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Saturday, December 22, 2007

A clueless nation led astray by an imperialistic elite?

A clueless nation led astray by an imperialistic elite?
By Doug Bandow, For The Straits Times
I'VE OFTEN been asked by people outside of America to explain US foreign policy. It's a daunting or, perhaps more accurately, embarrassing task.
Americans know very little about the world. Their ignorance is almost charming.

In one sense, it's good that most people in America are more interested in spending time with family and friends and in earning a living than in plotting a coup in some faraway land, waging a war against an emerging power or issuing foreign ultimatums over random economic and political demands.

Unfortunately, however, as a result, Americans have essentially delegated the power to do all of those things to a Washington-centred elite. When things go wrong, Americans get angry and policies sometimes change. But Washington's interventionist enthusiasm always quickly returns.

It's not a pretty spectacle. Most Americans are not ideologically committed to turning the United States into an imperial power.

Few of them would like to spend months or years patrolling failed foreign states, such as Iraq. Most of them turn against needless conflicts when it becomes evident that they aren't going to be short and sweet.

American elites rather like the idea of the US attempting to run the world. But the vast majority of Americans, who have to pay the bill, probably would be much less enthused if they thought about it.

Indeed, when wars go bad - like in Iraq - the public eventually says 'Enough!'. Anger over the Bush administration's Iraq war - among other things, incompetently waged - led voters to transfer control of Congress to the Democrats. The failure of Congress to override the policies of President George W. Bush may lead voters to give the White House to the Democrats as well in next year's election.

Yet, in a perverse sense, the biggest US foreign policy problem is when the costs seem low. Then the public simply ignores the issue, giving policymakers wide discretion to continue advancing interventionist policies contrary to America's national interests.

How else to explain continuing American membership in Nato, especially one that keeps expanding? Europe once needed defending from the Soviet Union. From whom is America defending Europe today, a continent with a population and GDP larger than America's?

Moreover, what sense does it make to continue expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation up to the borders of Russia, absorbing countries with multiple disputes with Russia, an authoritarian, nuclear-armed power?

Yet the American people remain blissfully unaware of and uninterested in their nation's foreign policy. If America ends up at war with Russia over a recent addition to Nato, voters might take notice. Otherwise they just don't care.

Similarly misguided is America's continuing defence of South Korea, which has upwards of 40 times the GDP and twice the population of North Korea. Most South Koreans no longer fear the North; in fact, they have been subsidising it for years.

Then there's Japan. The world's second-ranking economic power, Japan could do far more to protect itself and its region. Its neighbours prefer that the US does the job, but so what?

American elites rather like the idea of the US attempting to run the world. But the vast majority of Americans, who have to pay the bill, probably would be much less enthused if they thought about it.

Beyond such major commitments, Washington has dribbled bases and forces around the world. Unfortunately, foreign alliances can act as transmission belts of war at a time when America should be building firebreaks to war.

Although serious armed conflict is unlikely in either Asia or Europe, Washington's explicit promise to defend the Baltic states and Eastern Europe necessarily makes all of those nations' squabbles with Russia America's squabbles as well. Washington's implicit guarantee to Taiwan does the same thing with China next door.

Advocates of scattering security guarantees around the globe argue that such commitments deter aggression, which is true to some degree. But US deployments also ensure American involvement in conflicts that would be of little relevance to it.

Moreover, guaranteeing the security of other nations creates an incentive for irresponsible behaviour. That is, so long as some countries believe the US will rush to their defence in a conflict with a bigger power - China and Russia most obviously today - they are likely to act more aggressively.

This phenomenon is evident in Taiwan, which has adopted a confrontational stance with China. Taipei asks: With Washington behind us, why not assert our interest?

The challenge for advocates of a new US world approach is to break through the public's ignorance to build popular support for overturning elite opinion. It won't be easy.

But without a real opposition to today's aggressive interventionism, America is doomed to following a flawed imperial policy. Only by supporting presidential candidates who challenge the interventionist status quo will voters recover the American republic.

The writer is the Robert A. Taft Fellow at the American Conservative Defence Alliance. A former special assistant to president Ronald Reagan, he is the author of Foreign Follies: America's New Global Empire.

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