America has a history of allying with bad actors to effect change in other countries. Our little-known historical relationships with dictatorial regimes in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, Iran, Pakistan, and Zaire are proof of that. What are the benefits and drawbacks of allying ourselves with certain regional factions over others?
Is American foreign policy hypocritical when we ally ourselves with authoritarian or otherwise despotic regimes? When did this tendency to become intertwined with bad actors begin?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Ted Galen Carpenter and Malou Innocent’s new book, Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes (2015).
Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute and Malou Innocent, adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute. They’re here to discuss their new Cato book Perilous Partners: The Benefits and Pitfalls of America’s Alliances with Authoritarian Regimes. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Ted Galen Carpenter: Thank you.
Malou Innocent: Thank you.
Trevor Burrus: So American foreign policy has historically been intertwined with many bad people. I think it’s fairly commonly known for people who know and consequently a lot of times you hear their claim that our foreign policy is hypocritical. Is that too simplistic or is it accurate to say that our foreign policy is hypocritical?
Malou Innocent: I would say it’s a little bit of both. It is glib and simplistic but it’s also very true. We look at the notions of hypocrisy. Hypocrisy really just means that you say that you believe a certain set of values or beliefs, but then you don’t actually adhere to them in your actions. I would honestly argue that it’s sort of more of a double standard in the sense that we see an inconsistent application of our principles for a similar set of situations.
So you find that US foreign policy is very deferential to its allies and very brutal to its non-allies that overthrow governments, sponsor coups, provide military assistance to certain regimes but then tries to destabilize nationalist independent movements.
So certainly there’s a level of hypocrisy or the double standard, but I don’t think it goes far enough in providing a substantive critique of US foreign policy. There are substantial humanitarian costs. We see the United States being pulled into conflicts divorced from its vital interests and national security.
So I think those are the more potent and compelling arguments for why we see a problem with US foreign policy and align with these authoritarian regimes.
Trevor Burrus: Should we expect consistency in American foreign policy if there are presidents changing constantly?
Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, I think you can have at least reasonable consistency with respect to the basic principles of American foreign policy. I can’t say that the United States stands for the promotion of freedom and democracy and the rule of law and then crawl into bed with some of the sleaziest, most repressive, more corrupt dictatorships in the world.
That is hypocrisy and it is a betrayal of fundamental American values. The American people ought to be proud of their country’s foreign policy. There should be very few occasions where the American people have a right to be ashamed of that policy and yet unfortunately, there have been all too many instances in recent decades where shame is warranted.
Aaron Ross Powell: But what if we get more out of crawling into bed with these bad people? Then we lose. So if we – by working with a particular dictator, by working with a particular authoritarian regime, we benefit in some way that presumably would allow us to either at a later date or elsewhere in the world advance those principles or spread liberty or democracy.
Malou Innocent: I think there would be – a critical example that we outlined in the book would be the opening to China. That would be a very clear example of an authoritarian state that has very odious policies towards its own people, but at the same time it definitely shifted the global balance of power by engaging that regime, the Mao Zedong regime, and sort of shifting the balance of power away from the Soviets. So that’s something that we can see and obviously we see the opening to China economically.
So we sort of see the flourishing of some of those liberal principles at least in the economic sphere. Not 100 percent, not totally, but at least in some respects better than it would be before. I think that’s a great example and I think there are very few examples of that, if we want to sort of do sort of historical counterfactuals. That would be interesting. But I think it’s very difficult to find those examples.
Ted Galen Carpenter: That’s the problem. The examples of that sort are few and far between. There are far more examples where the United States engaged in actions that undermine the values of freedom and democracy that helped put in power ruthless dictatorships, helped sustain in power ruthless dictatorships, often at the expense of democratic secular movements that would have been far better for the people of a particular country.
Malou Innocent: Absolutely. Just to jump in there, I do agree with the notion and this is what Ted had mentioned in the book forum of being that city on the hill, of leading by example and not necessarily wagging our sanctimonious fingers at another countries. It would be something if we actually did truly lead by example and was not so complicit in the crimes of some of the world’s most monstrous regimes.
Trevor Burrus: Did our tendency to get entwined with these bad actors begin with the Cold War or does it – is it farther back than the Cold War?
