In 2008, Democrats were voted to the White House with a clear mandate: end wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; restore the commitment of American authorities to the rule of law – stained, internationally, by Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and internally by challenges to civil liberties contained in the Patriotic Act; as well as to reverse the severe economic downturn caused by the explosion of the real estate bubble.
In the third year of his term, President Obama has finally accepted to withdraw American troops from Iraq, leaving behind a time-bomb, fuelled by sectarian tensions and geopolitical disputes. US involvement in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in the meanwhile, has increased, along with the risk of civil war in both countries. In Libya, a new model for regime-change intervention was tested, setting the stage for war against Syria and Iran, under the cover of dubious UN resolutions, through the use of ‘opposition leaders’ created out of thin air or taken way out of proportion. Considered unworthy of greater efforts, Yemen and Somalia have witnessed the proliferation of drone attacks. Troops have been sent to Uganda. Bahrain, in the other hand, received a blank check to act against its own people, with military support from Saudi Arabia, in the interest of stability in the Persian Gulf. Guantanamo, in the backdrop, remains a legal black hole, either from the viewpoint of international law or against the framework of the US Constitution.
Internally, stimulus policies have proved far less effective than it was assumed. The debt ceiling discussion, in this context, is not trivial: there is a limit, indeed, to what governments can do to artificially pump up business cycles. As one rating agency correctly observed, this limit has more to do with politics than with economics, in a sense, however, not so clearly understood: the problem is not partisan or electoral politics; the real issue has to do with the ability of the US government to forcibly extract higher amounts of money from the American population to sustain long-term interventionist economic policies through over-taxation and increased inflation.
Among US republican presidential candidates, one could expect strong opposition to current lines of action, both in terms of foreign and domestic policy. Differences, however, have been expressed more in tone and emphasis, than in substance. Setting off a new war in the Middle East, for example, doesn’t seem to distress most of the candidates. Some seem to believe that the current administration is actually too soft with ‘non-compliant’ regimes in the region.
Representative Ron Paul, in this issue as well as in many others, stands out differently. In a recent interview on Fox News, when pressed on what the US could do to counter Iran, Paul offered an unusual set of answers: be less threatening; don’t put sanctions on them; maybe offer them friendship. In another interview to the same channel, he gave more detail on his view: Iran, with that much oil, can’t make enough gasoline for itself; they don’t have intercontinental ballistic missiles; if they had a nuclear weapon, they wouldn’t dare to attack Israel; Israel – with three hundred nukes – could take care of them in minutes; the Iranians don’t have a tradition of sending troops and invading countries six thousand miles from their shores; the country has been respectful of its borders; are we going to turn the world upside down because someday they might have a nuclear weapon?
Paul’s position regarding Iran is only part of a broader view – not about world peace, but rather about what the proper role of the US government is and what the real interests of the American people are. Paul believes that the presence of American troops around the world endangers rather than enhances US national security. Collateral damages and unintended consequences are some of the components of his critique of interventionism. The mujahidin of Afghanistan are a case in point, often mentioned by the candidate: trained and equipped by the US to fight Soviet occupation in the 1980s, they are now fighting American troops. A similar point could be made about the US participation in the deposition of Mohammad Mossadegh, the last democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran. The ousting of the secular and nationalist leader, in 1953, initially seemed to reinforce the US position in the Middle East. Statistically, it could be argued that interventions tend to create at least as many problems as they are able to solve.
In Paul’s argument, the internal dimensions of war also come to the fore. In wartime, he affirms, governments are always prone to promote security at the expense of freedom, in personal and economic terms. In one of his books, Paul recalls, in this sense, the imprisonment of American citizens of Japanese descent during the Second World War. More recently, Paul heavily criticized the Obama administration for the assassination of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, born in New Mexico, with ideological connections to Al Qaeda. He was deliberately killed by a drone attack in Yemen, without civil or military trial. No evidence of his participation in direct attacks against the US has been presented. In a way, this case shows that whatever a government does against foreigners, it will eventually do against its own citizens.
Many have called Paul an isolationist, claiming that, as a major power, the US must remain deeply involved in world affairs. Considering the possibility that Paul might win the election, which is not entirely unlikely, given the fact that he appeals, potentially, both to Republicans and Democrats, this charge must be carefully assessed. Internationally, the question could be presented in the following terms: the US is a fixer or a troublemaker? A less interventionist America would make the treatment of international conflicts easier or harder?
I would like to defend Paul’s stance on this debate, by attempting to explain why non-interventionism might actually present good results, in many cases. If you are an elephant inside a pottery shop, getting out of the way might not be simple, but it is better than pretending you can pick and choose what you want without causing irreversible damage. In the Middle East, to consider the most china-shop-like situation, the US has been deeply involved, taking sides, choosing winners, arming, training and financing allies. Without US involvement, would any country in the region be strong enough to impose itself over others? Could any of them wage a non-defensive war against others without facing the risk of isolation and defeat? One could reasonably argue that without interference from game-changing heavyweights from outside the region, the Middle East would naturally tend towards accommodation and equilibrium, more or less as Europe did during the XIX century.
To comprehend the current dynamics, it would be worthy applying to the Middle East a model developed by Oxford economists Paul Collier and Anke Hoeffler to understand civil wars. In 2000, taking a large database of conflicts into account, they proved that opportunities for predation play a large role in the formation of armed groups, without which civil wars can’t occur. Such wars, consequently, are more likely in countries rich in easily exploitable natural resources, particularly when other options of income are scarce, especially for young males: “unlike a protest, a rebellion which generates a civil war is a sustained, full-time effort. Adherents must eat, and so, the rebel organization is constrained to be financially viable.” (Collier and Hoeffler, 2000:12). In 2006, Collier complemented the model, putting stronger emphasis on feasibility. This second study, built upon improved data, sustains the contention that where rebellion is materially feasible it will occur, regardless of motivation. Feasibility, to be precise, is such a strong factor, in Collier’s view, that it can acquire a life of its own, sustaining protracted conflicts no matter the outcomes: “indeed, since the typical civil war lasts for many years and rebel victories are rare, if rebellion is rational motivations are likely to reflect benefits during conflict, rather than prospective benefits consequent upon a victory which must be heavily discounted both by time and risk”. (Collier et al, 2006:06)
I would like to argue that the US works and is seen in the Middle East as a source of financing equivalent to oil and diamonds in other areas plagued by conflict. The prospect of receiving US support, either to fight or to disarm, makes governments and groups that would otherwise refrain from conflict choose not to conciliate. In some circumstances, US support seems to compensate the costs of war in such a large proportion that stability and peace are given virtually no value. The case of Afghanistan is perhaps the best possible example of this dynamic. Why would any country remain in war for so long without any meaningful, internal, easily exploitable source of income under dispute? When there is nothing to steal, countries tend to value peace and hard work more than war and adventure.
Ron Paul, therefore, does seem to have a point. The presence of the US in situations of conflict seems to create more trouble than it solves. Unintended consequences, blowback and collateral damages are part of the problem. I propose exploring these ideas in more detail, not only in political terms, but also economically. Collier’s model seems to present a good framework for such an effort. Under that light, the foreign policy of Ron Paul might well prove to be a consistent alternative to the foreign policy doctrine developed under Bush and Obama, which combines virulence and inefficacy in self-sustaining and ever-growing proportions.
Collier, Paul et al. Beyond Greed and Grievance: Feasibility and Civil War. Working Paper, Centre for the Study of African Economies, University of Oxford, 2006.