The Hangover – American Foreign Policy Edition

Have you ever had a real hangover?  I’m not talking about being a little thirsty and sluggish after having one too many drinks the night before.  I’m talking about a crushing, tequila-hangover where you spend the entire day in agony.  You lay on the couch literally unable to move.  Your tongue feels like it is coated in the Shake ‘N Bake sour-dough recipe for pork; heartburn rages, and the only thing you want to eat is crackers (you eat 3 before vomiting).  The day never ends and no matter what your friends have planned for you – tickets to the big game, a BBQ at the home of the beautiful woman you are secretly in love with, a trip to the beach, etc. – no matter what they offer – you steadfastly refuse.  You groan “hell no – I am not leaving this sofa, EVER!”

Then in your solitude you utter those well-remembered words – “I’m never drinking again…”

The United States is in the throes of a full-blown red-alarm foreign policy hangover.  More than a decade of fruitless, yet costly, nation-building has brought the American people to the sofa.  We have an ice bag on our head; we are wearing mismatched slippers and an old robe.  Our standard answer for the foreseeable future is going to be “hell no.”   We don’t care if John McCain walks into our living room and says “snap out of it.  This is important!”  We are not going to fall for an invitation to any party, even if the invitation comes from that really cool guy, Barack.  No sir, we are sitting, eating Ritz crackers, and we are NEVER drinking again.

*

The last time America had a hangover like this was 1975.  I remember it clearly because I was an 11-year old who was way too interested in geopolitics.  From 1975 until the early 1980s, America sat on the sofa.  Oh sure, we could have gotten up at any time – but the point is: we didn’t want to.  Countries fell to communism, our embassy was over-run and hostages taken, and still we lay on the sofa moaning.

After almost twenty years of war in Vietnam, the American people had simply had enough.  The people didn’t need Walter Cronkite to explain it to them; they had seen it with their own eyes.  They’d seen the massive investment of blood and treasure in South Vietnam all designed to make that part of the world better and free.  They’d also seen the results on April 30, 1975 when Saigon fell to the communists.  It left American feeling worn out, ineffective; and sadly unable to keep its word.

This was the beginning of the Vietnam hangover.  In 1975, Americans stumbled into their living rooms and said “things got a little crazy last night….did we fight a protracted counter-insurgency in SE Asia last night?  God….what was I thinking?  Nation-building too?  I must be insane.”

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with the assessment of the Vietnam War I read in the pages of the National Review in the 1980s.  Namely, that the Vietnam War was a noble cause and “America’s most idealistic” war (wish I could remember the date of that issue of NR but I’m too lazy to research it).  Yes, but it was also a failure.

By 1975 Americans wanted nothing to do with war.  I can remember watching television footage of returning POWs , my mother crying, and it felt an awful lot like the United States had lost a war.  The people elected Jimmy Carter president and they wanted to be left alone, on the couch (which is where our economy slumbered from 1976 –1980 as well, but that is another story).  In the Carter years, there was a lot of talk about the end of American greatness and reaching an accommodating agreement with the most evil regime of the 20th century:  the USSR.  In other words, “America the Hung-Over” was not really America.

Enter Reagan, who led a monumental rebuilding of American self-esteem in the 1980s to get America moving again.  Even during the Reagan years, when his popularity soared, the American people were reflexively opposed to committing ground combat forces to battle.  Political scientists called it the Vietnam Syndrome – a fear that domestic opposition would make it impossible for America to ever act militarily.

It was only after the Gipper successfully got the economy working again (off the sofa and into the gym!), faced down the commies and won the Cold War, all while notching some notable military successes (Grenada and Libya), that the American people were willing to consider a return to an active and engaged foreign policy backed by military might.

By 1991, Americans vigorously supported President Bush as he deployed a massive force to expel Iraq from Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.  President Bush had lived through the Vietnam hangover years.  He had also fully accepted and understood the Weinberger Doctrine.  In 100 hours, the coalition forces led by the American military had achieved their objective and it was time to come home.  Oh sure, there would be follow on forces and no fly-zones, but there would be no hangover.

America remained active throughout the 1990s, and with the exception of President Clinton’s ill-advised foray into nation building in Somalia, there were no hangovers.  That Somalia headache cleared up when President Clinton gave the American people a little of the hair of the dog that bit them – namely, a very successful 75-day air campaign against Serbia.  Headache gone.

