New Voices

Weighing the Value of a US Led International Order

I’ve spent the past several days thinking about a recurring theme that showed up in the three or four most recent Deep State Radio episodes: a look at the failures and failings of American foreign policy. After listening to these episodes, I felt compelled to share my account how my perspective on our country’s foreign policy, informed both by my personal experiences and my knowledge of history, has shifted in response to Donald Trump’s successful campaign and his presidency.

Before Trump became president, I was fairly critical of US foreign policy, particularly its global military presence and long list of international interventions.  I attribute a portion of my condemnation to my previous work experience: I served as an intelligence analyst in the US Army, and subsequently worked for several years as a defense contractor.  My work took me to Iraq and Kosovo two times each, as well as a brief stint in Afghanistan.  The Kosovo postings were particularly instructive, as their circumstances provided me with an opportunity to observe a portion of the foreign policy decision-making process.  To put it another way, I got to see a small part of the “sausage-making process.”

Kosovo also happened to be insightful because it seemed to be a microcosm of US foreign policy failings in general.  In the early 2000s, America and its coalition allies put an end to a bloody ethnic conflict and created a tentative sense of stability.  Yet on my two deployments, nine and twelve years after the fighting ended, it appeared that America and the West were making little progress in achieving a lasting political solution.  In 2008, Kosovo had declared statehood, but at the United Nations, the debate over its status have hit an impasse: Russia, Serbia’s ally and protector, as well as other nations with a personal interest in the issue – for example, Spain with its Basque population – have consistently opposed granting Kosovo independence because of the precedent it would set regarding their own minority populations.  Additionally, the 2003 dissolution of Serbia-Montenegro, which represented the last incarnation of the nation of Yugoslavia, essentially means that there’s no nation-state left with which to negotiate Kosovo’s final status per the terms of UNSCR 1244.  So, although America and its Western allies ended the bloodshed, they have been unsuccessful in reaching an agreement that would grant Kosovo international recognition and allow the peacekeeping force to withdraw.

Meanwhile, Kosovo’s dismal economic and social conditions didn’t seem to improve much for the average Kosovar in the thirty months between my first and second visits.  Unemployment, poverty, and crime remained significantly high, the country’s infrastructure was in poor condition, and many citizens lacked essentials like clothing, adequate food, and medicine.  Political corruption was another problem, according to some: certain political factions accuse Kosovo’s officials of being America’s loyal lapdogs while neglecting their constituents’ concerns.

However, the worst problem was that the United States seemed either unwilling or unable to address these problems – for example, with a mini-Marshall Plan. I’m not sure America’s civilian and military leaders were even aware of these problems.  It’s very likely they were preoccupied with crises in other parts of the world.  I suspect another reason was that the intelligence reports they received were significantly more optimistic than the conditions on the ground would indicate.  Indeed, the unit I worked for in Kosovo waged a handful of bureaucratic skirmishes with another organization based in England, which maintained a rose-colored view of the situation.  The issue of putting an unrealistically positive spin on intelligence products was a recurring problem I noticed in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.  Upon my arrival in Afghanistan, I recall being told that the Taliban and other anti-US groups maintained a far larger footprint within the country than high-ranking visitors were told they did.  It occurred to me that this mirrored a problem America faced in Vietnam, and I wondered where else key decision-makers were receiving overly-optimistic analyses.

My distrust of American foreign policy was also based partly on what I learned in the areas of world affairs and history, and American political theory.  Among the events that shaped my opinions were the well-meaning but disastrous intervention in Somalia; covert CIA operations in Iran and Afghanistan, which both produced substantial blowback decades later; the Vietnam quagmire; the costly peacekeeping operation in Lebanon; and, of course, the open-ended yet seemingly unwinnable asymmetric conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Additionally, I drew upon writings left behind by the Founding Fathers.  I recalled George Washington’s aversion to foreign military entanglements, and contrasted that with America’s network of semi-permanent bases in Western Europe, the Pacific Rim, and the Arabian Peninsula.  I pondered James Madison’s cautionary wisdom about how war led to the loss of public liberty, and how it squared with the PATRIOT Act, the NSA’s bulk data collection, the multi-theater war being waged against radical Islamic terrorist groups, and the other changes brought about by 9/11.  I drew upon a more recent piece of wisdom when listening to Eisenhower’s speech in which he discusses the “military-industrial complex.”

Weighed against all that, a healthy dose of non-interventionism, even isolationism, didn’t sound that bad. However, there were two important questions about my viewpoint that I never thought to ask.  First, what would a world without American involvement look like? Second, how would such a world affect America? Trump’s time as president is helping provide answers to those questions, and I don’t like how they look.

I still do not like some of the costs associated with America’s leading role in world affairs.  I feel a flicker of rage whenever I see a flag-draped coffin arrive from, say, Afghanistan.  I’m angry that we’ve gotten embroiled in at least one open-ended conflict, and we’ve had to sacrifice some of our Constitutional freedoms because our government’s combat operations in places like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan could provoke a retaliatory terrorist attack.  I lament the disparity in America’s spending on things like education, infrastructure, or public health, compared to what it spends on defense.  And when it comes to trade deals and military alliances, I think there’s been a failure in explaining how both provide tangible benefits to the average American.

But as the consequences of America’s withdrawal from global affairs become apparent – emboldened autocracies, Russian resurgence and Chinese ascendance, an imperiled Europe, a reemergence of economic protectionism that may erode many nations’ standards of living, and a leadership void on critical issues like climate change – I am gradually coming around to realize that the costs of an international order without America at the helm would be much, much greater.

Mario was an intelligence analyst in the US Army for nearly a decade, working in Iraq, Kosovo, Colorado Springs, and the DC Metro area.  He also earned a BA in Political Science at U of Colorado – Colorado Springs, focusing on international relations. 


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