[This article is crossposted at the author’s website, michaelhunt.web.unc.edu.]
The Republican candidates for president certainly have one thing right on foreign policy. Their recent debate confirmed that much of U.S. foreign policy is devoted to the management of regional powers and regional problems. Long-time troublemakers Iran and China were most on the candidates’ minds. But the list of regional worries is in fact quite long. It includes notably a pair of balky allies (Israel and Turkey), an overtly antagonistic North Korea, a failed state in Afghanistan, and a nuclear-armed and domestically embattled Pakistan. Lots for aspiring national leaders to address. What to do? Bomb them (the course Newt Gingrich seems to favor on Iran), banish bad leader to “the ash heap of history” (the fate Rick Perry wants for China’s Communists), or shut off U.S. markets (Romney’s way of bringing China into line)?
What strikes me as a historian is how long the regionals have afflicted U.S. policymakers and tied policy pundits in strategic knots. The pattern goes all the way back to the late 1940s and the globalization of U.S. commitments in the name of containment of communism. The difficulties became quickly apparent in eastern Asia where China posed the first serious challenge. The new Communist regime refused to go away (as Washington was convinced it would). Worse still, it took a surprisingly strong and successful military stand against burgeoning U.S. ambitions in its neighborhood. It blocked the U.S. drive to unify Korea in 1950, and it played a major role in driving out the U.S.-backed French from Vietnam in 1954 and then in ousting U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Richard Nixon decided to dial down U.S. goals in Asia (the Nixon doctrine) and to accept Mao’s China as a great power. Since that shift in the early 1970s, regional trends have rendered the United States less and less relevant even as U.S. leaders insist on their importance (a claim resting essentially on a Cold War residue of military might). (These points figure prominently in the forthcoming Arc of Empire.)
The story of U.S. involvement in another difficult region is similar. Recognition of Israel proved the first step toward making Washington an enabler of an increasingly overt and internationally condemned settler colonialism. The 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government was a great success that turned very bad a quarter century later. The post-shah regime has been a perpetual thorn in the U.S. side for better than a quarter of a century. Military intervention in Lebanon in 1958 signaled the militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East while failing to resolve sectarian divisions. Reagan sent in the troops again in 1982-84 with no better results.
The strongmen recruited under the U.S. dispensation made control easier to exercise, but in the long run they put a crimp on political and economic development, closely associated the United States with autocracy and stagnation, and fed popular suspicions about Washington’s intentions. The confrontation with Saddam Hussein, a strongman gone wrong, yielded two military triumphs but also one disastrous occupation and a now badly divided and impoverished state with an uncertain future and with close ties to Iran.
The United States is today no closer to securing regional stability or consolidating control. Indeed, the popular ferment associated with the Arab Spring, Turkey’s self-conscious pursuit of regional influence, the durability of a defiant Iranian regime, and the uncertainties surrounding the states of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan may collectively constitute challenges so serious that they announce for anyone willing to listen the end of an era of grand American aspirations.
What strikes me as a citizen is how hollow and dated U.S. discussions of regional policy have become. I fantasize about a debate that would grapple not with how to best crush regional rivals but instead deal with the hard, consequential questions. What is gained if Washington brings the Iranian or Chinese regime down? What will it cost and what might the consequences be? Is there really a way to build a nation in Afghanistan or to manipulate the one in Pakistan? How much are U.S. interests served by facilitating Israeli territorial expansion or preserving an independent Taiwan?
The exchange among the Republican candidates offered tantalizing hints of such a long overdue discussion. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul—to be sure, neither rank and file favorites—denounced the U.S. practice of torturing Muslims as illegal and damaging to U.S. reputation, counseled caution in handling Iran, doubted the relative utility of nation building in Afghanistan, and refused to join in China bashing.
But we can be sure the slightest whiff of policy change will galvanize that formidable gang of stand patters: a politically potent Israel lobby, inveterate China critics, the arms industry, the Pentagon brass, and above all, spread-eagle nationalists on intimate terms with Mr. Prestige and Mr. Macho. Those old free-loaders, firmly ensconced in the U.S. policy house, are good at shouting down skeptical lines of inquiry. As long as they remain in residence, political leaders will make their default position the defense of dubious commitments even as regional powers grow stronger, more independent, and more numerous.
Michael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book, co-authored with Steven I. Levine, is Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (forthcoming March 2012). His ten previous books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.