US Foreign Policy: Isolationism or Strategy Change?


Introduction

Anyone who followed the three US Presidential debates (Barack Obama vs Mitt Romney) and the VP Debate (Ryan Paul Vs Joe Biden) may have noticed something I noticed in the last Presidential debate. While it was meant to be a debate on Foreign Policy, both Presidential Candidates  seemed more comfortable with ‘taking’ the debate back home to domestic discussions. This may seem unusual to those who expected to hear the candidates thrill viewers and the electorate with their policies for the next four years, but the reality is that it is far from being unusual given the recent state of US foreign policy.  Two things could be deduced from the debate

  • First, some of the US electorate are not interested in what the foreign policy of their presidents are, hence to convince the undecided voters, attention had to be drawn constantly to domestic policy.
  • Secondly, the candidates really had nothing to sell in terms of foreign policy.

In fact for the most part, both Obama and Romney were in agreement on almost every aspect of US Foreign policy – from Iraq, to Libya, to Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Iran. The only notable difference was that while Obama thought he was doing enough and needed to sustain that (something which Republican Former Secretary of State Colin Powell agrees with), Romney thought there was need to go much further. They differed therefore only on the intensity of sanctions, the time frame for troop-withdrawals and the manner of interventions. However, whether Romney is a ‘whopper’ or not, is really of no consequence but I daresay that for him to have tagged Obama’s Middle East visit an ‘Apology tour’ means he may not be realising the changing tide of US Foreign Policy. This should not be surprising since the current policy is largely due to lessons learned from the mistakes created by people who thought like Romney.

The lessons from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and even Syria are enough to make any US president think twice before talking as if declaring war on the first provocation, or carrying out an outright intervention, or even challenging China is fashionable. The laid-back attitude of the USA is one that therefore makes one wonder if they will soon be reconsidering isolationism or if they are simply adopting a new strategy.

Lessons From Afghanistan…

Upon the ousting of the USSR from Afghanistan in 1979, the USA thought they had scored a major victory and surely there would have been pats on backs when the USSR finally collapsed 10 years later. But just about 11 years after the collapse of the USSR, the biggest attack on American soil in recent memory took place and is largely acclaimed to have been hatched in Afghanistan. Some may therefore wonder if it would have been better if the USSR had stayed on in Afghanistan. Without thinking, Bush went on to declare war against the Taliban – a war that has not only consumed great numbers of US and NATO troops but one that has decimated large civilian populations in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and keeps terrorising people through incessant drone attacks. Most significant to this is the fact that the 2014 deadline for withdrawal does not signal victory for the USA and her allies. A lesson must surely have been learned.

Iraq: Anything to Learn?

Iran is considered today to be a serious threat to the USA and Israel especially if they succeed in getting a nuclear weapon. In the 1980’s this same Iran was caught in a long-drawn war with Iraq, a war that ended in what can be termed an ‘uneasy understanding’ between the two countries. In 1990/91, Operation Desert Storm against Iraq weakened the country considerably, and in 2003, the invasion by George W. Bush, which led to the killing of Saddam Hussein threw the country in to complete chaos and created a power vacuum, one that is quickly being filled by Iran, especially given the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. The US withdrew without achieving anything positive both for them and the Iraqis by the intervention. A lesson was surely learned.

Paying a New Price in Libya – Lesson for Syria?

The above two cases may have sent a warning note to the US about interfering too much, hence, when it got to Libya, they took a passive position initially and left France and the UK to take the lead. When it became very tough for NATO and the war was dragging on more than anticipated, the US had to come in, or fallout with her European allies. They did and killed Gaddafi and a puppet regime was installed. Less than a year later, on the anniversary of 9/11, the US again paid a big price. While the UK ambassador was earlier targeted, he was luckier than his US counterpart. Unfortunately, there is no one in Libya for the USA to go after directly, so the withdrawal attitude this time was to divert the cause of the attack to religious fundamentalism.

