Both John McCain and Condi Rice at the GOP convention waxed on about "American exceptionalism" and how it is imperative that the US resume its always-and-forever role and responsibility of "leading from the front." Stephen Walt (here) and Bruce Jentleson and Charles Kupchan (here) have torched the stupidity of that. Walt's comments especially resonate with me:
the idea that the United States should always try to "lead" is completely bone-headed."Exerting leadership" is not the central objective of foreign policy; it is a means to an end but not an end in itself. The central purpose of foreign policy is to maximize the nation's security and well-being. If exerting "leadership" contributes to these ends, fine, but there will be many occasions when the smart strategy is to hold back and pass the buck to someone else. Blindly declaring that the United States must always go to enormous lengths to lead, and must constantly strive to reassure allies who need us far more than we need them, is mere jingoistic hubris. It's an applause line, but not a strategy. . . .
our overall approach to grand strategy should begin by recognizing that the United States is remarkably secure, with no great powers nearby, and most of our current adversaries are much, much weaker. This favorable geopolitical position is an enormous asset; it means that other states tend to worry more about each other than they do about us, and it means many countries will remain eager for U.S. support. Which in turn allows Washington to "play hard to get," and extract lots of concessions from others in exchange for our help. Those who pompously insist that America must always take the lead are throwing this diplomatic asset out the window, and guaranteeing that other states will take advantage of us instead of the other way around. And it should enable us to spend a lot less on national security, thereby easing our budget problems and allowing investments that will ensure our long-term productivity.
It is worth remembering that the United States rose to great-power status by staying out of trouble abroad and by concentrating on building a powerful economy here at home (which is what China is doing today). It also helped that the other great powers bankrupted themselves through several ruinous wars. The United States fought in two of those wars, but we got in late, suffered far fewer losses, and were in a better position to "win the peace" afterwards. The world has changed somewhat since then, and America's global role is and should be more substantial, but there is still a valuable lesson there. But don't expect Romney & Co. to absorb it.
In recent times, of course, George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq (2003-2011) was the poster-child of the US's leading from the front. John McCain chalked it up as an American "win" a few years ago, crediting the American Petraeus-led "Surge" with a "victory" that more credible observers ascribe to Sunni militias and the "success" of the Sunni vs. Shia sectarian cleansing and relocations of 2006-2008. Many of the GOP rank-and-file bought into McCain's assessment: we freed the Iraqis from Saddam Hussein and bequeathed to them a constitution and a functioning democracy.
Predictably, the American public have turned the page on Iraq - enough so that Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and all of the GOP's headliner speakers in Tampa felt it safe (or prudent) to ignore both the Iraq war and the continuing debacle (or, perhaps more accurately, the slow-motion rout, as The Guardian's Simon Tisdall so aptly described it) in Afghanistan. So much for accountability; though in an election season when one campaign asserts for the record that it won't be held accountable to fact-checkers, what the hell?
Nonetheless, Haifa Zangana at The Guardian reminds us that in Iraq, America's "leading from the front" is a "gift" that keeps on giving:
Three women were among the 21 people executed within one day in Iraq, last Monday. It was followed, two days later, by the reported execution of five more people. The number of people executed since the start of this year is now at least 96 and they are not the only ones. The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, Christof Heyns, said: "I am appalled about the level of executions in Iraq. I deeply deplore the executions carried out this week, and am particularly alarmed about continuing reports of individuals who remain at risk of execution."
There is also news of another 196 people on death row. According to Iraqi officials, they have all been convicted on charges "related to terrorism," but there is little information about their names, what crimes they committed or whether they have access to lawyers or not. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have previously documented the prevalence of unfair trials and torture in detention in Iraq. Confessions under torture are often the only evidence against a person who has been arrested following a secret informant's report. Parading the accused with their tortured, empty looks on Al Iraqiya, the official TV channel, is the norm. It took a court in Baghdad only 15 minutes to sentence Ramze Shihab Ahmed, a dual Iraqi-UK national, to 15 years' imprisonment after being found guilty of "funding terrorist groups".
Amnesty has obtained and examined court documents and said it believes the trial proceedings were "grossly unfair". Ahmed was held in a secret prison near Baghdad, during which time his whereabouts were completely unknown to his family. During this period Ahmed alleges he was tortured – with electric shocks to his genitals and suffocation by plastic bags – into making a false "confession" to terrorist offences.
So what kind of human rights are observed in the "new Iraq"? Hardly any. The list of abuses is long and the tip of the iceberg is waves of arbitrary arrests (over 1,000 monthly), torture and executions. All are barely noticed by the world media and the US and British official silence is rather convenient to cover up the crimes and chaos they created. From time to time, they break their silence but only to justify their act of aggression. Recently, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu pulled out of a seminar in protest over the presence of Tony Blair, a statement was issued by Blair's office to justify the morality of his decision to support the United States' military invasion of Iraq.
There you have it. Bush's "leading from the front" brought the long-suffering, deserving people of Iraq the gift of a new Saddam, along with a dysfunctional, corruption-ridden government and political system that, despite being flush with oil revenues, remains unable to provide electricity, jobs, or security. And according to a recent survey, Iraqis feel so beaten down that they would accept a quasi-dictatorship if it could ensure basic quality of life.
And now, McCain/Rice et al. want Obama to thrust the US again into leading from the front, in order to bestow similar liberation on the people of Syria?