How America Gullibly Supported Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (with Ted Galen Carpenter)

Future U.S. leaders should to adopt a policy of skepticism and restraint toward foreign movements that purport to embrace democracy, argues Ted Galen Carpenter. 

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Over the last forty years, there is a distressing history of foreign insurgent groups being able to manipulate U.S. policymakers and opinion leaders into supporting their cause. Frequently, that support goes far beyond rhetorical endorsements to include financial and even military assistance to highly questionable individuals, organizations, and movements. Sometimes those efforts have even entangled the U.S. military in bloody, unnecessary, and morally dubious wars, as in Kosovo, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.

What is a freedom fighter? Why did we consider so many different groups to be freedom fighters? Is foreign policy messy? Should we be allies with reprehensible people to fight the evils of communism? Who was Jonas Savimbi and what was his role with the U.S. in Angola?

Further Reading:

Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements, written by Ted Galen Carpenter

Is America a Gullible Superpower?, written by Hunter DeRensis

Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America, written by Ted Galen Carpenter

Related Content:

Three Arguments Against War?, written by Jason Kuznicki

What Are the Risks of Terrorism?, Free Thoughts Podcast

Understanding U.S. Foreign Policy, Free Thoughts Podcast

America’s Authoritarian Alliances, Free Thoughts Podcast

[music]

00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:09 Paul Matzko: And I’m Paul Matzko.

00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Ted Galen Carpenter, the Senior Fellow for Defense and Foreign Policy Studies at the Cato Institute. He’s the author of numerous books. His latest is “Gullible Superpower: US Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements.” Welcome to Free Thoughts, Ted.

00:24 Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, thank you very much.

00:25 Trevor Burrus: What is a freedom fighter?

[chuckle]

00:28 Ted Galen Carpenter: I guess it depends on who is defining the term, because US officials defined a lot of people during the Cold War and since as freedom fighters when they didn’t really appear to stand for freedom in any reasonable definition of that term. When you have the Afghan Mujahideen whose name even translates as “Holy warriors,” not freedom fighters, but you’re portraying them as freedom fighters, or corrupt thugs like Jonas Savimbi or the Kosovo Liberation Army, then the definition is so loose that it really doesn’t have a true meaning.

01:12 Trevor Burrus: Is this just a kind of there’s the classic saying “A one man’s patriot is another man’s freedom fighter,” or “One man’s terrorist, sorry, is another man’s freedom fighter.” Is that kind of what you’re saying or is it relative in that sense? Or you’re saying something more specific about our relationship to “Freedom Fighters?”

01:28 Ted Galen Carpenter: I think there was a tendency to define any anti-communist faction during the Cold War as consisting of freedom fighters if they were opposing the Soviet Union or a Soviet-sponsored government in the third world. There was also a tendency to overlook defects among factions that the United States government was supporting. In some cases, I think that was wishful thinking, I think, there were officials, there were people in the news media, who honestly believed that some of the people we were supporting, that the United States was sponsoring, really did stand for freedom and democracy. There were other, I suspect more cynical, officials who realized that most of the people the US government was supporting were not advocates of freedom or democracy much less both values, but they were a convenient allies against the Soviet Union and some of its allied states.

02:39 Trevor Burrus: Is it bad that… I mean, the classic phrase of the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Foreign policy is messy and you need allies, some time we were allies with the Soviet Union in World War II and that worked for those purposes, but it wasn’t something we were gonna become best friends with them. Is it okay to become allies with even maybe sometimes reprehensible people in situations where you’re fighting to save the evils of communism?

03:04 Ted Galen Carpenter: It depends on the stakes involved. Clearly in World War II, the United States and other countries were facing a incredibly dangerous expansionist power in Nazi Germany. And when your vital interests are at stake, when the freedom and perhaps survival of the country is at risk, then it justifies creating alliances with almost anyone that is willing to help us and looks useful from the standpoint of our interest and stakes. But when it’s not a matter of vital interests, and most of the quarrels during the Cold War didn’t even come close to reaching that threshold, then the United States, if it truly believes in its own values, its own support of freedom, its own support for human rights, then it risks undermining and fatally compromising those values. If the United States makes common cause with repressive authoritarian movements, movements that commit atrocities of… If our survival, our fundamental liberties are not under dire threat, then we have no justification for making those kinds of moral compromises yet we did throughout the Cold War on multiple occasions and we have done so on several occasions during the post-cold warrior.

