Since World War II, America has conducted an interventionist foreign policy that is atypical historically. Most Americans are oblivious to data that clearly show that the United States has been the most aggressive nation in the world during the postwar periodin fact, it was the most aggressive even during the Cold War when its arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union, was still around.
When confronted with such facts, both policymakers and the American public just assume that such intervention was justified because America was (and always seems to be) in the right. Yet a closer analysis of U.S. government behavior should throw such suppositions into question.
In the past, the United States has overthrown democratically elected governments in, for example, Iran in 1953 (initiating a chain of events that culminated in the current friction with that country), Guatemala in 1954, the Congo in 1960, the Dominican Republic in 1965, and Chile in 1973. Also, the U.S. has failed in other attempts to overthrow governments of unfriendly countries, such as Castro-run Cuba. The United States has invaded many countries when U.S. security was hardly at stakefor example, Lebanon in 1958, Cambodia in 1970, Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, and Iraq in 2003. In 1995, the United States threatened to invade Haiti. Numerous questionable attacks on still other countries have been carried out during the postwar periodLaos in the 1960s and early 1970s, Libya during the 1980s, Bosnia in 1995, Iraq in 1998, Kosovo in 1999, and Libya in 2011. During the Cold War, America enmeshed itself in large unnecessary brushfire wars in Korea and Vietnam. Then there were the failed peacekeeping missions in Lebanon in the 1980s and Somalia in the 1990s.
And of course, dont forget the unnecessary occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq after the turn of the 21st century, which increased, not decreased, terrorism.
Even some U.S. successes were failures. The United States helped the Afghan freedom fighters evict the Soviets from Afghanistan, only to see that resistance morph into the only major foreign threat to the continental United States since the War of 1812. The first Persian Gulf War episode against Iraq was counterproductive in ensuring oil got to the world market. In Libya, after the U.S. helped overthrow the Gadhafi regime, numerous tribe-based militias have refused to disarm and will likely cause trouble there in the future.
More recently, the United States has seen its 10-year occupation of Afghanistan slide into ruin with U.S. military forces burning copies of the Quran and desecrating Taliban corpses. As with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and the lurid photos of prisoner abuse by the U.S. military at Iraqs Abu Ghraib prison, the inhabitants of occupied countries rarely give foreign intruders the benefit of the doubt. Thus, American efforts at winning hearts and minds in the indigenous population can be thrown into shambles by the misbehavior of U.S. forces, leaving Americans to scratch their heads about the ingratitude of the locals for the sacrifice of American lives in the defense of their country.
Recently, in response to the Quran-burning incident in Afghanistan, a Washington Post editorial opined, We wish the Afghans now denouncing Americans as their enemies recognized the huge sacrifices made by the vast majority of American soldiers. The paper also lamented the high price Americans have paid defending them. It might be wishful thinking to hope that The Washington Post (and other Americans) realized that Afghans had their country invaded and many have been subjected to night raids, property destruction, and other humiliation by foreign occupiers. Although the Taliban are brutal, they have one overwhelming positive quality in the eyes of the localsthey are Afghans.
Even when it does not attack unfriendly countries militarily, the United States often does so economicallyfor example, by imposing economic sanctions on countries like Noriegas Panama, Castros Cuba, Saddam Husseins Iraq, and the ayatollahs Iran. When countries are under military or economic attack, their populations tend to rally around the flag. That was recently demonstrated in the Iranian elections, where turnout was heavy to demonstrate resolve against foreign economic attack and the threat of a military strike. Such economic sanctions may bite for a while, but history shows that other countries, either blatantly (such as India) or clandestinely (perhaps China or Russia), will trade with Iran and help dissipate their effects; sanctions are unlikely to end Irans nuclear program.
In Egypt, Russia, and other countries around the world, the United States funds groups that meddle in the political process to promote democracy. Yet the United States is very prickly when it comes to other countries trying to influence U.S. elections. Furthermore, the United States often preaches to countries to develop an independent judiciary, but when U.S.-government-funded groups break other countries laws, as they did in Egypt, it pressures the local government extrajudicially to have the groups personnel released.
Finally, the United States is holding removal from the American terrorism list over the head of an anti-Iran groupthe Mujahedin e-Khalq, which has had friction with the pro-Iranian Iraqi governmentto pressure the group to move to a new location in Iraq and perhaps eventually out of the country. Not only is the U.S. threat a misuse of the American terrorism listthe list is supposed to identify groups and countries that are involved in terrorism, not to be used as a bargaining chip to get what the U.S. wantsbut it also violates international law by forcing people to move off their land.
If Americans had greater exposure to all of these historical and more recent U.S. government actions against foreign peoplesand they rarely doperhaps they would be more ashamed of their governments policy and would pressure their leaders to be more restrained abroad in the future.
Ivan Eland is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland is a graduate of Iowa State University and received an M.B.A. in applied economics and Ph.D. in national security policy from George Washington University. He has been Director of Defense Policy Studies at the Cato Institute, and he spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. He is author of the books Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq, and Recarving Rushmore.
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