America's "do what I say, not what I do" doctrine was on full display at the United Nations this past week
American Foreign Policy… where do I begin? President Obama recently gave a speech at the United Nations, using it to justify and garner support for military action against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. However, during the speech, Obama highlighted what I believe is the fundamental flaw with American foreign policy makers. The flaw is in the very actions (and perception) of the policies themselves: Do what I say, not what I do.
One can agree or disagree with certain specifics of the case he made, that is not my focus. Instead, it is when Obama deviated from speaking about ISIS and brought up Russia and events in Ukraine, that I caught wind of the Orwellian mindset of America’s foreign policy.
Before I get to what Obama said, let me state, that in no way am I defending Russian president Vladimir Putin. Russia’s actions are pretty clear in Ukraine. Of course they defied international boundaries, and yes they also armed and supported the rebels in Eastern Ukraine. This is pretty clear. I would say I’m not quite as shocked as Western pundits are that Russia intervened the way it did in Ukraine. However, this does not excuse Putin who clearly broke some norms when deciding to annex Crimea and support the Donbass rebels of East Ukraine.
Putin is an authoritarian, who plays on Russia’s strong culture and pride to boost his own popularity at home. Personally, I believe Western analysts get Putin very wrong. They tend to think of him as a strongman who relies solely on support of oligarchs to rule. There is no consideration of the idea that Russians find Putin popular, and that Putin has a tremendous base of support among Russia’s population. Putin’s support comes from his popularity with the average Russian. Putin’s popularity is not necessarily propaganda or stuffed ballots in every sense.
Back on track, Obama used his speech at the UN to chide Russia’s actions in Ukraine, and also tried to explain why America and the world should not tolerate “the use of force” in settling foreign policy disputes. I’m not kidding, Obama really said that. Why is that ironic? Obama was speaking to the UN about why the US and Western nations have to use force as a foreign policy tool against ISIS. Literally, after speaking and justifying forceful action against ISIS, Obama says that Russia should not use force as a tool of its foreign policy.
For people who have paid attention over the past few decade would know why Obama chiding Russia in his ISIS speech is heavily ironic. It is practically Orwellian. He basically said; “We must use force and force alone to defeat ISIS and similar threats. But, Russia, you can’t use force for any reason whatsoever.”
Granted, I don’t think Russia should use its military in an aggressive way against its neighbors. I don’t think Russia is right in using its military as a tool of foreign policy against smaller nations that can’t fight back. Having said that, I also feel the same about the United States. When it comes to history, the United States has much to answer for in this regard.
The speech Obama gave highlighted the bubble of American foreign policy. Only America has a right to hegemony in the world. If any other nation challenges American superiority or its world order, then by definition this is aggression and nearly evil. American foreign policy makers believe in the notion of the “benign hegemon”, in which the US acts as a hegemon, but by definition, acts only in noble and just ways. Any intervention, under any context, is justified to some degree.
Even the Iraq Invasion in 2003 is being spun by policy makers as somehow quasi-just, despite how aggressive the action was and how blatantly it defied international laws and boundaries. If there was any classic example of illegal aggression against a sovereign state, it was the Invasion and subsequent occupation by American troops in Iraq.
This great disastrous epoch of history is now being molded into a “patriotic” narrative that claims that (while the war may not have been a wise idea) it is ultimately not an unjust act and is somehow still under the umbrella of benign hegemony. Our actions in Iraq were ultimately for a good reason, by this logic. Even Obama, the man who ran for president on how he opposed the war initially, seems to have been swayed by the logic that Iraq was still somehow a “good fight.”
This sentiment is clear in a similar speech Obama gave about Russia in Ukraine to the NATO council, in which Obama defended America’s role in Iraq and the Middle East. In that speech, Obama stated that America’s war in Iraq was not unjust due to the fact no territory was annexed and that America (after eight years) withdrew it forces from the country. Never mind the $3 trillion wasted, the 4,000 American soldiers killed, or the up to 1 million Iraqis killed during the invasion and occupation.
I bring this up because it corresponds with Obama’s recent speech at the UN, and America’s obsessiveness with reliving “the good fight.” Many American soldiers have this ideal of liberating a country and punching a Nazi in the face. The Good Fight. The fight done only for good and just reasons, and all shortcomings are merely collateral damage.
The do what I say, not what I do attitude applies to many aspects of US foreign policy. Take the Drone War for example. The US has engaged in one of the most controversial military policies in modern times. The Drone War allows for strikes inside of selective nations, where threats to US interests lie. The US does not have to declare war on the selected nation, though, in effect, the US violates the sovereignty of these nations in order to strike the targets.
I mention this because America’s largest complaint with Russia in Ukraine is the idea of national sovereignty. Nations having a right to secure national boundaries without fear of arbitrary abuse by larger nations. Russia has no right to use its military in sovereign Ukraine. Very well. Then how does America reserve the right to use its military in Iraq and Syria, without either Congressional or UN approval? Simply declaring ISIS a threat does not make dropping bombs legal or justified.
I’ve heard some say, “Well, ISIS beheads people” and that we have to act because of how horrible they are. First, ISIS is a product of our invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our destabilizing support for rebel factions in Syria. Secondly, why is ISIS the main attraction for humanitarian intervention? If people being mutilated is our great concern, why have we still not intervened with Boko Haram in Nigeria? Boko Haram is a mirror of ISIS with the same stated goals. What makes one case of inhumanity worth fighting over the other? Are we then to say beheadings are only worth stopping if people do them under certain circumstances? Should we then intervene to stop Saudi Arabia from beheading its citizens?
This issue here is that America still considers itself the only indispensable nation in the world. All other nations can rise and fall, and the world will go on. Yet, D.C. policy makers are bathed in the cultist notion that the world would literally cease to exist without the United States in charge. Our actions do not always speak in favor of this ideal.
Obama’s speech at the UN is merely a simplified edition of the bubble America’s foreign policy rests within. I do not agree that Russia has a right to intervene in the sovereign affairs and issues of other nations unchecked, but the same goes for any country. We can’t pretend the world doesn’t pay attention to our double standards. That’s part of the reason America is mistrusted. We have always talked out of both sides of our mouths, and other nations do notice, even America’s allies.
In a perfect world, no nation should hold forceful dominance over the other. But alas, we do not live in this world. America wants to have its cake, eat it too, and then blame other countries for the cake being eaten.