History Lessons for U.S. Foreign Policy and the Arab Spring

Aside from rising concerns regarding the legality (or illegality) of recent American military action in Libya, there are a whole host of historical reasons why it may be better for this administration to avoid further military action in the Middle East — particularly if such action expects democracy to come to fruition in Middle Eastern countries.

If the “Arab Spring” was any indication, overthrowing an old oppressive system and forming a new working one not only can, but also should, happen on its own, or at least start by its own people on their own accord. Considering what has happened in the Middle East since December, we can conclude that Eisenhower’s “domino theory” actually has credence — although this time it is not about Communism, and it is not something we should necessarily fear as some do. This domino effect consists of one restless population after another demonstrating for democracy. They look to become an economically prosperous “civil society” concerned about human rights.

These revolutions, especially in Tunisia and Egypt, were not incited by foreign intervention (more like self-immolation). What we are seeing throughout the Middle East is organic; no one is exporting revolution to them — they’re doing it themselves.

But if that is not enough to convince people that the Bush Doctrine is flawed, consider the many other examples in this country’s political history. What is shameful is how its supporters seemingly ignore history as if the common implications of many of our presidents’ sad foreign policy track records mean nothing to them. 

Beyond prominent, clichéd examples of our nation’s failures in global policing, like Bush's invasion of Iraq or the costly Vietnam War, some of the best examples of why this country is better off abstaining from democracy exportation are just south of us.

Each American president between the turn of the 20th century and the Great Depression intervened in one or several Latin American countries. Reagan was also heavily — and quite infamously — involved in Latin America.

The purpose of every case essentially reflected democratic aspirations, and further rationale for impressing democracy on weaker neighbors was broad, often lurking behind popular yet empty rhetoric of democracy glorification. For instance, when Roosevelt invaded Cuba in 1906, he faced a myriad of causes for concern over political and economic security: e.g., providing a “peaceful settlement” to “civil strife against an authoritarian regime”; defending the various properties and interests of North Americans and Europeans in the Caribbean; exerting military force preemptively to prevent other world powers from governing so closely to the union.

Reagan especially utilized the promise of democratizing countries as an “important self-justification” to ultimately pursue ulterior motives (Congress did not back him in Nicaragua and Grenada in 1983, though it was willing to support “a campaign to pressure a non-democratic government to become democratic”). Eventually the main mission was to prevent the spread of Communism and interestingly, despite the “sweeping democratic renewal” across Latin America throughout the 80’s, the extent to which Reagan deserves credit remains debatable amongst some scholars.

These imperialistic endeavors came at many costs: impeccable financial exhaustion; reputation-damaging political scandals within not only the invaded, but the invader as well (e.g., the Iran-Contra Affair, indeed a scandal inextricably linked to the financial burden of Reagan’s intervention policy); dubious election results and the establishment of governments that were, if not constitutionally recognizable, not immediately democratic (e.g., Honduras and El Salvador); human lives, especially during the Nicaraguan contra war in which U.S. funding directly contributed to a death toll of 30,000 Nicaraguans.

That takes us back to all the devastating atrocities in the Middle East, in which the current political and social transitions have become quite nasty without the participation of another country — without complications an intervening nation could certainly bring (to both the Middle East and themselves — hence the congressional backlash to the administration’s military operations in Libya).

There is always the chance that if a nation’s fate is left in its own hands, the results we would otherwise wish for could be achieved anyway — and more constructively.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons