THE BLOG
05/31/2016 08:05 am ET Updated Jun 01, 2017

The Best (and Worst) Laid Plans

The United States has been pursuing an audacious project to fashion a global system according to its specifications and under its tutelage since the Cold War's end. For a quarter of a century, the paramount goal of all its foreign relations has been the fostering of a system whose architectural design features the following: a neo-liberal economic order wherein markets dictate economic outcomes and the influence of public authorities to regulate them is weakened; this entails a progressive financializing of the world economy which concentrates the levers of greatest power in a few Western institutions -- private, national and supranational; if inequality of wealth and power is the outcome, so be it; security provided by an American-led concert that will have predominant influence in every region; a readiness to use coercion to remove any regime that directly challenges this envisaged order; the maintenance of a large, multi-functional American military force to ensure that the means to deal with any contingency as could arise; -- all cemented by the unquestioned conviction that this enterprise conforms to a teleology whose truth and direction were confirmed by the West's total victory in the Cold War. Therefore, it is portrayed as an inherently a virtuous project whose realization will benefit all mankind.

It is in the political/security sphere that the historic American project has faltered badly. Individual developments signal at once basic design flaws and obtuse implementation. Every major initiative has failed -- and failed ignominiously. Iraq has fragmented into factions none of whom are reliable friends of Washington. Once a forbidden zone for Islamist jihadis, our intervention has spawned the most dangerous movement yet -- ISIL, while inspiring al-Qaeda and its other spin-offs. Syria, where we have dedicated ourselves to unseating the still internationally recognized government, is embroiled in an endless civil war whose main protagonists on the anti-Assad side are ISIL and al-Qaeda/al Nusra & Assoc. So, the Obama people have put themselves in the position of feeding arms and providing diplomatic cover to groups who were our no. 1 security threat just yesterday. Accordingly, for all of our bluster, we refuse to confront Turkey which has provided invaluable aid, comfort and refuge for both groups. Nor do we call out the Saudis for their succoring with money and political backing.

Washington's deference to the Saudi royals has reached the extremity of its participating in the Saudi organized and led destruction of Yemen despite the cardinal truths that the Houthis, their enemy, is not a foe of the United States, and that al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made extensive gains as a result of the war (and ISIL has succeeded in implanted itself there as well). For these contributions to the War on Terror, Secretary Kerry effusively thanks Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman -- the author of these reckless Saudi policies -- for the fulsome contribution the KAS is making to suppress Islamic extremism. Why? American diplomacy is locked into the idea that it must reassure the KAS of our loyalty in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal. Hence, we embrace an obscurantist autocratic regime whose self-defined interests are antithetical to our stated objectives, and whose behavior highlights the hypocrisy of America's trumpeted crusade to promote democracy and to protect human rights. It has the added effect of vitiating any chances to engage Iran pragmatically to deal with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria.

Fifteen years ago, the United States launched its Middle East wars to make us secure from terrorism and to politically transform the region. Instead, we face a greater menace, we have destroyed governments capable of maintaining a modicum of order, we have registered no success in nation-building or democracy building, and we have undercut our moral authority worldwide. Our leaders talk of 'pivots' away from the turbulent Middle East, the President voices an ambition to demilitarize foreign policy, yet the reality is that today there are American troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya with no prospect of those conflicts concluding.

The most stunning, and noteworthy, reaction at home to this unprecedented record of unrelieved failure is the lack of reaction. All the elements in America's fantastic views of another, post-Cold War American Century not only survive, they exercise near total influence over our foreign policy elite -- in government and outside it. The learning curve is flat. The number of places where are militarily engaged grows rather than diminishes. The definition of 'terrorism,' of security, of American national interest broadens rather than narrows. The defense budget points upwards rather than downwards. The contradictions multiply. How to explain this perverse pattern?

Avoidance behavior is a natural if not universal response to stress and cognitive dissonance. It passes into the range of the pathological when it becomes persistent and diverges more and more from experienced reality. At that point, it enters the realm of fantasy -- often, with fantasies succeeding each other in serial fashion. Hence, the Belief that human societies carry the innate political DNA for democracy (to be spontaneously recognized by Iraqis once liberated by the Americans) is supplanted by the belief in COIN which, in turn, is supplanted by faith in the power Special Operations forces....ad infinitum.

