In 2005 I was doing a regular Tuesday–Friday commute between Austin and Washington. One of the regulars on the flights was Karen Hughes, a longtime advisor to then-President George W. Bush. At the time, she was commuting to her State Department office, where she was the undersecretary for public diplomacy.
On one Tuesday morning flight, my traveling companion, a journalist who wrote about international oil-and-gas interests and the Middle East, took a seat beside the undersecretary and began querying her about her reading on the region.
As it turned out, she had read very little. Her seatmate recommended half a dozen familiar titles, as Hughes politely said she would “put it on my list,” though she wrote down nothing and seemed more than eager to get back to her Austin American-Statesman.
The brief conversation ended with a telling exchange.
My journo friend observed that Islamic societies were once among the most literate in the world. As the United States had a significant presence in two Muslim countries, he asked, was the State Department considering literacy programs, investing in teaching young men and women to read?
“We don’t care if they can read,” Hughes said. “We just want to make sure they don’t bomb us again.”
Her response said a lot about the administration’s policy in the region. No sense of history, no anthropology, no cultural sensitivity.
That sort of ignorance led to women in the U.S. Army humiliating nude Muslim men at the Abu Ghraib Prison; to the defiling of Korans in Guantánamo; to the use of dogs, considered unclean by Muslims, in interrogations. These were crude and widely publicized affronts that will take generations to repair, if they can be repaired. (Then there was the actual torture.)
O.K., the disastrous Bush-Cheney foreign policy has been sufficiently re-litigated.
Today, Iraq is divided between the terrorists in the so-called Islamic State and a Shia government aligned with, if not controlled by, Iran. The United States has offered some support, such as U.S. Special Forces and tactical air support helping the Iraqi army retake Ramadi. (It was previously conquered by American soldiers, Marines, and Navy SEALS in 2006.) Stability still remains hard to come by, with the region poised to explode yet again in response to Saudi Arabia’s state assassination of Shia Cleric Sheikh Nimr al Nimr. Barack Obama’s foreign policy, at least his rapprochement with Iran, looks downright inspired.
If you don’t consider Obama’s more restrained foreign policy a better alternative than what came before it, I invite you to revisit the essay Col. Lawrence Wilkerson wrote for the Spectator in August 2014. Wilkerson, an Army officer who concluded his career with General Colin Powell at the Defense Department and then the State Department, laments George W. Bush’s decision to squander the decades of costly and bloody realpolitik by which the United States achieved a delicate balance of power in the Middle East.
Wilkerson describes what is required to achieve a fragile balance in the Middle East: the United States supporting Iraq in the bloody war that began with Saddam Hussein’s attempt to conquer Iran; the U.S. reflagging of Kuwaiti tankers and assumption of the role of Coast Guard in the Persian Gulf; an American warship that “absorbed two Iraqi Exocet missiles” and another almost sunk by Iranian mines; the United States taking out Iran’s command and control systems then tragically shooting down a civilian Iranian airliner and killing all 250 on board.
“From 1953 to 2000 we crafted and maintained a balance of power in the Persian Gulf, however ignominiously to the purer hearts of the world,” Wilkerson wrote. “In 2003, we destroyed that balance.” (Wilkerson is back in our January issue, describing what a Marco Rubio foreign policy might look like.)
There is a sense that this gets worse before it gets better, maybe even abysmally worse if Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, or Donald Trump end up calling the shots.
“We will carpet bomb [ISIS] into oblivion,” Cruz said in Iowa. “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark, but we’re going to find out.”
“ISIS is making a tremendous amount of money because of the oil that they took away, they have some in Syria, they have some in Iraq,” Trump said. “I would bomb the shit out of them.”
Rubio, meanwhile, promises to be a president “who will destroy terrorists overseas by authorizing whatever tools our commanders need.”
He is more specific regarding what he will do with suspected terrorists captured overseas. Rubio would expand Guantánamo, warning terrorism suspects that they will get “a one way ticket” to the island gulag Obama is trying to close. Americans suspected of engaging in terrorism or collaborating with terrorists will also be locked up in Guantánamo.
The more they talk, the more you realize that the top tier Republican candidates are more bellicose than Dick Cheney. It’s almost enough to make you feel warm and fuzzy about a Hillary Clinton presidency.