It is understandable that intelligent people should be preoccupied with the crises reported in the daily press, but they are best comprehended in their historical context. That context, and the crucial causes and motives guiding American foreign policy since 1950, are crucial to understanding the often bewildering and multidimensional events since the year 2000. George W. Bush and his cronies have done incalculable damage and committed terrible follies, but it is a fundamental error to assume that he is somehow original and the genesis of our present crisis.
It is much riskier to focus on particulars as if they have no precedents or are not part of an older, longer historical pattern. Indeed, a major fault of many assessments of US actions abroad is precisely such a disregard for the circumstances that led to them and their historical framework.
The world has changed with increasing speed over the last half-century, and there have been more wars and upheavals over the past decade than any time since 1945. Given the weaponry now available and the growing political and diplomatic instability that has accompanied the demise of Communism, this is the most dangerous period in mankind’s entire history. It is also the period of greatest changes in the balance of world forces, with the decentralization of not only powerful weapons but the reemergence of nationalist, ethnic, and religious factors. The breakup of the USSR and Communism was only partially the cause.
How global military, political, economic and other variables interact is very often unpredictable, to which one must add the domestic politics and public moods within crucial nations — of which the US is most important. World affairs are not only complex but also full of surprises — not only for us but also for those in Washington and elsewhere who aspire to control the destiny of humanity.
Contradictions and errors have been the principal characteristic of all ambitious nations, leading to wars that are not only far bloodier and longer than anticipated but also produce such unwanted political and social consequences as revolution or its opposite, reaction. The emergence of communism and fascism, and the sequence of wars over the past century, was merely confirmation of the fact that once fighting begins, human values and institutions — all the forces that create social stability — go awry.
George W. Bush inherited conventional wisdom regarding the world mission and universal interests that guide American policies on the world scene. The same ambitions have often been shared by leaders of other powers who believe that wars serve as effective, controllable instruments of national goals. What Bush did do, however, was intensify the most dangerous traits always inherent in American institutions and beliefs since 1945. He scarcely expected to get bogged down in the affairs of the Middle East, making Iran the strategically most important power in the entire region. Still less did he imagine that America’s war would rip apart the existing fragile political arrangements and boundaries so that the specter of civil wars and bloodshed along sectarian and ethnic lines in the entire Middle East that may last for years to come. President John F. Kennedy and his successors earlier had also expected that their involvement in Vietnam would be limited and short.
But once the shooting begins — and America’s "credibility" is at stake — priorities are decided for it where there is combat. Moreover, what is crucial is that its pretensions and ambitions have often led to very different parts of the globe — and the US often loses control over the military and political results of its many interventions. The world has always been very large and very complex, and it is becoming more so; the US may eventually adjust to that reality. But it has refused to do so in the past as well as the present.
Both Presidents George H. W. Bush — the incumbent president’s father — and Bill Clinton radically altered the justifications for the United States’ global foreign policy after Communism disappeared. The second Bush claims there is "a decisive ideological struggle" against Islamic fundamentalism and "terrorism," and it is the main rationale for wars the US is now fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and may perhaps also fight elsewhere. But his predecessors concocted variations of these themes based on fear and anxiety in large part to justify massive military spending after the demise of the USSR, and the US’ "preemptive" interventions have been a rationale for American interventions for many decades.
Yet while an alleged Islamic threat took Communism’s place throughout the 1990s, it did so in an often-contrived fashion that made exceptions for America’s important alliances with Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and other orthodox Muslim states. But Islam has existed for centuries, it has changed very little if at all, and the US often utilized fundamentalist religion in Iran, Afghanistan, and elsewhere after 1950 as an antidote to fight godless Communism. What was crucial was that the US needed a threat and alleged danger to legitimize to its own population its global role and readiness to intervene everywhere. This justification causes it to spend almost as much on its military machine as the entire rest of the world combined.
We must never forget that the origins of most of the world’s problems go back many centuries and involve religion, boundaries, demography, nationalism — the list of causes of war and human misery is very long. The United States has scarcely been the cause of most of them. But even granted that international politics has been violent and quite irrational far, far longer, after the Second World War the American role was decisive in most places on the globe. Had Washington behaved differently after 1945 then many of today’s international crises would be very different also. In short, the "American problem" after the Second World War became synonymous with the world’s problem; virtually everything important involving change is now contingent on it.
The US since 1945 has poured fuel on the fire of atavism and irrationality, and it has blocked efforts to solve the domestic problems of countless nations in ways that were often quite sensible and equitable. It is worth contemplating what might have happened had it minded its own affairs and avoided making matters — good, bad, or neither — far worse, but especially preventing needed social and economic reforms. I have devoted one book to its interventions in the Third World alone, another on the Vietnam War, and dealt with yet many other cases elsewhere. There are also innumerable excellent detailed works that go much further.
The Middle East is currently the leading crisis facing the US and the world. President Woodrow Wilson predicted in 1919 that if the peace made after the war were not just "…there will follow not mere conflict but cataclysm." The territorial settlements imposed on the Middle East after 1918 were entirely capricious, unjust, and arranged by the great powers with scant regard for local conditions or desires. An astonishing ignorance prevailed among most of the crucial decision-makers, not just the Americans. The reemergence of Islamic ideologies, the rise of secular nationalism in the region, Zionism and the seemingly intractable Arab-Jewish conflict, and much else is a result, to a crucial extent, of the role of outside foreign intervention.
The Second World War was further vindication of Wilson’s fears, and today we are experiencing the irrationality of the settlements that followed the First World War in the Middle East. The vast region’s nations and borders were created arbitrarily; in no area was the potential for chaos — the contested boundaries, the creation of a Jewish homeland, and much else — greater than this inherently volatile region. For there are no "natural" nations and boundaries in the Middle East and by attacking Iraq the US has reopened a potential for chaos and disorder in the entire vast region which surpasses, by far, both in size and economic importance the potential for instability which existed in Indochina, Brazil, or anyplace else where it mucked around. For while there were plenty of illusions in many other areas, in fact the turmoil the US is now creating in the Middle East is unprecedented. It could have been far different had the US not tried to control the fate of this region at all.
Communism is all but dead but the world’s sufferings have, if anything, increased with the disappearance of what was the justification for the Cold War. The resources that the US and mankind might have devoted to making peace and meeting rational human needs and desires have instead gone to preparing for and making war. Today we confront the indefinite prospect of war and human suffering on a vast scale — but this has also been the case for at least the past half-century.
Gabriel Kolko is the author, among other works, of Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War?, and Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the United States and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is The Age of War.