In 1849 French journalist Alphonse Karr first penned the words well-known to 21st-Century Americans – “The more things change, the more they are the same.” This adage likely has crossed the minds of many voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 in the hope he would chart a course different from the bellicose national security policies pursued by George W. Bush. In its Arabic translation, Karr’s words may very well have come to the mind of Libyan Col. Muammar Qaddafi earlier this month, as U.S. warplanes and cruise missiles laid waste to much of his country’s military infrastructure.
It appears President Obama has resigned himself to supporting the same, “military-first” foreign policy as pursued by his three predecessors. The on-going military operation in Libya illustrates clearly the dramatic shift in how the United States chooses to respond to events in countries far from our shores or interests.
For half a century after WWII, and especially since the creation of the CIA in 1947, presidents of both major political parties turned to covert actions as the option of choice to achieve political goals in and through other countries. With a few notable exceptions — such as the Cuban Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961 and Vietnam later that same tumultuous decade — this was the course pursued whenever Washington decided to effect a “regime change” (or less lofty goals) somewhere in the world.
Using the covert capabilities of our government offered presidents flexibility, defined goals, cost-effective options, and, most important, “plausible deniability.” This strategy was designed also to minimize possible confrontation with the Soviet Union. There was no need to secure permission from other governments (unless we wanted to and there was an important strategic or tactical reason to do so); or from some international bureaucracy such as the United Nations.
Peaceniks and so-called foreign-policy “doves,” of course, took great exception to the manner in which various presidents employed this covert strategy. But the success of such a strategy – as measured by goals achieved – is hard to criticize legitimately. From Iran and Guatemala in the early 1950s to Nicaragua in the 1980s, carefully planned and secretly executed operations resulted in decisive foreign policy objectives being achieved, at relatively small cost and without long-term American involvement. No longer.
Since the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Washington appears to have permanently foresworn use of covert, paramilitary capabilities as a desired means of achieving foreign policy objectives. The first option has now become the military option — action not undertaken for clearly defined goals designed explicitly to achieve something of clear benefit to the United States; but goals fashioned to meet the broad, vague desires of many nations and governments. These are operations doomed to be extremely expensive, almost always longer-term than planned, and which rarely accomplish something of tangible and articulable value to the American people.
This military-first strategy has taken hold of America’s foreign policy establishment since 9-11, but its roots go back to the post-Vietnam era, when Dick Cheney and other so-called “Neo-cons” determined that never again would the United States suffer an experience as humiliating as Vietnam. Its initial advocate was the first President Bush, who dramatically altered President Reagan’s policy pitting Iraq and Iran against each other, and opted instead to employ the “shock and awe” of U.S. military might to oust Saddam Hussein. We’re still heavily involved inside Iraq 20 years later.
For all his campaign criticism of the Bush Administration’s foreign policy, Obama is seamlessly continuing the goals of neo-conservatives to permanently reshape the American definition of “national security.” He may take comfort in the fact his actions are based on lofty goals shared by U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and other “coalition” members. However, this strategy constitutes a disservice to American taxpayers and to our military, whose resources and manpower are being squandered on ill-defined and costly adventures.