia whose demographics are in a death spiral? Or a broken EU, where without political unity, economic disarray is likely to continue.

Is a revitalized UN a possibility? Is a much larger military unit at the UN's disposal, say 100,000 troops, willing to step into incipient civil wars or collapsing states at all realistic? Or, as global warming and exploding Third World populations expose us all to more failed states, will we just sit by and watch, hoping that somehow the contagion doesn't affect us?

More from GlobalPost: Israeli-Palestinian peace talks: What does each side want?

Gloomy thoughts. There is, though, one ray of optimism, and that is the likely demise of that branch of the Republican Party whose neo-con, right wing views are antithetical to a non-military, realistic foreign policy.

Conservative columnist David Brooks wrote earlier this month, viewing the potential damage of the their punt on the immigration bill, that Republicans are set to "become the receding roar of a white America that is never coming back." Nor is Brooks alone in his observation. His Washington Post conservative colleague Kathleen Parker observed, "What Republicans are selling appeals to an ever-diminishing market that doesn't even include their erstwhile allies in business and industry."

Be thankful for small favors.

Mac Deford is retired after a career as a Foreign Service officer, an international banker and a museum director. He lives at Owl’s Head, Maine.
 

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