With the Middle East in a constant state of revolutionary flux and the looming possibility of an American military intervention in Iran, the United States is losing influence in the volatile region. A recent national security strategy from the Project for a United and Strong America calls for an end to American decline by demanding a more interventionist foreign policy. The U.S. has a leadership role to fulfill in world democracy as the “single greatest economic, military, and political power in the world.”
This interventionist ideology worked during the Cold War because the world was living in the 20th or “American” century, a time defined by U.S. political, economical, and cultural dominance. America's role in World War II and the Soviet threat gave the U.S. both domestic and international support to essentially do whatever it wanted to do.
However, engaging in a more aggressive foreign policy is no longer appropriate for two reasons: the increasing complexity of foreign relations as a result of modern globalization, and a decline in American power.
Domestically, America is not as economically strong or unified as it used to be. America has a deficit so large and a Congress so deeply divided that the possibility of haphazard cuts to federal spending seems more likely than a congressional compromise. A government that cannot create an internal détente in tax policy has no place playing negotiator in a heavily-conflicted region.
While America still has the world’s largest economy currently, the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Global Trends Report states that China will eclipse America as the largest economy before 2030. Much of the interventionist activity during the twentieth century was allowed due to America’s unprecedented economic dominance. After WWII, the U.S. market was not only robust, it was strong enough to rescue European and Japanese post-war economies. According to the NIC report, Asia as a whole will have more global power than the U.S. and Europe combined by 2030.
Internationally, America is in a less favorable position as well. The U.S. premature and self-motivated invasion in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan created anti-American sentiments in the Arab world — any form of intervention in the Middle East could be interpreted as further proof of U.S. cowboy diplomacy.
With Iran, if the US functioned under Cold War ideology and strategy, Obama might choose to launch a war to deter the Iranian nuclear program and uphold its alliance with Israel, similar to Truman’s North Korean invasion. In fact, Obama already made a declaration he would use force in Iran if necessary.
However, the administration has explored every non-military course of action behind the scenes to contain the situation, including economic sanctions and computer viruses attacking their uranium-refining centrifuges. After the Iraqi invasion and its toll to our troops and our economy, the administration cannot afford another war. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who never advocated containment in foreign policy, once sent a secret three-page memo urging the administration to practice restraint and re-evaluate their position in Iran.
The war in Iraq and the U.S.-Israel alliance inadvertently ties the U.S. with the Middle East. However, adopting a Wilsonian interventionist foreign policy fails to take into account the effects of globalization and the increase in complicated interrelations between countries in the shatter belt Middle East.
In Syria, the U.S. has given vocal support to the rebels in Syria fighting against President Bashar al-Assad’s abusive rule but refuses to respond with military support like it did with Libya. The Arab League of the Middle East is more accepting of Assad than Libyan despot Moammar Gadhafi — invading Libya offends less Arab leaders than invading Syria would.
The delicacy of the Iran-Israel conflict and the ripple effects that could result from any form of American intervention in the Middle East makes interventionism, signature to the Truman era, a dangerous oversimplification. Instead of aggressive action, America should pursue other means, like providing humanitarian aid to influence political spheres.
In the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which many historians believe was the closest the U.S. and the Soviet Union came to nuclear conflict, President John F. Kennedy resisted invasion. His reluctance to resort to military action not only spared America, he saved the world from atomic warfare. U.S policymakers must use past episodes of American caution and restraint rather than aggressive interventionism to forge foreign policy.
Truman famously said, “The buck stops here,” but with a decline in U.S. dominance and a more complicated world network, perhaps it is time to pass the buck back into the hands of those involved instead.