04:40 Paul Matzko: Ted, one of the things I was struck by as I was reading through your exhaustive examples of US interventionism and support for so-called freedom fighters, there’s a set of them that has to do with the Cold War and the logic is, well, they’re either for us or against us when it comes to the battle against international communism. And then there’s a set of examples from the war on terror. Those two episodes though, are separated by… Well, it depends how you date it, but let’s say 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall and 2001 with the 9-11 attacks. But yet, the underlying logic feels very similar. How do you bridge those two eras and why do you think we see the same kind of patterns of reasoning taking place in each?

05:26 Ted Galen Carpenter: That’s an excellent question. I think there’s a tendency in both eras to exaggerate the interests of the United States that are involved in various quarrels. Certainly, it is hard to see how the United States had vital interests at stake in places like Angola during the Cold War. And yet, we supported a corrupt semi-socialist thug, like Jonas Savimbi, pretending that he was or at least portraying him as a true freedom fighter. We’ve done something similar in the post-911 era supporting the Iraqi National Congress to help unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Again, we saw freedom fighters where freedom fighters simply didn’t exist. And we seem to believe, or at least purport to believe, that the United States had crucial, crucial interests at stake when the interests involved, if they were involved at all, were marginal in nature. So that is a nasty habit that the United States needs to break. And there’s also a bridge between the cold war and the war on terror which we saw with the Balkan wars and the US support for the Kosovo Liberation Army.

06:55 Ted Galen Carpenter: Again, where the United States had next to nothing in the way of interest at stake. And yet, we were crawling into bed with a particularly reprehensible organization.

07:07 Trevor Burrus: That’s an interesting question that you posed in your book. And it’s this question of how much were these people being misled by absolute charlatans who are knowingly misleading, telling American foreign policy leaders what they were going to do. How much the foreign policy people maybe were overstating their case, they knew that these people weren’t as good as they were saying on TV or on the Sunday morning shows or something like this, but they thought it important to sort of champion them as freedom fighters. Or how much the American foreign policy staff really believed this, maybe in some self-delusional way, that these people were actually gonna be freedom fighters in the end of day or maybe they can make them freedom fighters with enough support. Do you fall on any one of those, is it like a mixture of all three kinda depending on the situation?

07:56 Ted Galen Carpenter: I think there’s definitely a mixture throughout both the Cold War and the post-Cold War eras. It’s hard to believe that a cynical, very worldly figure like Vice President Dick Cheney actually believed that Ahmed Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress were honest, upright, advocates of democracy and fighters for freedom. On the other hand, I can certainly believe that George W. Bush and a lot of people in the American news media, some of the prominent Neo-Conservatives at think tanks in Washington, actually bought into the arguments that Chalabi and his associates were making. During the Cold War era, going back to Jonas Savimbi in Angola or the Nicaraguan Contras, you found a conservative journalist, especially, who signed on to those causes. Even very bright people like William F. Buckley Jr., the editor of National Review, who really seem to regard Savimbi as a noble freedom fighter who seemed to regard the Nicaraguan Contras, as being as President Reagan described, “the moral equal of our founding fathers.” Reagan said that even in his private diary entries.

09:26 Paul Matzko: So you mentioned, Dick Cheney, you mentioned some of these cross… They’ve been around for several decades. And I was thinking as I was reading your book, I was thinking of someone in the news recently, Attorney General William Barr who surfaces… He’s one of these figures, kind of like Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, who surfaces time and again over the last 40 years. So Bill Barr was writing a memo calling for the CIA to be allowed to destroy records after the church committee told them they had to stop that kind of thing and he defended… He wanted President Bush Sr. To pardon the Iran Contra obstructors. And again, today, you have his involvement in the Russian investigation. Why do think some of the same kind of group of Washington actors keep resurfacing? And their mistakes, their advocacy for a wide variety of foreign interventions, it never catches up with them? They’re still around 40 years on making similar mistakes. Why are they kind of Teflon, bullet-proof?