Ted Galen Carpenter: It does predate that certainly in the Western hemisphere. You have examples as far back as the earliest years of the 20th century in which the United States was supporting corrupt dictators that were pliable in terms of American foreign policy or in some cases, simply supported the interests of American corporations. You find that definitely in the Caribbean and in Central America.
What became different during the Cold War era was that this technique spread to other parts of the world and it became more ideological in nature. This was justified to prevent the spread of Soviet communism, broadly-defined and often nationalist movements worked hard with the communist brush to justify American support for repressive allies.
Aaron Ross Powell: Was it being used to justify it after the fact or was it the reason that it was being done to begin with? So I guess the question is, if we are betraying our values by working with these people, propping up these governments and regimes, we’re betraying our values, we might be undermining the spread of liberty and democracy abroad, why are we doing it? What are we getting out of it? You mentioned it – sometimes it’s in the interests of US corporations. But are there other reasons we’re doing these bad things?
Malou Innocent: Sometimes there are legitimate security interests involved. For instance, we have intelligent sharing with various governments in the Middle East and in broader South Asia. So there is critical intelligence that we do get as a result of aligning with certain regimes.
The problem that occurs is when certain states also perpetuate that very sort of illiberal policies and actually spread a lot of the sort of Jihadi literature and memes within the region. Saudi Arabia comes to mind as a very critical example of that. We saw this throughout the Cold War and still to a lesser extent after 9/11 but it’s still permeates to this day of their ongoing support to charitable organizations, to missionaries and schools that propagate a very virulent form of Wahhabi’s Islamic extremism, what’s known as Salafism. So that’s one example.
But then also you have the example of Egypt where you’ve seen throughout the Jihadist literature of how the torture at Egyptian detention facilities has given rise to the whole cohort of Islamic extremists and some of the senior members of Al-Qaeda. So this is where it really just sort of – there’s a critical security interest in it the same time that very country could be undermining our interests and these are very complex and difficult issues to sort out of course as we do in the book.
Ted Galen Carpenter: One of the more interesting questions that we explore in the book is whether US officials believe their own rhetoric, that these regimes were important to American security and that the threat to American interests in various parts of the world, that the threats were dire and it’s very difficult to answer that. At times it appears that officials were pretty cynical and they knew that they were exaggerating the threat and exaggerating the American interest at stake. At other times, they seem to believe their own propaganda.
But the bottom line was that generations of US policy makers preferred what they saw as reliable authoritarian allies to taking the risk of dealing with messy, unpredictable democratic governments. That bred a lot of resentment in countries around the world. We’ve certainly seen that in terms of the blowback that we received in Iran after undermining that country’s democratic government in 1953, putting the shah of Iran back into power, aiding him over the next quarter century. When
He was overthrown, the Iranian people deeply resented the US support for the shah and that distorted the Iranian revolution. It strengthened the hands of religious extremists and directed the anger primarily at the United States.
In other countries, we were luckier. The Philippines and South Korea where again we backed corrupt tyrants but the reaction of the public when those tyrants were overthrown was milder. There was some resentment at the United States, but you did not get the kind of virulent blowback that you had in Iran.
Trevor Burrus: Is there some tension, an air of tension, between supporting democracy and allowing a state to come into existence that may be somewhat problematic for the United States? Sometimes if we let the people choose, they might choose communism back there in Cold War or they might choose extreme Islamist fascism now. Should we always prefer democracy and let them choose themselves even if they’re going to be choosing something that’s ultimately bad for them and their liberties and well-being and also for us?
Malou Innocent: I would say unless it’s a clear and direct threat to the United States, then no, we shouldn’t be deterring or denying people their agency in self-determination, however they choose. I think oftentimes what happens is that we go in thinking that we’re going to be preventing the rise of communism or terrorism and by pushing that agenda, we end up pushing those people further into the arms of a radical movement.
We saw that certainly with Egypt and Syria back in the late 1950s, after a series of British and American coups that were basically botched, Syria and Egypt formed into one country, the UAR in 1958. I know a lot of people know that. They actually joined their governments. They were a united country.
It was mainly because of these botched coups that we saw and it really pushed those two countries further into the Soviet camps. So there’s that fear of the unknown that can oftentimes lead to us almost – it’s almost a self-fulfilling prophecy in some respects.
