American Presidents often justify their foreign policies in terms of doctrines. Most of them concern the conditions under which the United States will or will not intervene militarily abroad. A brief review of those doctrines suggests that Americans have lost much of the self-restraint that the early doctrines especially were meant to inculcate. As American foreign policy doctrines shifted from countering foreign intervention in the 19th century to regime change in the 21st century, the costs of this loss of self-restraint have escalated exponentially. Shifting to doctrines focused on regime change has destabilized the Middle East for at least a generation and made a lasting peace within that region or between it and the United States highly unlikely.
In his Farewell Address in 1796, President Washington advised Americans to steer clear of “permanent” alliances with any nation. He did not use the words “entangling alliances”; those were President Jefferson’s more dogmatic terms in his First Inaugural Address in 1800. Following the advice of Alexander Hamilton, Washington recognized that the United States might well need “temporary” alliances from time to time, but on the whole, he feared alliances with other nations would lead them to meddle in American politics, even try to drag Americans into wars not in their best interests, just as Citizen Genet had attempted on behalf of the revolutionary government in France in Washington’s first term. Fearing foreign intervention might make the newly independent United States a proxy in the Europeans’ wars with each other, Washington advised the infant republic to stay out of their conflicts in large part to keep them out of American politics.
Consistent with Washington’s advice to prevent foreign meddling, James Monroe announced the first American foreign policy doctrine. In 1823, under the advice of his brilliant Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams, Monroe proclaimed that henceforward the Western hemisphere would be off limits for European colonization. The United States would not interfere with existing European colonies, but it would not tolerate efforts by the empires of the age to intervene to restore their authority over the newly independent states of the Western Hemisphere. This was clearly a matter of prudence; foreign meddling in Latin America might eventually pose a danger to national security, but some important principles were at stake too.
As the Declaration of Independence made clear, it is the right of each people to alter or abolish their governments, and to institute new ones, as seems best to them for their safety and happiness. Such principles required not merely national self-assertion, but also national self-restraint. Indeed, as John Quincy Adams observed in his famous Fourth of July Oration, the United States wished every people seeking liberty well, but it was the champion and vindicator of its own rights alone. It had neither the right nor the duty to set other peoples free. Fearful of the crusading spirit of American Protestantism especially, he cautioned against going abroad in “search of monsters to destroy”, but also insisted that the United States reserve the right to counter-intervene against European intervention in Latin America to safeguard American independence and Western hemispheric security.
More problematic from the standpoint of the Declaration of Independence is Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine in 1904. Fearful that failed or failing states in the Western hemisphere might invite Europeans to intervene to secure their property and other interests, Roosevelt announced a right on the part of the United States to exercise the international police power unilaterally in “flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence” south of the United States’ borders. The corollary was still linked, tenuously, to counter-intervention. The United States would intervene in South America to ensure American neighbors were governed well enough not to give foreign powers a pretext for intervention themselves. To say the least, this was a slippery slope that put the United States in the quasi-imperial position of governing its neighbors from time to time until they were “ready” to govern themselves.
Theodore Roosevelt’s fifth cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, established his “Good Neighbor” policy of non-intervention south of the border in part as a retreat from the occupation and other costs such meddling by the United States entailed; however, the Second World War required him to depart from the long American tradition of non-alignment. Winning the war at the lowest possible cost required forming the Grand Alliance with Great Britain and the Soviet Union. During that war, regime change, understood as unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, became the official wartime objective of the United States and its coalition partners. The world was unlikely to remain peaceful if the regimes that began the war survived, so they had to be removed, with the United States and its former ally, the Soviet Union, compelled to occupy and reform their governments in a manner that seemed most likely to preserve the fruits of victory and secure a durable peace. The amazing success of regime change against Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and Imperial Japan was an anomaly, however.
Fear of the Soviet Union made defeated enemies willing to accept American tutelage; the relative homogeneity of Germany and Japan made them unlikely to engage in the ethno-religious strife seen in the Middle East today; almost unprecedented statesmanship enabled the United States to transform former enemies into trading partners and long-term allies. Waning memories of the post-World War II environment may have led some today to think regime change was easy, cheap, and free of moral or legal difficulties, when just the opposite is true.
The Cold War had its own set of doctrines: the Truman Doctrine, the Nixon Doctrine, the Carter Doctrine, and the Reagan Doctrine. In 1947, President Truman announced that henceforward the United States would aid free peoples against both external aggression and internal subversion by the Soviet Union and other communist powers. As a rationale for American intervention, countering subversion came at the risk that the United States, which had won its independence in a revolution begun in 1776, might transform itself into an opponent of revolutions, that is, standing toward revolutions elsewhere as Great Britain had stood toward the American Revolution.