10:36 Ted Galen Carpenter: There certainly is a phenomenon in Washington, especially in the foreign policy arena, of failing upward. It seems like no matter how many blunders these people make, how many disasters their policies create, they’re always around and usually at increasingly prominent positions. We have Bill Kristol, still as a talking head on television news programs, again and again and again, despite his utterly disastrous advocacy of the Iraq war and many, many other mistakes of judgment with regard to US foreign policy. There seems to be the ultimate good old boy network within the US foreign policy establishment that mistakes, no matter how many, no matter how severe, are always overlooked by your colleagues. It’s bad manners to bring up mistakes, blunders that have caused problems for US foreign policy. And again, no matter how many errors are made, that doesn’t seem to have a negative impact on the careers of these individuals. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the major architects of the utterly disastrous US-led military intervention in Iraq, was later promoted to be head of the World Bank. This is the kind of pattern we’ve seen again and again and again in Washington with respect to foreign policy figures even more than their domestic policy counterparts.

12:23 Trevor Burrus: But I think that’s true partially because it seems like the opinion on foreign policy never really changes, so… Which is that America should be heavily involved in the rest of the world. So if you did a mistaken version of that and you say, “Well, maybe we shouldn’t have done this thing,” but you’re still on the right team, right? Even no matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, you’re still on the “America needs to be forward-deployed and needs to support freedom fighters and get rid of bad regimes.”

12:49 Ted Galen Carpenter: Yeah, it seems like you can be on that team, you can be batting below the Mendoza line of a 200 average in baseball.

12:58 Trevor Burrus: But you’re playing the game.

13:00 Ted Galen Carpenter: But you’re still part of the team, you’re wearing the uniform, you’re part of the club. And that does give these individuals a lot of protection, a lot of credibility. It makes US Foreign Policy, unfortunately, terribly rigid and sterile, and we’ve certainly seen the consequences of that. In particular, over the period since the end of the Cold War, we certainly saw a part of it during the Cold War as well. Obviously, the Vietnam debacle. But it seems like we have had next to nothing in the way of significant successes since the end of the Cold War and we have had multiple failures, some very severe failures.

13:44 Trevor Burrus: Interesting, that something that strikes me as we’re talking is that if we are going to get involved, based on our own principles to some extent, if we are going to get involved in some country that we perceive as dangerous, such as Iraq, it seems that we always have to go and find some group of would-be Democrat people who are displaced by some tyrant or something to justify the fact that we might even get involved in that country. Otherwise, if we don’t have one of those groups of people, if there is no dissident faction, then we can’t really say, “Oh, we’re just making the people realize what they really want.” It’s like, “Well, it seems like the people actually all want this.” So maybe part of what they do is they go look for such factions, when they’re looking at a dangerous actor and say, “Is there an undercurrent of “freedom fighters” there who are being repressed by the regime? And if we latch on to them, since maybe John Bolton would wanna invade the country no matter what, but if we latch onto that… The sort of disenfranchised people, then we can kind of get a two hold in there and justify further military engagement.”

14:49 Ted Galen Carpenter: That’s an interesting point. I would say that advocates of US military intervention are often a shy imperialist. They don’t want the stigma of the United States obviously dominating a country, much less ruling directly. So if there are organizations or factions that the US can sponsor, that can portray as representing the goals of freedom and democracy, and especially if there are at least plausible signs that they do so, then that is much preferred to just a brazen US intervention with the US totally running the show. Even at the time of the Vietnam War, of course, the US was sponsoring supposedly free elections in South Vietnam and we were backing indigenous Vietnamese leaders. Never mind that the United States was calling the vast majority of the shots behind the scenes, but at least that image was portrayed and I think there was a bit of tutelage. The hope that the groups or factions that we were sponsoring would, with enough US guidance, actually turn out to be the kind of representatives of freedom and democracy that we wanted. Again, the model that was evoked time and time again with how the US managed to install democratic systems, effective stable democratic systems, in both Germany and Japan after World War II. Never mind that the vast majorities since then did not resemble post-war Germany or Japan in any way shape or form.