Trevor Burrus: I wanted to ask you about some of the specific countries in the book because there’s I think 14 or 15 cases discussed including – in the back you have a little few paragraphs about equatorial Guinea …
Trevor Burrus: … how vital that interest might be.
Malou Innocent: It was incredibly vital.
Trevor Burrus: Exactly.
Malou Innocent: Crucial to the security of the United States.
Trevor Burrus: So for just our listeners and some of the stories that we don’t know – because that’s one of the things that most fascinates me about foreign policy is that if you live in the present, you can’t do it even adequately. So for example, Iran, we mentioned some of it. But when did we start getting involved with Iran and what did we do and how has that come back on us?
Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, the main development was in 1953 when the United States and Britain jointly helped orchestrate a military coup against the elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh.
Trevor Burrus: So why did we do that?
Ted Galen Carpenter: Mosaddegh offended the British by nationalizing British oil interests and the British successfully portrayed him as being soft on the Soviet Union and perhaps even a communist sympathizer. The reality was there were more mundane economic interests primarily at stake. But the United States bought the British argument hook, line and sinker that here was a country that was perhaps drifting into the Soviet camp. The US and British intelligence agencies helped overthrow Mosaddegh, put the shah back into power.
Then the shah proceeded with his repressive rule and devoted most of his efforts to undermining domestic secular opponents and part of this was the dynamic that if one wanted to have an anti-regime meeting in a café, the likelihood was that it would be infiltrated. The café would be shut down and the people all arrested.
However, if you wanted to engage in anti-regime activities in a mosque, that was safer because the shah’s security forces were much more reluctant to barge into mosques and arrest people.
Well, what that meant when 1979 rolled around and the Islamic revolution took place is that the secular dissidence, the opponents of the shah, had been so badly weakened that they were almost a non-factor. The anti-shah revolution was dominated by extremist religious elements.
So US policy inadvertently strengthened the forces of Islamic extremism and that’s what we’ve been living with since the shah was overthrown.
Trevor Burrus: Now in terms of blowback which you mentioned was perverse, would you say that in 1950, say before the coup, attitudes about America and Iran were not terribly negative and by 1979, they had gotten quite negative and that’s what we’re living with today? Is it that sort of cut-and-dry?
Ted Galen Carpenter: Yes. It is virtually that cut-and-dry that attitudes toward the United States, in Iran and for that matter throughout much of the Muslim world, were generally positive. About the only major grievance at that point was US support for the creation of the State of Israel. Now that has certainly caused some problems for the US.
But generally speaking, attitudes were generally favorable toward the United States and even today, when you have detailed public opinion surveys in Islamic countries, there is still a great deal of admiration for American culture and for the American professed values of freedom and democracy. Where there is opposition and vehement opposition is to American foreign policy including support for Israel but also support for corrupt, repressive dictators. That comes up almost as often as the Israel issue in terms of the grievances that these populations have.
Malou Innocent: Just to piggyback off your point, Ted, it’s definitely true that our values, our liberal values certainly resonate with many people all around the world. They animate a lot of these democratic movements and I think they are very valuable because they’re so aspirational. People truly want to embrace the notions of separation of powers, rule of law, expansion of women’s rights. These things that we sort of hold dear and profess and claim that make us exceptional.
But at the same time, what you see is this sort of corrosive cynicism towards America and towards its policies. A lot of that has to do with our support for oppressive regimes all across the Middle East and across much of Latin America as well and these are histories that – this is a narrative that becomes sort of self-fulfilling in and of itself again because then you see conspiracy theories about American deception or America’s role in the world. It sort of feeds into that, that sort of cynicism.
So you see this duality a lot in discussions of the United States where they like our ideals. They like our principles. But they almost wish that America was a country worthy of its ideals.
Ted Galen Carpenter: Yeah, that suspicion is tremendously corrosive. One cynic said that the United States has been blamed for 11 of the last four coups for which it was responsible. So these conspiracy theories abound, many of which have no real foundation in fact, but that does drive public opinion in these countries.
