A Forgotten Anniversary


Understandably, the Boston Marathon bombing, sequestration, and immigration reform are among the issues that have knocked foreign affairs off the front page. But the rest of the world rolls on, intent upon proving that we continue to stumble around in the dark as we try to piece together a cogent foreign policy.

One of the landmark events that show how often we don't understand the consequences of our actions reaches its 60th anniversary this year. In 1953 the CIA orchestrated the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh, at the time the lawfully elected prime minister of Iran. Mosaddegh was in the process of nationalizing oil production in Iran, a move with serious consequences for the West. Neither the United States nor Great Britain was prepared to take the change of course lying down.

This was not something taught to me in my world history course in high school even though it had happened only a little more than a decade before I took the course. In fact, it's not something anyone talked about until the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, when Americans wanted explanations for Iran's hatred of the United States. Who knows how many of the difficulties involving Iran (1973 oil embargo, hostage crisis, lost oil deals, sponsorship of Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, pursuit of nuclear weapons) would have been short-circuited had we not used our usual, shortsighted approach to problem-solving?

The Mosaddegh episode taught us nothing. Whether we lead from the front, as did President Bush II, or we take a more subtle approach, as we are now, nothing seems to work out quite right. Iraq appears to be descending once again into civil war. Afghanistan never rose in the first place, and is again increasing its heroin production. We've never gotten a grip on the Arab Spring. Who knows where Egypt and Yemen are headed?

Justification for every move seems to involve the continued prosecution of the war on terror, and the Boston Marathon bombing plays perfectly into the hands of those who would continually commit us to foreign adventure to try to eliminate an eternal problem. The answer is not U.S. troops; it is continued vigilance at home.

The intelligence community is not about to give details about all the terrorist plots it breaks up because the information is classified, but it does a great job. We will continue to face the threat because we refuse to bend to the idea of a closed, paranoid existence. What our government can do to help our intelligence establishment is to refrain from actions that make terrorist acts more likely.

To some, it would seem that refraining from foreign intervention would be counterintuitive. But intervention can make things worse. Arming insurgents whose intentions are a mystery and encouraging regime changes that send countries into uncharted waters often result in unintended consequences. Libya is an excellent example. Unrest after the fall of Gaddafi cost us an ambassador and three other Americans, and the ensuing chaos provided one of the stages for an extremist insurgency in Mali. It is not far-fetched to see Libya play out in such a way as to provide a launchpad for terrorists who might one day visit our shores.

Arming Syrian rebels does not guarantee a better outcome for our interests. Nor do the drone strikes that seek to decapitate terrorist organizations, but instead reveal the hydra-like character of these groups. As with the war on drugs, or crime in general, decapitation merely allows the next generation of miscreants waiting in the wings to accede to leadership, often with the creation of new splinter groups that must be discovered all over again.

And what about North Korea? If there was ever a better example of simply ignoring a problem until it goes away, this is it. Before we were distracted by our domestic travails, we were sending F-22 fighters, B-2 bombers, as many ships as we could scrape up, and for what? The military-industrial and anti-sequester people jumped all over this opportunity, but it was to address the antics of a tin-pot dictator who, unfortunately, has nuclear weapons, but is dedicated to holding on to his caviar and fancy cars.

There are many reasons for us to turn our priorities inward for now. We're out of money; we need to rebuild both our infrastructure and our armed forces; we need to care for our veterans; we need to deal with guns; we need to fully secure our borders and solve our immigrant issue; and we need to reform government. This doesn't mean that we should ignore the rest of the world. We should be fully engaged in cooperative efforts on trade, pollution, and security of sea lanes, among other issues. We should help mediate difficult problems, like the Israel-Palestine issue, and lead in humanitarian assistance as much as we're able. But we also need to learn something about the Mosaddegh incident. We should engage, not meddle, not insist, and certainly not invade, because it's often impossible to know what we might unleash. It's time for brains, not brawn.