Get in Here, but Stay Out There: Why Inconsistency in Foreign Policy is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Get in Here, but Stay Out There: Why Inconsistency in Foreign Policy is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

Posted on April 2nd, 2012 in Blog, News, Top Picks

A Washington Post editorial today (Challenging Egypt’s Generals) describes how one former prisoner and now blogger in Egypt turned out to be right — “In March of last year, just weeks after the revolution, the activist posted an essay on his blog contending that, contrary to the slogan shouted in Cairo’s Tahrir Square during the revolution, “the Army and the people were never one hand.” In deposing Mubarak, Nabil argued, the military was merely protecting its own interests – and seeking to preserve its preeminent position of power in Egypt.”

Really, powerful people exerting force to maintain their privileged role?  Who would have thought? Maybe that is why across centuries of conflict and millions of battlefield deaths of civilians and soldiers alike have boiled down to a simple governing principle: Only intervene when it is in your direct national interest, and (in the words of General Stonewall Jackson) if you do go to war, “draw your sword and throw away your scabbard” because the fight is on until the finish. 

Despite the facts on the ground in Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere the Obama administration and, amazingly, the hard right have one place to agree – America apparently must intervene in all sorts of places, though selectively and only if there is a lot of news coverage.  Indeed, we supported the overthrow of Egypt’s Mubarak, then recently gave the Egyptian military the full $1.3 billion of its annual U.S. aid this year, and are also looking to intervene more directly in Syria, reportedly even arming and paying for the ‘freedom fighters’ of the uprising, whoever they may be. We have little to no control of the outcome, but keep jumping in and creating the conditions for chaos.

Maybe we could take a page from history – recent history or ancient history, take your pick – and see if it would be prudent to look before we leap into the middle of longstanding foreign policy conflicts. Yes, Mubarak was an SOB.  But he was our SOB, and that counts for something, and he had at least a tepid peace with Israel.  Yes, the world is better without Gadhafi.  But his demise offered a lesson to all regimes that getting nukes and keeping them is better for the longevity of your rule than not having them or getting them and then handing them over, as he had done. That, and the Libyan people we cared so much about we “had” to intervene are now beset by roving hordes of armed militias… but no mind, we are on to other matters.

Nothing excuses the Syrian dictator’s evil acts and the world would be better off without him.  But America is not automatically required to intervene everywhere all at once.  After all, there are many ongoing atrocities all across Africa, a few in South America, and even a tremendous number of drug gang war deaths in Mexico.  In that latter one we even play a major role as the root cause, since it is our drug purchases that created the economic demands that foster the territorial wars Mexico is involved in.  So why intervene in Syria and not instead help out a border state with legitimate problems that are to some degree caused by us?

War should never be taken lightly, and yet today we see the left and the right coming up with any number of reasons to get involved in some places where horrible things happen, but not other similar places, and with little regard for what will happen afterwards.  The great philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once said “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”, but maybe a similar case could be made for foolish inconsistency when it comes to foreign policy.