Trevor Burrus: Interestingly, it’s a history – this public opinion which is an important part of this, it’s a history in many of these countries, that they all remember very well or have much more intimate involvement with them and here, we might not even know that we have orchestrated a coup in Guatemala. I will be honest. I actually didn’t know that until I read your book. Foreign policy is not exactly my specialty but I literally did not know that I’m a relatively well-educated guy. But I’m sure down there, they remember it quite well. That goes into how public opinion talks about foreign policy and how this sort of creates this kind of alliances.
Malou Innocent: Right, exactly. I think that’s part of why we have this failure of imagination. This was something that was mentioned during the book forum in the sense that you find a lot of Americans who are unfamiliar with the history of US foreign policy during the Cold War and much less during – after 9/11 for that matter.
I think part of the problem is that you have history written a lot of the times by the victors and what we see in the current political discourse is that a lot of it is written from the Western point of view or from our vantage point. So we don’t really read a lot of the literature of foreigners.
In fact, part of my research for the book, I not only read US policy deliberations in the historical archives of US foreign relations. But I also read the autobiographies of foreign officials and we – both of us interviewed foreign officials and foreign citizens and I did field work in Afghanistan and Pakistan and I think that’s necessary to understand exactly why do these views take hold in certain regions.
Why is it that our values still resonate abroad? But there is that – you know, sort of that duality in the sense that they see that America’s principles are universal because we profess in the universal. We say that they apply equally to all individuals irrespective of background and that at the same time, we destabilize and undermine foreign regimes. We provide financial and military assistance to brutal dictators.
So they see that dichotomy and it definitely sort of strains and harms our values and policies as well.
Ted Galen Carpenter: And Americans tend to be dismissive of the grievances of other societies, which is unfortunate. An example of that occurred in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter was interviewed about the then developing chaos in Iran and the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh was brought up and his response was, “Well, that’s ancient history.”
Well maybe to Americans it was ancient history. To Iranians who had been living with the consequences of that coup, for better than a quarter of a century, it most definitely was not ancient history.
Malou Innocent: Right. Some of this has just become so mundane as well. I mean you look at our support now for the regime in Afghanistan. I mean on a daily basis, if you have to bribe someone just to get a driver’s license, if you have to pay this person and that person and this person just to go from one checkpoint to another, I mean that grates on you.
This is something that goes not only from mass severe and egregious violations of human rights but even to the most day to day mundane daily operations in living your daily life.
Aaron Ross Powell: So many of the instances discussed – I mean if we talk about so far today and then also in the book involve the threat of communism or the Soviet Union, that it seemed like we would be – there’s this threat. So anyone who might be on our side against communism, we will get involved with if it means betraying our principles. We are fine with it and oftentimes the result was it makes – it doesn’t really help us in any way. It makes us more soft.
I’m struck by the possible analogy. So tell me if this is – if this is fair at all to the current situation with say terrorism in the US, that we have this threat of – I mean communism is an ideology. It’s not even really like a group of people and terrorism is just this thing that might happen and we’re really scared by it. We think it would mean the end of our American way of life and so in order to stop it, we are willing to irrationally betray our values, make the world a worse place, hurt lots of people overseas and not really weigh the cost of this stuff. Is there some level of similarity?
Malou Innocent: I think there are definitely certain parallels and we see that a lot of these forces abroad are existential threats to our security but also even to our way of life. The irony of course is that we must undermine our values in order to protect them. So you see after 9/11 the construction of a worldwide torture regime and extraordinary rendition, warrantless eavesdropping without the warrants required by criminal law, the invasion and occupation of a foreign country that leads to the death of at least 100,000 innocent Iraqi civilians.
So you do see a sort of – using the notion of security and vital interests for this cause of undermining our liberties and undermining our rights. As I always say to people when I go to speaking engagements, I have had more of rights taken away from me by the US government than by Al-Qaeda.
Aaron Ross Powell: So we argue – when we’re talking about terrorism here at Cato, one of our main arguments is look, it’s not really nearly as much of a threat as you may think it is or as our government acts like it is. Was that the case for communism at the time? Was it not really something worth worrying about or did we have legitimate concerns here and we just picked the wrong way of dealing with them?
Ted Galen Carpenter: It was a legitimate concern but we tend to deceive very complex, diverse developments always through the prism of the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. That greatly oversimplified matters and it led to terrible tragedies in some cases.