It seemed that America had finally learned its lesson.  In 2000, President George W. Bush was elected promising a foreign policy that used force only in our national interest, and specifically stated “we don’t do nation building” during his campaign for the White House.  In other words, America was glad to show up at the party and have some beer and wine – but forget the hard stuff.  That stuff will rot your gut and destroy your national health.

**

The attack on America on September 11, 2001 did not come to an America on the sofa; quite the opposite.  America in 2001 was a confident engaged nation with a people who were not about to take crap from anyone.  The one certainty on that dark day in September was this:  the American military was going to make someone pay, and pay dearly.  The American people were fully on-board with the idea of leveling buildings all over the Middle East.  They were on board with crushing the Taliban and sure, why not smack around those clowns in Iraq  (and anyone else who looked at us funny) too?

It was only when President Bush and his team ignored the lessons of history; only when they forgot about “we don’t do nation-building:’ only when they broke out the hard stuff and started believing that the United States could turn a culturally deficient, illiterate, stone-aged and barbaric region to western-styled democracy that things got out of hand.

There was no “get in and get out approach.”  Rather than having a few drinks and hitting the sack by midnight, the USA decided to stay at the party way too long.  When someone broke out the whiskey, bourbon, and tequila (aka nation-building) there was the United States, glass in hand.  So for the better part of a decade, the American people have been part of a nation-building fantasy that is going nowhere.  This was an epic bender – a really self-destructive bit of vanity.

And yes, Americans are waking up with a massive Middle Eastern hangover and once again fighting nausea and asking themselves “did we invade and try to rebuild Iraq and Afghanistan last night?  God, why didn’t we leave at midnight?  Where are my slippers?  I feel like hell.  Nation-building….again?  What is wrong with me?”

***

Nation-building is a fool’s errand.  The idea that if the United States can build enough schools, hospitals and roads in Afghanistan and Iraq – then the terrorists will lay down arms and will love us – is a foolish idea.  America has spent years, and billions of dollars, and most tragically the lives of great Americans, trying to get Afghanistan out of the 9th century.  The American people are not dumb – they know it is not working at all.  They would have been much happier had we knocked a lot of stuff down, killed the people that needed killing, and come home; in bed by midnight.

Which brings us to today – and yes we have one hell of a hangover.  We are curled up on the sofa, with a huge headache.  We are listless and thirsty, and we are too tired to even find the clicker so we can change the television channel.  So, we see on the news our President and congressional leaders who are half-heartedly asking us to get off the sofa and take on the Syrian challenge.  And all we keep thinking is this:

“Seriously?!  Maybe you haven’t heard yet, but we are never drinking again.”

****

The American people are tired, not of war, but of impossible missions.  They will support military action in our nation’s defense.  They will support eliminating brutal dictators and evil regimes.

The American people are good and decent.  They will get over this hangover and rouse themselves again.  But jeesh, do you think we could all finally agree to knock off the hard stuff?  Nation-building is just not an effective foreign policy approach.

Toughness, compassion, holding bad guys accountable, crushing anyone who messes with us?  The American people will always be on board with those things.  But please, don’t make them stay up all night pounding Nation-Builder’s Whiskey.

-cj cheetham

Copyright © 2013 cjcheetham

The Weinberger doctrine:

  1. The United States should not commit forces to combat unless the vital national interests of the United States or its allies are involved.
  2. U.S. troops should only be committed wholeheartedly and with the clear intention of winning. Otherwise, troops should not be committed.
  3. U.S. combat troops should be committed only with clearly defined political and military objectives and with the capacity to accomplish those objectives.
  4. The relationship between the objectives and the size and composition of the forces committed should be continually reassessed and adjusted if necessary.
  5. U.S. troops should not be committed to battle without a “reasonable assurance” of the support of U.S. public opinion and Congress.
  6. The commitment of U.S. troops should be considered only as a last resort.
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3 thoughts on “The Hangover – American Foreign Policy Edition

  1. Brilliant as usual, Chris. If it wasn’t for your inexplicable refusal to become an Orioles fan I don’t think we would disagree on anything.

    Like

  2. Really great stuff. Would be interesting to dissect why the Marshall Plan worked for Germany and Japan, but it’s modern incarnation of nation building in places where there ain’t much of a nation to begin with, has been disastrous. Root causes are probably obvious…

    Like

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