16:35 Paul Matzko: I’m trying to anticipate a conservative counter-argument here, or maybe not being conservative, an interventionist counter-argument, which would be to suggest that: Okay, well, I will acknowledge, we’ll stipulate that what Ted’s saying here in this book is true, that many of these interventions on the behalf of freedom fighters end up getting… They’re messy entanglements, that people we support end up being thugs, dictatorial dictators, they end up being bad people. We’re not on the side of the angels in many of these conflicts. Yet, the argument would go, during the Cold War, if we didn’t do it the Soviets would have taken over and it would have been Soviet thug spreading communism. Therefore on the net, it’s still worth it to prevent spreading Pax Sovietica. I mean, the Soviet Empire. So even with the messiness, it’s still something we should do. How would you respond to that counter argument?

17:34 Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, of course, one cannot rerun history and adopt a less interventionist US policy and see how things worked out. What we can say is that a lot of the movements the US did sponsor turned out to be very repressive, corrupt, particularly ugly regimes, once they took power. And the movements that didn’t succeed certainly had human rights records that offered as many warnings as one could possibly imagine. The Soviet-sponsored regimes were indeed usually brutal and corrupt, but the United States had a very disturbing tendency during the Cold War of preferring friendly dictators who we could still portray as members of the free world. We preferred them to unpredictable democratic movements, particularly if those democratic movements appeared to be even slightly left of center. And for instance, overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran to re-install the Shah of Iran in power did not turn out very well at all. It was not an honorable act and it was disastrous in the long-term.

18:55 Ted Galen Carpenter: Supporting a succession of South Korean military dictatorships rather than taking the chance with democratic movements in South Korea was dishonorable. And ultimately, the US even abandoned that approach, realizing that just because a regime was not necessarily willing to do the bidding of the United States in every instance, did not mean that it was going to be a communist puppet regime. And we found that out in South Korea. The democratic successor regimes turned out to be fairly stable and democratic, and for the most part, moderately pro-Western, so our nightmare was overdone with that justification.

19:42 Paul Matzko: That’s actually a really good point. I’m actually reminded as you’re speaking, during the deliberations among Iranian university students just preceding the Iranian Revolution overthrowing the Shah in the 70s, there was a discussion about whose Embassy they should storm. And, of course, it’s not necessarily appreciated now, but some of the activists at the time were… I don’t know if democratic is the right word, but it was not just the ayatollahs sponsoring the revolution. They had these university students, and they had a serious conversation, should they storm the Soviet Embassy because the Soviets… Well, they’re on their border, they’re traditional enemies, they had Imperial aspirations over Iran and its warm water ports, and… Or should they storm the American or British embassies, as, in a sense, retaliation for the overthrow of Mossadegh in the 50s. And it was a lively debate, and if it hadn’t been for prior US intervention, that movement, that Iranian Revolution, would have had an anti-Soviet spin rather than an anti-American spin. So, I’m struck to the extent to which that impulse to intervene is a self-fulfilling prophecy that we end up pushing movements into opposition against us by intervening, right?

21:03 Paul Matzko: When if you just left well enough alone, it would, it wouldn’t have gone… It wouldn’t have eased… Necessarily gone into the Soviet orbit in the way that the most paranoid foreign policy makers thought. Another thing, Ted, some of your arguments remind me of Andrew Bacevich’s argument in the Washington Rules, Limits of Power, this idea of a set of actors in Washington, in DC, who promote war for a variety of reasons. Some of which are… Well, because it plays well with voters, it helps at the polls. Sometimes it’s because… Well, if you are a member of the military brass, you have an interest in using military solutions to diplomatic problems. Some of it’s weapons manufacturers have an interest in selling weapons and that the sales are good during war time. So people are buying into this lie. They’re gullible, thus the title of the book of your book. Where do you see that kind of impulse to buy into this narrative coming from?

