America decided to deal with the Native Americans by war and exile. It took three centuries, as succeeding generations of Indians realized that the White Man would honor no treaty and give them no peace.
Israel has tried since the 1960s to deal with what initially were relatively isolated attacks, by holding every country in the neighborhood responsible, and responding massively to each attack. Six decades later the problem has widened. Unlike the Native Americans, the Palestinians have major allies.
We have repeatedly responded with military force to foreign problems only to see them spin out of control and make things much worse.
And in many of those cases we made a mockery of our own ideals. Democracy is part of our definition of a free world. We govern ourselves. But we don’t believe in it for others – they might, after all, make different choices.
We unseated a Persian Prime Minister and brought the Shah back because we objected to his policies. We overturned Guatemalan democracy and later fought Nicaraguan and Salvadoran democracy because their populism was left of ours. We refused to hold elections in Vietnam because we were convinced we would lose them, and then fought a long and costly war to verify that we would indeed have lost. We’re taking the blame for encouraging the unconstitutional unseating of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and replacing elected government with high handed military rule, when popular indignation at its failure would have defeated the Brotherhood only months later at the polls, in true democratic style. Worse, the Brotherhood has been one of the more moderate expressions of Islam. By being unable to deal with them, even for a few months, how deep the rift we have created. We made the same mistake in Ukraine, and by encouraging popular uprising to accomplish what could have been constitutionally done a few months later at the polls, we invited the destabilization of the country and the region.
In each case the use of force made an unpleasant situation much worse. And hypocrisy has its costs as well. We take action thinking we can control the world, and, in the process, we make the world less willing to work with us, less willing to credit our good faith.
Some have described America as obsessed with law. Actually I think our obsession with law is a cover for the fact that we are not a particularly law abiding society. We prefer to take law into our own hands, either with a gun or by defining as unconstitutional any attempt by the democratic process to make law that would actually govern what we can do.
Our foreign policy is beset by that instinct. Never mind international law and rules; deny that they exist or matter. Grab the nearest weapon and force the world to bow to the great superpower.
I am sympathetic as a human being and as a patriotic American to the desire for retribution vis-a-vis ISL and other so-called militants – I’d rather call them barbarians. But aside from name-calling, I have the feeling that we have gotten the problem wrong and are once again making a mess in parts of the world we don’t understand.
There is certainly a role for self-defense and military might. But as a foreign policy it is a recipe for self-delusion and self-destruction.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 16, 2014.