President Trump has proposed a 31 percent cut in the State Department’s budget, and the denizens of Foggy Bottom are howling. All the usual delusions about diplomacy, foreign aid, “soft power,” and “engagement” are being trotted out to rationalize the $47 billions of taxpayer money State spends. What we don’t hear about are examples of diplomatic successes that would justify maintaining an overfunded bureaucracy mired in internationalist received wisdom.
In fact, many of the defenses of “soft power” are positively surreal in their disconnect from reality. Here’s Stephen J. Hadley, national security adviser to President George W. Bush, talking to the New York Times: “We learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan that our military needs an effective civilian partner if victories on the battlefields are going to be converted into a sustainable peace.” So how’s that creating “an effective civilian partner” working out? For all the “three cups of tea” voodoo, fifteen years of war, repeated attempts at a “negotiated settlement” with the murderous Taliban, and $2.4 trillion in taxpayer money, Afghanistan still faces an existential threat from the Taliban, the most fearsome of some 20 terrorist groups who control 35 percent of the country. The Haqqani outfit, called the “Kennedys of the Taliban,” continues to perpetrate most of the spectacular terror attacks against civilian and military targets. Civilian deaths from such attacks set a record in 2016, including a 25 percent increase in children killed.
Such magical thinking about using soft power to turn foreign governments into liberal democracies is based on flawed assumptions about our enemies’ motives. Here’s an example from another critic of Trump’s proposed cuts: Andrew Natsios, the former head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which oversees the distribution of foreign aid in order to fulfill its mission “to partner to end extreme poverty and to promote resilient, democratic societies while advancing the security and prosperity of the United States.” According to Nastios,
We have radical Islamist groups that are threatening to destabilize our friends and allies in Africa and the Middle East. We need to deal with them. Now, part of that is a military solution, but it also is improving the school systems, improving public services, improving the health systems in these countries so that there isn’t an appeal from these radical groups. Governance improvement is not done through DOD. It’s not done through hard power. It’s done through soft power.
This hoary gospel was preached everywhere after the 9/11 terror attacks. Bill Clinton, on whose lax presidential watch al Qaeda flourished, said of the group, “These forces of reaction feed on disillusionment, poverty, and despair.” The Bush administration bought into the same narrative, making Wilsonian “democracy promotion” in Iraq and Afghanistan a primary goal of the wars in those countries. Fifteen years later, Afghanistan is still a Darwinian jungle, and Iraq has become a satellite of Iran. Its “governance improvement” withered the second Obama withdrew all American forces from the country. This collapse suggests that the political changes bought with American blood never put down roots in such culturally inhospitable soil.
The failure in Iraq points to a big problem with the belief that poverty or lack of freedom leads to terror. Billions of people, for example, who live in worse poverty or suffer under more brutal autocrats have not turned to terrorist murder and mayhem to the extent that Muslims have. Of global violent conflicts killing more than 1000 people a year, all involve Muslims except the Mexican drug wars. Clearly something other than poverty or bad governance must account for the prevalence of violence among Muslims.
Nor is there any better evidence showing the power of liberal democracy to create peaceful, tolerant societies. Consider Turkey. For nearly a century, under the regime created by Kemal Atatürk, Turkey tried to reduce the influence of Islam on politics and culture, and create a Western-style nation out of the ruins of the Ottoman caliphate. But under current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, it has become increasingly Islamized and illiberal. A referendum scheduled for April of this year seeks to create a more powerful executive in order to accelerate this process. If it passes, the democracy on which our foreign policy wonks bestow such transformative power will be further weakened than it already has under Erdoğan, who crushes dissent and jails journalists. As he has recently said about democracy, freedom, and the rule of law, “For us, these phrases have absolutely no value any longer”––a sentiment shared by theorists of modern jihad from Sayyid Qutb to the Ayatollah Khomeini, al Qaeda, and ISIS.
The “soft power” we have spent trillions of dollars on raises a big question: Do non-Western countries, particularly Islamic ones, really want what we want? Do they think democracy, human rights, sex equality, religious tolerance, separation of state and religion, and widespread affluence are the highest human goods? What is the evidence for this belief? Is it not the case that other peoples and cultures have very different beliefs about what comprises the highest good? Despite its long centuries of Western influence, including its liberation by the West from communist tyranny, Russia today is influenced by philosopher Alexander Dugin, who writes that liberal democracy and freedom are culturally specific to the West and thus inappropriate for Russia, and the West’s attempt to impose them through “soft power” like diplomatic criticism and economic sanctions are a form of imperialism.
It is arrogant for us to believe that our highest goods are self-evidently superior to other peoples’, or that they will accept them if we just intervene in their cultures, shower them with money, and show them the way. History shows that passionately held beliefs that conflict with our own will not be changed by such “soft power,” but rather by mind-concentrating force. Germany and Japan became democratic and free and tolerant not because of the Marshall Plan, but because they were utterly destroyed by hard power, the wages of their destructive ideologies visible in their ruined cities and mounds of corpses.
If we believe, as I do, that the Western way is the best social-political order possible for flawed humans, and if we feel it’s our duty––a more arguable proposition–– to bring that order to the rest of the world, then to achieve that end we will have to use sufficient force, and maintain a credible deterrence based on our proven willingness to use overwhelming force. And we’ll have to commit to an open-ended presence to monitor and defend these fledgling democracies.
The most obvious failure of this State Department gospel is our inability to defeat radical Islam, and the reason should be clear. The foundational beliefs of Islam, evident in fourteen centuries of history, are incompatible with Western liberal democracy. It bespeaks an arrogant, and dangerous, Western ethnocentrism to concentrate on poverty, autocracy, historical resentment, Israel, or all the other Western material and psychological rationalizations for Muslim jihadists, who are obeying as their ancestors did the clear-cut commands of Allah and the example of Mohammed.
Over fifty years ago Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis pointed out the centrality of Islam in the dysfunctions of the Middle East:
This much is obvious. Of all the great movements that have shaken the Middle East during the last century and a half, the Islamic movements alone are authentically Middle Eastern in inspiration. Liberalism and fascism, patriotism and nationalism, communism and socialism, are all European in origin, however much adapted and transformed by Middle Eastern disciples. The religious orders alone spring from the native soil, and express the passions of the submerged masses of the population. Though they have all, so far, been defeated, they have not yet spoken their last word.
In other words, traditional Islamic beliefs lie at the heart of the region’s problems, and no external ideology can change or discredit those cherished doctrines that came straight from the uncreated words of Allah. The greatest sin of the State Department’s “soft power” shibboleth has been its lack of self-criticism and failure of imagination, its stubborn refusal, under administrations from both parties, to confront this fact and accept the tragic consequences of it.
Trump’s budget cuts, no matter how necessary, are unlikely to survive Congress. And even if they do, they won’t spark a self-critical process to discard fossilized dogma. Too many Republicans share the assumptions of idealistic internationalism, the pretension that favoring talk over action is a sign of moral superiority and sophisticated thinking. And of course, every government agency has its lobbyists and promoters who will defend any bureaucracy to the last dollar of the American taxpayer. Foggy Bottom is likely to remain infested with bad ideas.
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