Foreign Policy and diplomacy are not among America’s strong suits. Their conduct in present form are serious liabilities to American interests on the world stage. The root causes are not difficult to understand, but there is a serious lack of self-awareness about the underlying problem among the Washington elites who might have the ability to do something about it. The problem is very much bipartisan in nature, and runs seamlessly between administrations and sessions of Congress.
The Achilles’ Heel of US foreign policy is a glaring lack of basic empathy toward other nations and their points of view. To compensate for this Achilles’ Heel, the United States leans excessively on its crutch: the US military. This reliance begets a deadly cycle that never ends. It is a fatal flaw.
Military force or the threat of military force seem to be the default reaction by the United States to most challenges around the world. When martial resources are not likely to be part of the solution to any individual situation, there is great confusion and hand-wringing over what to do next. Too often the standards US foreign policy are judged on are those that make American leaders feel good, rather than effective results, regardless of how these actions are perceived abroad by allies and enemies.
I learned much of this as a neutral observer of US-India relations over the last two decades and have written on the phenomenon extensively here. I have come to understand that it applies to every region where the United States conducts relations. It’s important to note that poor US foreign policy does not imply that other nations are any better at it; to the contrary, India’s foreign policy is quite a long way from reaching a mature stage. India is awkwardly trying to figure out its role in the world. For today we just hone in on Washington.
All we need to illustrate America’s foreign policy failures is one distinct example: the reaction to Islamic State / ISIS.
Defeating the Islamic State. There is no better example of the pathetic state of affairs in Washington than the long, drawn out debate among American leaders and media over how to crack the ISIS nut. Of late countless words have been written or screamed on cable news shows over the semantics of what Obama has called the terrorists. The underlying argument of most Republicans and a few Democrats is that the president and by extension, all of us do not call the terrorists Islamic or Muslim with enough emphasis, therefore not blaming the religion that deserves it quite enough.
The meaningless debate provides a perfect tableau of what depths American foreign policy has fallen to. A cacophony of idiotic voices wasting their breath over what we should call the terrorists! This debate is so far removed from the real issue, which is the effectiveness of efforts to eradicate ISIS, that it’s not even funny. We are no closer to this goal and more likely, farther from it as Republicans and Democrats try to smear each other for cheap political points, and to feel pleased with themselves while US allies and enemies both look on in amusement.
I-Ting Chiang, Flickr
Why is this debate such a waste of time? There is no need to take my word for it. One just needs three minutes of observation to realize that those engaging most vociferously in the debate do not know a lick about either Islam or what is going on in the Middle East. But act as if they do (see above video footage of the morons over at Fox News).
So we now have these media squawk boxes arguing over things they know nothing about, and more importantly, taking us further away from debating how to actually solve the problem.
Most Americans would agree that the solution is to eradicate Islamic State off the face of the earth. However, it is clear that military means alone will not be sufficient. A diplomatic solution is desperately needed to bring together all of the stakeholders in the Middle East, especially the various Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish factions toward political truces. Believe it or not, each of these groups has legitimate issues and gripes that are leading to ISIS gaining power.
The United States is probably the last hope to lead the political solution. Yet there is no debate about this diplomacy whatsoever. All we hear debate about is Islam and military strategy. Thus, the diplomacy stumbles on ineffectively while the nation is bogged down over decisions about putting boots on the ground and arming one faction or the other to counter Islamic State. It is clear that US foreign policy only has one (very sharp) tool in its toolbox to deal with this problem, which is killing. Beyond that Americans seem to have no idea how to react.
Unfortunately, military action no matter how well intentioned will cause the Islamic State to gain in strength and notoriety without the political and diplomatic agreements needed to back up the gains on the battlefields. We already learned this very hard lesson twice, in Iraq and also Afghanistan. Terrorists are currently getting exactly what they want: legitimacy. And we know ISIS cadres are often not afraid to die.
This is where Americans’ lack of empathy really comes into play. Imagine there was a group in America that most citizens disliked- let’s say, the KKK, but on steroids all of a sudden. They are gaining power and holding territory in large swaths of the nation rapidly, through the use of suicide bombings and savage executions paired with sympathy from local populations and their militias. How would most Americans feel if a foreign air force- let’s say belonging to the African Union- pounded KKK positions and sent in troops to help defeat this threat? We all know the answer. Americans would go ape shit and bomb the countries who sent in the planes and troops onto sovereign US territory, regardless of their intentions. And then they’d be indignant if Africans called them KKK sympathizers after. Yet Americans seem perfectly alright doing this very thing all around the world because of some sense of moral superiority. Islamic State is certainly savage for beheading or burning its enemies and especially innocents. Have American people forgotten what US drone and airplane missiles do to people?
What better explanation is there for this phenomenon, than a terminal lack of empathy by American leaders, media, and citizens?
Mahanth S. Joishy is Editor of usindiamonitor.