The entire Vietnam war was based on the premise that the Vietnamese communist forces were puppets of either the Soviet Union or communist China or both. Never mind the internal logical inconsistency of that, given the fact that Soviet Union and China were rivals at the time.
But we interpreted a nationalist movement that had a communist overlay as nothing more than a pawn of Soviet expansionism and that led to a horrifying war that ended up killing 58,000 Americans and more than a million Vietnamese.
Now ironically of course, today, we are friends with the Vietnamese communist government. We’re creating all sorts of trade agreements with that government and basically enlisting Vietnam as a de facto ally against China, even though Vietnam is still a one-party dictatorship just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s when supposedly it posed a severe threat to American interest.
Trevor Burrus: Everyone is better for it. That’s the other sort of theme that comes up in the book is that there’s always the no-choice – it seems like there’s the no-choice rhetoric.
Ted Galen Carpenter: And often there are in fact a number of choices, many of which would be far better than the option that the US selected.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, maybe we see that with Vietnam. It’s like, well, maybe we could have done nothing and then become friends with them. We did something and killed a bunch of people and we’re still friends with them. That’s fine. But then of course it’s hard to look for a completely consistent history for a lot of this.
So South Korea, we intervened constantly in the course of three different dictatorships. Things are going pretty well on that score whereas in say Pakistan, it has been a little bit more difficult. Is there – is everything too different on the ground to really look for a general theme here? Like we can expect if we intervene too much, people will blow back. Sometimes in Iran but not in South Korea. It’s hard to take one lesson from it. It’s always very contingent.
Ted Galen Carpenter: That’s a good point and sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. I think that was the case in both South Korea and the Philippines where the blowback that we received once dictators we supported were overthrown, the blowback was mild compared to what we had let’s say in Nicaragua and Iran where the blowback was very severe.
But the policy in South Korea was pretty depressing. It was one thing to have supported an authoritarian regime in the 1950s when we were worried about communist expansionism as a monolith, Russia and …
Trevor Burrus: And what just happened with North Korea …
Ted Galen Carpenter: Right, and you already had a major war. It was different when we continued that policy into the 1970s and 1980s at a time when South Korea had become a modern country, a sophisticated country, and yet the US attitude was epitomized by the commander of US military forces in 1980 at a time when a new military dictator overthrew an interim elected civilian government.
The response of the US commander was, “Well, the Korean people are like lemmings. They need a strong leader.” I mean that is patronizing in the extreme and you can imagine how that attitude played with the South Korean people.
Malou Innocent: I think that’s just a very good point on both aspects in the sense that we – the policy should be country-specific in many respects because we are dealing with governments and politics and really social science, different behaviors, different people, different histories. So it should be looked in within the specific context of a given country and their own history.
It sort of seems as if when we succeed, it’s by luck. When we lose, it’s by chance. So in some respects, you do have to look at the country in question. But one example – and this is sort of even preceding the Cold War and looking at China. Something that really animates a lot of its internal narrative is the history of the 19th century and the foreign invaders and powers that exploited China.
Even to this day, we see that narrative within China of this notion of the – we’re going to go back to the Middle Kingdom. We were humiliated as a result of the European powers. So you can see something like China where we weren’t necessarily responsible. Well, in some respects we were in the late 19th century but not as much as the other European powers, and how that still animates the people over a hundred years later. Just to give you just some very clear example of that.
Trevor Burrus: I wanted to get a little bit more background – one of my goals here was to – because I do think that foreign policy is so fact-contingent and a lot of Americans don’t know. So we did Iran. Pakistan, our history there. What should people know about our history in Pakistan, our tendency to get in bed with bad people?
Malou Innocent: Well, so, it began in the late 1940s when we allied with Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of modern day Pakistan and Pakistan really we have to understand itself was broken off from the rest of India.
So it was created as a Muslim majority country and one that would respect the independence of Muslims. The problem with that is that Pakistan itself wasn’t economically viable and it wasn’t a country that actually gave enough powers and addressed the socioeconomic grievances of various other ethic groups. It has various ethnic groups, the Balochis, the Sindhis, the Pashtuns, the Punjabis, the Bengalis.
