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Opinion: Dramatic change is needed in American foreign policy – the people have no appetite for war

The US must no longer be impulsively ready to employ its military around the world either for its own or for others’ ends.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

FOR MORE THAN a decade, I have found myself in broad agreement with European far left-wingers who have been so witheringly critical of the United States for starting wars in Afghanistan and, in particular, in Iraq.

It has not been pleasant to sing from the same hymn sheet as many for who anti-Americanism is an animating principle. Nonetheless, history has proven that those who opposed the use of American military force in the Middle East after 9/11 were correct for a number of reasons. Iraq never had so-called weapons of mass destruction; the US-led conflicts precipitated the large scale loss of life and livelihoods with little tangible benefit; and, all these years later, as recent horrifying events and the rise of Islamic State clearly illustrate, strife and turmoil still prevail.

Obama and foreign policy 

From the day he first took office in 2009, President Barack Obama has had to confront the extraordinary and unenviable task of extricating the US from these entanglements, while also dealing with perhaps even more complicated happenings in other trouble spots. It hasn’t been easy, and there have been missteps along the way. This has led some conservative commentators, such as Jeff Jacoby of the Boston Globe, to allege that “Obama’s foreign policy is in a shambles” and that “the world has become a much more dangerous place” over the past five years.

Jacoby’s answer is that the president should heed the advice of the eternally ultra-hawkish Senator John McCain and re-evaluate his view of the world. This is a chilling prescription, given that Senator McCain has never seen an international problem for which he didn’t have a military solution.

That said, critics of President Obama’s foreign policy do have a point. He has been incoherent and indecisive in his approach at times. He has been so halting largely because his political advisors know the truth and the devastating political consequences that would flow from ignoring it. The truth is that the American people have less than zero appetite for the use of force in the Middle East or anywhere else in 2014 and have definitively rejected the fantastical notion – which still has some currency in neo-conservative circles – that the US can or should be the world’s police force.

Americans have no appetite for more conflict 

Polling data bears this out. A CNN poll taken in May indicated that 84% of Americans are in favour of using military force only as a last resort. Pew polls conducted over the summer found a general “wariness about US global involvement” and 62% of respondents regard good diplomacy as the best means of ensuring peace. Tellingly, the vast majority of those in the middle of the political spectrum (ie, swing voters) believe the use of armed force only serves to breed more terrorism. Another Pew poll in December of last year revealed that American isolationism had hit a 50 year high: 52% of Americans – approximately double the number in surveys historically – agreed with the statement that “the US should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own.”

As is often the case, many politicians in Washington, DC are behind the curve of American public opinion. They are out of touch because of their complicity in the military-industrial complex and because, for the most part, the consequences of war have not been visited on them. With few exceptions, it has not been their sons and daughters who have arrived home in caskets, or without limbs, or with deep emotional scars.

A responsible approach to international policy

In this context, it is little wonder that the Obama administration is open to accusations of being a “ship without a rudder” when it comes to international affairs. How then, short of withdrawing entirely, can the US chart a better course that would simultaneously make the world a better place, better reflect the understandable sentiments of its people and at last restore some of its moral authority? A three-fold plan for doing so follows.

First, the US must put all of its proverbial eggs into the basket of working for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This would require facing down the disproportionately powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), an always defiant Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders of both political parties. If America can play a central role in establishing a relative calm in the region and in creating a Palestinian state, it would go a long way to combating the rise of terrorist groups like Islamic State in future.

After all, what primarily motivates hatred for the US in the Arab world is the widely-held perception that America is blindly pro-Israel. Bold steps on this front would entail political and other sacrifices in the short-term. But again, there is no more worthy foreign policy objective at present. And those who write it off as grossly unrealistic should examine polls indicating that American young people are nowhere near as pro-Israel as their elders, especially in the wake of the latest atrocities in Gaza.

Second, the US must repudiate the “Bush Doctrine” of pre-emptive war and must overcome its long-standing propensity for getting involved militarily in the affairs of others with insufficient justification. The cornerstone of its foreign policy should be that the use of military force is reserved for those rare instances where there is a direct threat to American security and the lives of Americans or where there is a catastrophic humanitarian or other crisis necessitating an armed response. All decisions to use force should be voted on by Congressmen and women who would then have to stand over their votes. In the unlikely event of a prolonged war, and as Congressman Charles Rangel has advocated, ideally the draft would be reinstated to ensure that all Americans, not just the less well off, fight for their country.

Third, the US should make it clear to the rest of the world that it is not retreating; it is re-calibrating its foreign policy to emphasise cooperation for long-term, sustainable benefit, rather than comeuppance for short-term, illusory gain. The US should continue to help fund and engage actively in international institutions. Yet it must no longer be as impulsively ready and willing to employ its military around the world either for its own or for others’ ends. The US would have to convince its allies to gamely accept this new tack and the different world order it would probably engender. Those who say it would leave a vacuum for rogue states and terrorist groupings should consider what the status quo has bequeathed.

It may be late in the game for this president to start effecting such a dramatic and far-reaching change in American foreign policy. If he were so inclined, however, he could plant the seeds in the next two years. And if he did, his critics might still call him lots of things. But indecisive wouldn’t be one of them.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a columnist with TheJournal.ie and IrishCentral.com.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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