Avoidance devices include compulsive reiteration. In terms of actions, that means the repeated attempt to resolve complex political problems through the application of coercive force. The national instinct when confronted with a challenge is to hit out -- from Congolese warlords and Nigerian thugs to Islamist jihadis and anyone whom our so-called friends dislike, e.g. the Houthis. This is the mind-set of the muscle-bound bully whose mental development hasn't caught up with his physical development. In Afghanistan, we continue fighting and spurring the hapless Kabul government to keep it up when there isn't a snowball's chances in hell of defeating the Taliban (an outfit that never has killed an American outside of Afghanistan). In Iraq-Syria, we struggle mightily to check the ISIL irregulars while blithely allowing them to carry on a lucrative oil commerce without interference from the US air force. There, too, we make believe that the Russian presence doesn't exist even though it has done more to shift the balance away from the jihadist groups than we have. Why? The powers that be have decided that Putin's Russia actually is a bigger threat to America than is ISIL and al-Qaeda.

Reiteration also takes the form of populating the strategic map with good guys and bad guys whose identification never changes whatever the evidence says. Hence, the white hats include the KAS along with their school of GCC minnows, Erdogan's Turkey, and of course Israel. The black hats include: Iran, the Baathist regime in Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas, some Shi'ite factions in Iraq (Moqtada al-Sadr), and whoever opposes our sponsored, obedient would-be leaders in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, or wherever (think Latin America). Washington's costume department does not stock grey hats.

The GWOT notwithstanding, this casting makes us friends of ISIL's and al-Qaeda's friends and enemies of their enemies. No intellectual effort is evident to make the reconciliation. In extreme circumstances, one resorts to outfitting with white hats whatever bunch of guys you can round up through Central Casting. That is exactly what we currently are doing in cobbling together an odd lot of stray Libyans into an ersatz 'government' which Washington and its more obedient allies literally escorted into a bunker outside of Tripoli last month where they are offering themselves as national saviors. This so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), which no significant body of Libyans had asked for, is meant to supersede the democratically elected government whose parliament is seated in Benghazi and engaged in a multi-party civil war with an array of sectarian and tribal formations. Our seven-man GNA controls no territory but has entered into tacit alliance with a variety of Islamist militias attracted by the money and arms which the United States and partners have transferred to them from official Libyan accounts abroad. Shades of Syria circa 2011 -2013.

Prolonged residence in one or another fantasy bubble is made all the more comfortable by eluding contact with any respected party who might offer a different perspective that more closely conforms to reality. An oddity of our times is that the only criticism within range of power centers comes from those whose answer to all these dilemmas is to "hit 'em harder." That is to say, the John McCains and fellow travelers among Republican hawks reinforced by the aggressive neo-con contingent ensconced in the think-tanks and media. The unfortunate consequence is that the President, and his less than sterling foreign policy team,* now add the belief in their own moderation and prudence to their complacent plodding along the same rutted paths to nowhere.

There is yet another pathological element in this mix of illusion and faith. Manifest failure poses a threat to the powerful image of prowess and superiority imbued in our national leaders, and in the country's collective personality. Heavy doses of reality by now should have brought to light our ultimate 'ordinariness' -- however impressive the national record of accomplishment has been. That, though, is proving very hard for Americans to swallow. Instead, we discern a pattern of denying manifest outcomes while relentlessly searching for fresh opportunities to establish our unique greatness. It took decades and much self-induced amnesia to come to terms with the loss of Vietnam. We seemingly shed that shroud in the first Gulf War. But then came 9/11 and the vengeful reaction of a scared country which led us into a new string of failures.