So even though it had the Muslim collective identity, it wasn’t enough to actually centralize control and power. So what you often saw is that even as the United States assisted the regime, provided it military and financial assistance, that it would often use that money to buy weapons against Hindu-dominated India. So in one respect, it would create this sort of undermining of security in South Asia because …
Trevor Burrus: Why were we giving them weapons though? Were they part of the Soviet Union …
Malou Innocent: So they were part of collective security organizations in the broader Middle East and that was actually one part of the problem is that we kept taking Pakistan out of South Asia and into the Middle East. We didn’t realize that it had its own context and history with India. So you saw this in 1965. You saw this in 1971, 1972 where it used US warplanes and tanks against their own people and against India. We’re also giving assistance, humanitarian assistance mainly, to India as well.
So this is just an example of where we get in bed with these countries, for instance Pakistan, and not only do we see a history of overthrowing their own civilian leadership as we saw with the various military juntas of implementing martial law regimes and emergency law, but also just using their own US military assistance to fight wars, which is of course incredibly destabilizing and undermines the idea that we promote peace.
Trevor Burrus: Then where are we now with that? We’ve maintained this alliance with a new enemy in mind, with Islamic terrorism in mind and with invasion of Iraq – or Afghanistan, sorry. So are we still doing bad things there would you say?
Malou Innocent: The problem with post 9/11 Pakistan is that it’s sort of at war with itself in many respects. It had an ongoing relationship with the Taliban regime because it provided sort of the back buffer in Afghanistan against the Indians. This is what they’ve sort of viewed as strategic depth.
At the same time, they allied with the United States in 9/11 and cracking down on terrorists. So on the one hand, it would be continuingly to assisting the very terrorist groups and militant groups that are trying to destabilize Afghanistan while at the same time taking US assistance and claiming to be an ally in the war on terror. I think now we’re at the point where we understand that Pakistan is not exactly a friend. I think some people in Washington say it’s better to keep your friends close, enemies closer. So it’s now purely a transactional relationship.
So it’s – this is probably the – maybe the lowest where US-Pakistan relations have been in a – almost ever.
Aaron Ross Powell: So in a book full of examples of America behaving badly with bad people, what’s the most egregious? I suppose there are two answers. So there’s the perspective of who’s the worst person or group of people that we have gotten into bed with.
Aaron Ross Powell: And then which particular instance has been the worst for US interests or US principles.
Ted Galen Carpenter: I would say the worst relationship from the standpoint of US interests is the relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia. This is a government that the US portrays as a friend and an ally and yet it is one of the most brutal dictatorships in the world. I think with the exception of North Korea, it might be the worst government in the world.
Just to give you an example, I mean we cite the beheadings committed by ISIS as evidence of the barbarity of that movement and it is. But last year, the Saudi government beheaded some 83 people. Two new sentences for beheading and in one case crucifixion as well as beheading for two young people who dared to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations back in 2011.
This is a government that has funded the Wahhabi clergy and its outreach program in other countries, training young Muslims to hate the West, to hate Western secular values. So this is an association with an odious government that has worked against US interests and particularly against US security.
Trevor Burrus: It has created problems for us.
Ted Galen Carpenter: Major problems, major problems.
Aaron Ross Powell: But they have oil.
Ted Galen Carpenter: They have oil. So you can argue at least that we have some interest at stake. Particularly a repressive regime that we supported where our interests were minimal was of Joseph Mobutu, Mobutu Sese Seko, the dictator of Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The United States had minimal interest in Sub-Saharan Africa, almost non-existent economic interest and very limited strategic interest, and yet we supported a tyrant that imprisoned and killed political opponents routinely, looted his country to the tune of tens of billions of dollars, becoming in the process one of the richest people in the world, ruling over an impoverished country.
That was one of the most unjustifiable US associations with an authoritarian regime.
Trevor Burrus: Now how is the national defense established? I would call it the basic mainstream national defense, which includes think tanks and people in the government and everything. Not necessarily Cato but other think tanks. How have they assisted in this general tendency to – maybe it’s short-sightedness or looking at some interests or overweighing or having – or thinking of threats? How have they generally assisted in this?
Ted Galen Carpenter: I would say two ways. One, demonizing all adversaries of the United States. These are not just opponents. There are always the next Hitler, posing a dire threat to the United States. So you get threat inflation and the exaggeration of American interest at stake.