22:02 Ted Galen Carpenter: I happen to believe it is more ideological than it is the network of vested interests, although I certainly take Dwight Eisenhower’s admonition about the military-industrial complex quite seriously. In fact, I think his original formulation was the military industrial congressional complex, which was more accurate, and I would add to that the Intelligence Bureaucracies and its associated allies. But the role of ideology, is not trivial at all. I think that there are more people within the interventionist camp who honestly believe that there are dire dangers out there. They overestimate the severity of the threats, and they also believe that US motives are basically good, and that US activism, in many ways, a hyperactive foreign policy, will for the most part produce beneficial results not only for the United States, but for the regions in which the United States intervenes. Nevermind that the track record is showing the opposite result.

23:23 Ted Galen Carpenter: They still believe that this is a necessary and beneficial foreign policy. And their caricature of the alternative is the US equivalent of North Korea as a hermit republic, where we don’t take an interest in events outside the United States, we never take action to forestall threats. It’s, again, this extreme caricature of American isolationism. And anyone who suggests even a moderately less activist or interventionist foreign policy is immediately smeared with that label. So, you’re dealing with an entrenched mindset that has developed really since World War II and despite the blows that that faction has suffered in the recent decades, indicating that their doctrine, their preferred strategy, is not very good, they still cling tenaciously to that belief. So it’s not just vested interest. That certainly plays a role, but the prevalence of that ideology, the tenacity of that ideology, is, I think, at least as important a factor.

24:45 Trevor Burrus: I’d like to get into a little bit a couple of these stories. Your book is full of a bunch of examples of gullible support for democratic movements, but some of them you highlight as possibly the worst. And I think there are two that I’d like to talk… You’ve already mentioned Savimbi in Angola, but I think that’s also interesting in terms of the interest we had there and how much he was ballyhooed in DC. So I think that fits in well. So for people who don’t know that we were involved in Angola, which I think a lot of people don’t know that we were involved in Angola, what was kinda going on there and then who was this guy?

25:21 Ted Galen Carpenter: Well, after the Colonial Revolution that eliminated Portugal’s control of Angola, the country experienced a great deal of factionalism. Originally, three factions vying for control. One, that the United States initially supported, was, as seems all too often the case, the weakest of the groups and faded out pretty quickly. The United States backed a man named Jonas Savimbi, the head of the Union for the Total Independence of Angola, who purported to be both anti-communist and pro-democratic. He and his organization were pitted against the government that took power in the capital city, Luanda, backed by the Soviet Union and Cuba.

26:15 Ted Galen Carpenter: And American admirers of UNITA and Savimbi wanted Washington’s strong support for that organization and its insurgency against the Soviet sponsored government. Well, the problem was that, if they had looked more carefully, Savimbi started off as a client of communist China. Even his troops in the field tended to wear Mao style uniforms and caps. The internal governance of UNITA was totally authoritarian with Savimbi fostering a cult of personality that I think the Kim family in North Korea doesn’t surpass by much. There was a lot of evidence of corruption, of brutality, of Savimbi eliminating opponents within his organization and that information came out gradually over the course from the late 1970s to late 1980s, but the Reagan Administration backed Savimbi, conservative media outlets lauded him, lionized him, as the epitome of a freedom-fighter and advocate of democratic capitalism.

27:34 Ted Galen Carpenter: Now, most of the abuses that Savimbi and UNITA committed were known widely by the late ‘1980s, yet the Heritage Foundation and George H.W Bush’s administration still invited Savimbi on a visit to Washington. And again, took him around to hold interviews, to give speeches and just lauded him as this wonderful advocate of freedom and democracy. That to me, reflects either an inability to see reality or an unwillingness to acknowledge strong evidence that the person the US is sponsoring as a freedom fighter was in fact a corrupt thug and nothing but that. So that’s the kind of thing that I find especially disturbing.

28:25 Trevor Burrus: That grim… And I think that one was quite disturbing and the one that we’ve alluded to a couple of times, the Iraqi National Congress. And since it seems, since it’s 20 years now, just about, since we did this and a lot of people may not… Well, either weren’t old enough or may not remember the build-up to the Iraq war, but how did the Iraqi National Congress fit into that build-up and kind of even going back to the first war and everything there. They had been working in Washington for a very long time but how important were they in some sense to the eventual Iraq war?

