The Bush administration is undoubtedly among the most unpopular in American history, with critics left and right denouncing its destructive foreign policies and incompetence. Prominent neoconservative intellectuals, including those affiliated with the much-maligned Project for the New American Century like Francis Fukuyama, have joined the chorus of dissenters, calling for a more grounded approach to foreign affairs that holds the promise of winning back some of America’s previous international credibility and prestige. Doug Bandow’s collection of writings, Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire, represents yet another “insiders” critique of Bush, this one from a self-fashioned libertarian-conservative who served as a special assistant to Ronald Reagan. He is aghast at the misappropriation of government funds and abuse of power.
At the core of Bandow’s critique is his identification of one of the central paradoxes of Bush-style conservatism- the preaching of small government while spending billions of taxpayer dollars on defense appropriations and military adventurism. According to Bandow, the end of the Cold War had presented an opportunity for the United States to scale down its military spending, which the Bush I and Clinton administrations failed to take advantage of. Bush II has taken this “folly” to a whole new level in orchestrating the failed invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
One of the major problems is that there has been no correlation between the rise in defense expenditures and use of force with an improvement in American public security, despite a bi-partisan consensus favoring it. In fact, as Bandow convincingly argues, the opposite holds true. The more America intervenes militarily, the more it helps to destabilize already volatile regions of the world and escalates vicious circles of violence rendering support for extremist groups like Al Qaeda. The United States is particularly vulnerable as a target of international terrorism because of its alliances with tyrannical regimes like the Saudi Royal family and support for Israel’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. For those living under the yoke of oppression in the Muslim world, the double-standards of U.S. foreign policy are often too much to bear.
The failure of American social engineering projects, according to Bandow, has further contributed to the backlash against the United States. He is particularly critical of efforts to export humanitarian ideals by force or at the barrel of a gun, justifiably so. Bandow advocates for a less missionary-like foreign policy, which holds the promise of promoting American strategic interests and limiting anti-American hatred. He is also concerned that an over-reliance on military power has dangerously expanded the size of the federal government. Bandow recounts the history of state abuse in the United States – from the McCarthy purges on down, and worries about the threat to civil liberties engendered by Orwellian organizations like the Department of Homeland Security. Here again, his critique is well-grounded and insightful.
On some levels, though, Bandow gives the Bush administration and its predecessors too much credit. While stressing the misguided character of U.S. foreign policy, he constantly refers to its “good intentions” and overly idealistic quality. He fails to address its underlying hegemonic aspirations (as outlined in the Project for the New American Century’s blueprints for Iraq) and economic motivations, including the desire to promote foreign investment and to exploit the Middle-East’s oil resources. These belie the claim about “good” intentions. Writing from a strictly proto-nationalist perspective, Bandow generally limits his criticism of U.S. foreign policy to its effects on Americans. This causes him to ignore any serious discussion of the devastation inflicted on the people of Iraq and Afghanistan, including the stoking of internecine conflict, uprooting of families, demolishing of homes and villages (and cities like Fallujah), destruction of infrastructure, and crippling, maiming and killing of tens of thousands of people. Last year, a team of researchers at John Hopkins released a report estimating that 655,000 Iraqi civilians had been killed since the U.S. invasion or Iraq, at least one- third by coalition forces. This damning evidence does not make it into Bandow’s writings, which whitewash similar historical crimes like the Indo-China Wars, and place primacy on American interests and the loss in American lives. The narrowness of this approach, and underlying cultural jingoism associated with it, is striking.
Equally disturbing, Bandow displays a degree of ignorance about the roots of various regional conflicts and historical legacies of American foreign policy that is unfortunately all too typical of mainstream media and intellectual commentary. In speaking about the “folly” of American humanitarian initiatives in Somalia and the Congo, for example, he neglects to mention that the United States is in part responsible for the deplorable conditions pervading these so-called “failed states.” In Somalia, for example, the U.S. was a major supporter through the 1980s of the murderous Siad Barre dictatorship, which he excoriates for plunging the country into economic destitution and chaos. (As a special assistant to Reagan, Bandow certainly should have been aware of this!).
Well-documented in Adam West’s edited volume, Genocide, War Crimes and the West, the U.S. poured in millions to Barre’s state security forces, which committed a de-facto genocide, in order to “contain” the Marxist revolutionary regime in neighboring Ethiopia that had overthrown the U.S. client, Haillie Selassie, in 1976. The erasure of these details from the public record was central to the mythology of Black Hawk Down (which Bandow accepts uncritically); that the 1993 U.S. invasion was strictly for humanitarian purposes and undertaken by an innocent power. With regards to Congo, Bandow laments the “liberal” urge to try to “save” the country through military intervention, arguing that the U.S. holds limited strategic objectives there, and would have grave difficulty in engendering any kind of functional democratic system. While I agree that military intervention would be inexpedient, Bandow phrases his argument in strictly colonialist terms. He insinuates that the Congolese are “helpless” in spite of the best motivations of Western humanitarians, and that this backwater in dark Africa is not worth sparing the lives of innocent American youth. Denying the Congolese the capacity to shape their own future independently, and typecasting the people as coarse and uncivilized, Bandow neglects to mention that Western “humanitarianism” in the Congo fostered the whole-scale looting of the country’s rich resources through the 20th century and murder of its most charismatic and popular post-independence leader, Patrice Lumumba. As an heir to Belgium- which killed millions of people through forced labor, the U.S. propped-up dictator Joseph Mobutu (after the CIA aided in Lumumba’s murder), and later backed the joint Rwandan-Ugandan invasion in the 1990s, plunging the country into further violence and chaos. Having trained Rwandan leader Paul Kagame, who many consider to be an international war criminal par excellence, and given millions to Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni because of his embrace of neo-liberal globalization, the United States is far from an innocent by-stander to the bloodletting, as Bandow depicts it, whether it decides to adopt a full-scale invasion or not (though with the unfolding “quagmire” in Iraq, this seems unlikely in any case).
On the whole, despite this and other mischaracterizations, and a parochial outlook, Bandow’s writings are insightful in their domestic political analysis and provide a useful critique of the Bush administration and its double standards. Bandow is particularly sharp in showing how many of the flawed policy ideals that led to the disaster in Iraq – such as an overweening faith in the use of military force and war – have been supported as virtual state doctrine by both parties. He is quite wise to suggest that the escalation of defense budgets and governmental power is counter-productive, represents a threat to civil liberties and is a boon to international terrorism – especially given the animosity engendered by recent U.S. foreign policy actions. It would indeed by of great benefit for us all to take a dose of humble pie from our recent experience and seek diplomatic solutions to international conflicts as a starting point for the initiation of more systematic social change.