In the light of this, it is not surprising therefore that the USA has been taking a different attitude towards Syria. Though out-rightly seeking the overthrow of Al Assad, supporting rebel factions and admitting it will be a blow if Al Assad does not fall eventually, they  have been reluctant to push enough to get full scale Libya-style ‘humanitarian’ intervention. No matter how Syria plays out in the end therefore, the US will not be able to claim any direct role in its outcome. Hence, if it turns out sour, they will not be responsible, though that will mean Iran’s influence will extend to the Mediterranean. But if it turns out the way the US wants, their objective of isolating Iran will have been realised. The long and short of all this is that the USA is gradually slowing down on its role as the self-acclaimed policeman of the world.

Isolationism – Maybe Not

From George Washington’s farewell speech, to  the First World War, the USA showed great reluctance to becoming involved in European alliances and wars. Their policy of Isolationism is based on the view that America’s perspective on the world was different from that of European societies and that America could advance the cause of freedom and democracy by means other than war. This worked well until their brief involvement in WW I against the Central Powers. Their later rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and consequently never becoming a member of the League of Nations, meant that the interwar years was a quick return to isolationism. However, it is worthy of mention that US isolationism did not mean complete disengagement from the world stage. The United States continued to be a world player and to further its territorial, ideological and economic interests, particularly in the Western Hemisphere.

Coming into WW II in 1940 against Germany and Japan in 1941, seemed to have been the final blow to Isolationism, especially with the USA actively participating in the formation of the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development.  The post war Marshal Plan and the onslaught of the Cold War meant the USA had reached the point of no return – at least until events of the last decade and most importantly, the last few years.

But is the USA again going to isolationism? I really think not. The reason is simple – while the US Presidential candidates discussed different aspects of Foreign Policy, there was no direct mention of their active role in Africa, (except the moments when Romney mentioned Mali and Libya as parts of happenings in the Middle East).

Africa – Integral Part of a New Strategy?

The non-mention of Africa is no ordinary omission given that just last year President Obama deployed 100 U.S. troops to Uganda to conduct a  search for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army in what I questioned whether it was a mission of Liberation or Reconolisation.  If that question seemed out of place then, it may not anymore given that the Army Times news service recently stated that the U.S. plans to deploy more than 3,000 soldiers to Africa in 2013.

It is therefore obvious that the US is not really thinking of Isolationism in the pre-1940 style, because, while they may have been taking a back seat attitude following recent losses and setbacks especially in the Middle East, their attitude in Africa has been one of active colonisation. This is especially when one thinks of operations such as “Cutlass Express”, the naval exercise that focused on fighting piracy in the Somali Basin region; “Africa Endeavor 2012” in Cameroon aimed at coordinating and training military communications and the Battalion Intervention Rapide in the same Cameroon (initially said to be aimed at fighting armed terrorism along the northern borders, but which has effectively become a force stationed in the Naval base of Limbe and was used to help Biya crackdown on protests in 2008 and change the constitution that helped him hold on to power)

Others such as the “Southern Accord 12” in Botswana aimed at establishing a military working relationship between southern African military forces and the U.S, and the “Western Accord 2012”  in Senegal that involved every type of military operation from fire exercises, intelligence gathering to combat marksmanship inter alia, really puts to rest any speculations that the USA is adopting any form of isolationism soon.

Since Africa was obviously the ‘elephant in the room’ during the debate, it therefore, makes one wonder what the new strategy is. Whatever it is, it is one that has this attitude of staying in the shadows and masquerading under the pretext of alliances. But if they are real strategic alliances that stand to benefit both the US and Africa, then would it  have been so conspicuously absent from a debate on Foreign Policy? Or was it – maybe not really, especially when one considers that statements like ‘I will go after China’ could only mean making Africa the battleground.

As the saying goes – ‘When two elephants fight, it is the grass that suffers’ hence AFRICOM if anything, signals danger for Africa because one cannot help but beg the question as to whose interest such a force stands to serve.

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