29:03 Ted Galen Carpenter: The Iraqi National Congress, and Ahmed Chalabi in particular, represented an absolutely crucial catalyst for the US war in Iraq. Chalabi and his allies cultivated political figures in the media, in Washington, throughout the 1990s, not just after 9-11 and the onset of the Bush administration. The Iraq Liberation Act, which was a bipartisan measure, passed Congress overwhelmingly and was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1998. This was designed to channel funds to Chalabi and the Iraqi National Congress as an embryo of an armed revolt against Saddam Hussein. Now, Chalabi kept lobbying for US intervention and his organization was the chief source for the bogus intelligence about Saddam’s supposed weapons of mass destruction. When caught after the fact, when there were no weapons to find, Chalabi said, “Well, we were heroes in error,” as though this was an honest mistake. This was no honest mistake, this was total disinformation, and the administration and the news media ate it up. Judith Miller, one of the lead reporters for The New York Times, absolutely channeled Chalabi’s weapons of mass destruction propaganda, his Saddam Hussein alleged links to al-Qaeda which never existed. She just absolutely furthered that propaganda and fed it to the readers of The New York Times, which in turn-generated stories in other newspapers and other media outlets. This was a crucial, crucial factor in building up and maintaining public support for US military action in Iraq.

31:11 Trevor Burrus: So who was this guy? The INC in general, was this a deposed party leader of a democratic faction or coup who was deposed by Saddam after he took over or what qualifications did this guy have?

31:27 Ted Galen Carpenter: The INC was kind of a diverse collection of Iraqi expatriates. About the only thing they had in common was their opposition to Saddam Hussein. Chalabi was kind of a renowned con artist. Even while he was operating in Washington, he had been convicted by a court in Jordan of defrauding investors and savings holders through a bank that he operated. This man was involved in a lot of nefarious activities. And when the US finally abandoned him after the invasion and occupation began, because they saw that he didn’t have any meaningful support among the Iraqi people. His party, for example, in the first parliamentary elections, managed to get 0.5% of the vote cast. And yet the US had portrayed him, and seemed to believe, that he was the George Washington of Iraq. Well, once the relationship soured, he strengthen his ties to Iran. He had always maintained some ties to Tehran, but now he really became a fan of the Iranian government. Again, the US just woefully mis-read the situation, even from the standpoint of the interests of pro-interventionists in the United States.

33:03 Paul Matzko: So it does feel like throughout the grand scope of American history, more often than not, the argument for intervention on the basis of promoting democracy, supporting freedom fighters, exporting Western values and the like, it works very well. It works more often than it fails, whether that’s the Mexican-American War, the Spanish-American War, to the examples that we’re talking about in your book. Why does it work so well? Is there some kind of built-in American tendency that tends to favor those kinds of arguments? Why are we so gullible?

33:46 Ted Galen Carpenter: I think part of it is that the American people would like to believe that the political leaders of this country, A: Know what they’re doing…

[chuckle]

33:55 Paul Matzko: That’s a big assumption.

33:55 Ted Galen Carpenter: And B: Have worthy aims in mind. All too often one or both assumptions prove to be false. But the American people don’t want to believe that US political leaders are utterly incompetent when it comes to dealing with foreign countries or foreign crises. And they certainly don’t want to believe that US foreign policy has embraced some particularly unsavory values and practices. That’s hard to accept, particularly since this is a democratic country. Ultimately the American people, having elected these officials, are responsible for the outcome.

34:42 Trevor Burrus: I think it’s interesting to, you said that believe that our leaders are competent. This comes up with conservatives a lot, but I think it’s a generally shared viewpoint. I think it’s possibly our colleague, Chris Preble, or maybe Dave Rickards, our former colleague, used to say, “To conservatives, the military is an honorary member of the private sector.” In the sense of how wonderfully precise and surgical, and how much of a well-oiled machine it is and this idea… And if you have this belief at how good our military is compared to other parts of the government, surgical strikes, that we can see everyone with these new technologies and even the ones we don’t even know exist. So maybe we’re over-estimating the military intelligence, that they’re listening to every phone call. So, of course, the American military would know whether or not this guy has support on the ground because they know everything, because we’re America, and we have those kind of powers, and of course, we can surgically strike everything and not have any collateral damage. And of course, the military can set up a new country in Iraq because… They can’t set up a healthcare system in America, according to the conservative belief system, but definitely the military and that well-oiled machine of smart, brilliant West Point grads can definitely do that in Iraq. And so maybe that’s part of the congeality too.