One psychological method for handling that dissonance is to claim that the game isn't really over. The fat lady hasn't sung (or if she did, we tuned her out). In Iraq, our most ignominious failure, the concrete manifestation of that failure in ISIL, gives us a second chance to demonstrate that Americans are winners after all. In this warped psychology, if we are able to push them back and/or cripple them, that achievement somehow will confirm that we are winners. It just took a little while longer than expected. Political chaos in Baghdad and across the country? No one is perfect -- only Allah. Besides, there are always the Iranians to blame.

What about Afghanistan? There, too, the final whistle hasn't blown. There is no time limit -- 48 minutes, 60 minutes, or nine innings -- or 15 years. Operation Eternal Effort.

A quite different psychological coping mechanism, one that carries the seed of far greater risk, is to demonstrate macho self-confidence by searching out additional challengers to confront. That mechanism not only offers several new chances to prove to oneself and to the world how great we are; it also demonstrates our brave sense of duty. So, we expand Special Operations and send teams of various sizes into scores of countries to take on the bad guys. More demonstrably, we make it known that our nuclear deal with Tehran notwithstanding, we're ever ready to go one-on-one with the mullahs who just aren't our sort of people.

The ultimate expression of this psycho-mentality is to pick a fight with the really big guys: Russia and China. We know them from the last movie -- and everybody remembers how we whipped the Russians' ass -- to use the hard-nosed parlance favored around Washington. The extreme hostility toward a more assertive Russia and Vladimir Putin personally goes well beyond any realpolitik calculus. It has an emotional side clearly evident in the cartoonish exaggeration that marks almost all coverage of the country and the man -- and the remarks of President Obama himself. Indeed, it is all the more stark for the contrast to Putin's cool rationality. He is as cerebral and exhibits as much self-control as does Obama -- thereby challenging the latter's sense of uniqueness and superiority. Putin also is an infinitely more skillful politically.

Putin's unexpectedly decisive action on Crimea, the Donbas and then Syria has changed the strategic map and upset American assumptions about the insignificance of its old foe. That in itself helps to explain the intensity and emotionalism of Washington reaction. The Obama administration -- egged on by the country's entire foreign policy Establishment -- has decided to treat Russia as America's global enemy no 1, officially. In Syria, blocking the Russians at every turn and doubling-down on the ouster of Assad now shapes everything else we do in that country. In Europe, the United States has pushed NATO into a full-blown confrontation: stationing several brigades in the Baltics and Poland; staging a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Romania for the missile defense system that also can serve as a platform for nuclear tipped cruise missiles; conducting exercises in Georgia; and proposing to make Georgia and Ukraine de facto NATO members whose militaries would be integrated into the NATO command structure (the 28 + 2 formula). These moves have been accompanied by a barrage of bellicose rhetoric from top American commanders and the Secretary of Defense to the President himself.

This is foreign policy by emotion, not by logical thought. It is rooted is the psychological reaction to the hopelessness of the post-Cold War grand design. It stems as well from the unpalatable experience of being unable to live up to the exalted self-image that is at the core of Americans' national personality. And it is intensified by the need, compensating for heightened insecurities, to prove that America is Number One, always will be Number One, and deserves to be Number One. That maelstrom of emotion was almost palpable in Obama's last State of the Union Address where he declaimed:

"Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It's not even close. Period. It's not even close. It's not even close!"

So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than crowds of troubled and frustrated Arab demonstrators shouting "ALLAH AKBAR!"

At present, the United States has no strategic dialogue with either China or Russia. That is a failure of historic proportions. There is no vast ideological chasm to bridge -- as in the Cold War days. There are no bits of contested geography that directly involve the parties. Putin and Xi are eminently rational leaders -- whether we agree with them or not. The Russian leader, in particular, has laid out his conception of the world system; of the Russo-American relations; of why Russia is pursuing certain polices -- all with a concision and candor that probably is unprecedented. He also stresses the need for cooperation with Washington and offers guidelines for sustained exchanges. We have done nothing analogous. Indeed, it appears that no policy-maker of consequence even bothers to read or listen to Putin.

To take him seriously, to engage the Chinese on the strategic plane, require statesmanship of a high order. An America -- and its leaders -- who are tied into psychological knots by their inability to view reality with a measure of detachment and self-awareness never will muster that statesmanship.