Also the portrayal of complex conflicts and disputes as melodramas, melodramas with an innocent victim which often turns out to be not very innocent, menaced by an evil aggressor, the new Hitler. Kind of the snidely whiplash of geopolitics and then the United States writing to the rescue as Dudley Do-Right of the Mounties.
This creates a mentality in the United States of supporting needless interventions and sticking with policies long after they have ceased to serve any legitimate interest.
We’re seeing this now in Afghanistan. We’re extending our military deployment, which is now 14 years in the making and the question arises. When are we ever going to be able to leave Afghanistan? But we have a corrupt, largely ineffectual government in place in that country and the attitude is we have to stay on because otherwise, this government will fall and Islamic radicals will take over. Well, at what point do we cut clients loose?
Trevor Burrus: Or Islamic radicals like Saudi Arabia. That’s just another Saudi Arabia out there. We deal with them. Maybe it’s not as bad as we think it might be.
Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, again, there’s one thing whether a country becomes a center for terrorist activities or whether it is just governed by an ugly, repressive regime.
Malou Innocent: Right. I would just add to that, just back to your question. As someone who has a lot of friends in the military-industrial-congressional complex, I do have friends who work – who both served in Iraq and Afghanistan who are in intelligence agencies, who work at think tanks and high level decision-making circles. If you pull them aside at a cocktail party, they will say, “US foreign policy, we have genuine problems with it. It’s not achieving its objectives. There are serious problems that we should address.”
But at the same time, when you go into work and they go into the office, they realize that there are very perverse political and bureaucratic incentives to continue with the status quo. I think that is sort of the issue is that even as we look at policies and we can point to specific policies that – where we erred and went wrong. The problem is that a lot of these policies are on autopilot and it’s very difficult to pull them back because of those incentives.
Trevor Burrus: The media narrative is – tends to be also melodramatic, I’ve noticed.
Ted Galen Carpenter: I think that tends to be one of the worst aspects. For example, a coverage of the very complex conflict in Syria where you have overlays of a Sunni-Shiite dispute. You have Bashar al-Assad and what amounts to a coalition of religious minorities, not just as Alawite-Shiite offshoots but also the Christians and the Jews versus a largely Sunni insurgency. How many new stories have you seen in the American news media that described the dynamics that are taking place there? No, it’s always the evil, repressive Bashar al-Assad and he is evil and repressive versus a noble insurgence who wants to bring democracy to Syria. Well, that’s largely a fairy tale but it’s one that sold to the American people again and again and again in different contexts.
Malou Innocent: Yeah. My criticism of US media is both the highs and the lows in the sense that you see a lot of journalists who want to have privilege to access to information and so they will cite a government source but not attribute it to a specific source.
So I think a lot of the times, there is a reason why they want to have access to the White House or to congressional aids. So therefore they don’t want to rock the boat too much and so they’re not going to press them with too heavy or trenchant questions. So those are the highs I think of the criticism of media.
Then there are the lows of appealing to the lowest common denominator, of being extremely simplistic, of standing in front of a damaged home after a hurricane versus getting investigative reporters on to the collision of big government and big business or the chronic problems within Washington. I mean that requires an enormous amount of energy and resources rather than going for something that’s easily simple.
Trevor Burrus: Do you think that they will learn? Is the foreign policy [Indiscernible] going to learn? Is there any reason you think they would?
Ted Galen Carpenter: That’s very hard to say and I’m afraid it may take yet another disastrous war before we get a serious reconsideration of the foreign policy. One need only listen to the democratic and republican debates in the current presidential campaign to realize how little most of the candidates have learned from the bruising experiences that this country has had in recent decades.
Malou Innocent: And I think part of the problem too is something that we mentioned earlier about how a lot of the issues are country-specific and as you say, fact-contingent. So we can look at Iraq and see that it led to the expansion of Iranian influence and the decrease and de-legitimization of American power and the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. But then, oh well, that was Iraq. So it’s going to be different in Syria. So you see these arguments almost work to the advantage of those who want to intervene. So I think it’s very difficult to learn the right lessons when everything is so fact-contingent.
Trevor Burrus: Thank you for listening. If you have any questions, you can find us on Twitter, at FreeThoughtsPod. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.Libertarianism.org.