35:57 Ted Galen Carpenter: The military is just supposed to be an instrument of policy, determined by the civilians. It’s not supposed to be a policy generator of its own, under the American constitutional system. And it is curious, I’ve always noticed that contradiction, particularly among conservatives, who believe that the federal government is inept when it comes to dealing with domestic issues for the most part. But verges on being infallible when tasked with dealing with problems overseas, and that is a very weird discrepancy of views. I never quite understood that either, but I’ve noted that phenomenon. It’s very, very common.

36:42 Paul Matzko: So more recently, there’s been a trend, it’s been particularly notable in the Trump Administration, to hire former military generals, military officials to hold civilian posts, cabinet level positions. I’m kinda, I feel, in two minds. On the one hand, it’s not as if not having military officials in these civilian positions, it’s not like the previous order prevented us from having an interventionist policy. So, how much worse can things get? But on the other part of me wonders if this is problematic, if having former military officials occupying what are supposed to be civilian positions, overseeing civilian controlled military being kind of a fundamental of American virtue. How concerned should we be about that trend?

37:30 Ted Galen Carpenter: I think it reflects a larger problem. Increasingly, US foreign policy has had a very strong militaristic orientation. And one of the worries I have about appointing a great number of ex-military people to policy posts, is that inherent bias of the old saying that, “If all you have in your hand is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail.” And for those whose entire career has been in the military, they’re going to gravitate toward military solutions. That’s a very understandable bias, but even before the Trump administration, I think that US foreign policy was far too militarized. And the problem, if anything, has gotten a bit worse. On the other hand, you do have staunch interventionists, who have never been part of the military. The advice that John Bolton, the National Security Advisor, is giving to President Trump is not likely to be a cautious and non-militaristic in nature. Quite the contrary. But I don’t think it’s a healthy development to have a lot of ex-military people in the top civilian policy-making posts. That’s not solving the problem.

39:03 Trevor Burrus: On that point with current events, so to speak, so we talked about some historical examples of gullibly supporting democratic movements. And right now, as we record this, we’re having some saber rattling with Iran. I’m sure John Bolton has something to do with that. Are we seeing any of this now? Are you picking up on, maybe even in Syria or some other places, some democratic movements that are being ballyhooed as the real insurgents that we have to support against these regimes that are, kind of, we’re “in current conflict” with. I put that quotes. Somewhat manufactured, but we believe that we’re in current conflict with. Is this happening again?

39:44 Ted Galen Carpenter: With regard to Syria, I think US policy makers learned the hard way that their initial expectations that the opposition to Bashar al-Assad would primarily consist of moderates and even many pro-democratic elements, proved to be very untrue. The opposition was overwhelmingly Sunni Islamist. And you find most US officials, and even members of the media, now backing away from portraying the remnants of the opposition as democratic in any way. Where it is showing up certainly, is in Venezuela. This is the new arena in which the United States is very confident that the faction that Washington is supporting is very much democratic.

40:37 Ted Galen Carpenter: It is, certainly, opposing nasty a authoritarian regime. That’s absolutely true. How democratic the opposition is remains to be seen. But again, we have this high level of confidence that Guaido and his supporters are all good Western-style Democrats. Maybe yes, maybe no. In Iran, John Bolton and others have been big fans of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, the MEK. This is supposedly the democratic opposition to Iran’s clerical government. The reality is this is a very weird, almost neo-marxist, religious cult. It has provided all sorts of indications that it’s not a movement that we should want to support. Just because we dislike the Iranian government, for very good reasons, doesn’t mean that the enemy of our enemy is our friend. The MEK is a very corrupt, very dangerous operation and one that I suspect has not much more support inside Iran, than the Iraqi National Congress and Ahmed Chalabi had domestic support in Iran.

[music]

42:14 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. If you’d like to learn more about Libertarianism, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.