In 1969, President Nixon recognized that containing the Soviet Union and its allies everywhere came at the risk of American strategic overextension, so he announced that henceforward the United States would supply a nuclear umbrella for extended deterrence against external aggression against its allies. It might offer financial, naval, and air support to states fighting internal and external adversaries, but that they would have to carry the primary burden of providing for their own security. In particular, they would have to supply their own ground troops, with the United States’ military presence declining from over 550,000 personnel in South Vietnam when Nixon became President to just over 50 (embassy guards) by the end of 1972.
President Carter was literally “born again” through the Carter Doctrine. He began his presidential term dedicated to extending and deepening détente with the Soviet Union, but the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led him to announce that the United States would view Soviet expansion into the Persian Gulf as a threat to its vital interests. So he called for a rapid deployment force, later called the Central Command (under which U.S. forces fought against Iraq in 1991 and 2003), to counter conventional threats to this volatile region while beginning covert aid to help insurgents fight the Soviets in Afghanistan. President Reagan followed up by deciding that what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If the Soviets could bleed the United States in a proxy war in Vietnam, the United States would bleed the Soviet Union, already overextended militarily and economically, in Afghanistan and elsewhere by openly supporting “freedom fighters,” including jihadists, to change regimes deemed noxious by the administration.
Regime change has been at the forefront of the post-Cold War American foreign policy doctrines. Wisely, President George H.W. Bush carried out the Carter Doctrine (against Iraq, not the Soviets), but settled for evicting Iraq from Kuwait in 1991 and refused to take on the occupation responsibilities regime change in Iraq might have entailed. After 9/11, however, his son, President George W. Bush, announced that the United States would make no distinction between terrorists and the states alleged to sponsor them; that it would wage preventive wars against states that appeared to be supporting terrorists or seeking weapons of mass destruction; that it would do so without allies or authorization from the United Nations, if necessary; and, most challenging of all, after removing leaders of rogue states, that it would install new democratic regimes.
In theory, regime change would both produce a more peaceful world (because democracies supposedly do not fight wars with each other) and remove the tyranny that drove many to the mosque and further toward the most radical versions of Islam. Of course, practice varied radically from theory with unintended (but predictable) consequences with which we are still living. In removing rogue states, the United States produced continuously failing states in Iraq and Afghanistan. Democratizing Iraq has merely promoted James Madison’s rightfully dreaded “tyranny of the majority” by the Shia against the Sunni in that poor country, with Shia oppression and marginalization of the Sunni driving many Sunni to seek protection in the loving arms of the Islamic State. And Iraq, which was once a useful geopolitical balance against Iran, is now very much under Iranian influence, which alarms the Sunni-led regimes throughout the Persian Gulf and has led to a cold war throughout the region between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The colossal failure of the Bush Doctrine led to a significant reaction against Bush’s policies in the Obama administration, though political caution has led the President to avoid announcing any doctrine more substantive than “Don’t do stupid stuff!” Truth be told, however, even the Obama administration has a foreign policy doctrine. It is also a dangerous one precisely because it is too close to the Bush Doctrine—that is, too far from John Quincy Adams’ warning not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
President Obama has not changed the erroneous premise of the Bush Doctrine, that the United States has a right, duty, and interest to transform regimes in other states into something more to American liking; instead, he has changed the strategy by which the United States seeks to implement the Bush Doctrine. Rather than see American forces bogged down in a quagmire with no clear end, President Obama has shifted from direct to indirect military intervention. As U.S. troop levels declined in Iraq and Afghanistan, the President nonetheless supported British and French efforts to depose the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, thus creating a power vacuum for multiple extremist groups to fill. And as the Arab Spring spread throughout the Middle East, the President sided with supporters of regime change in Egypt and Syria, too.
What, exactly, has the United States achieved through all this meddling? The practical alternative to tyranny is frequently not liberty but anarchy, a cure often worse than the disease. The Islamic State has capitalized on the chaos arising from American support of regime change to spread its tentacles into Syria, Iraq, Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. State-and-nation-building are difficult tasks, especially for foreigners. It is not clear any Americans or any other foreign people are bright enough to build such entities abroad; it was and remains hard enough doing so at home; and no American has the kind of legitimacy abroad to build and sustain such endeavors with the diverse ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East. Only other Muslims can do that, meaning defeating the Islamic State and other jihadists can only occur through the efforts of other Muslims. It certainly will not occur through “carpet bombing” and demagogic calls to turn the desert into molten glass. Whereas the Assad regime in Syria has almost exclusively local and regional goals, the Islamic State has regional and global objectives that make it a much greater threat to the United States and its allies, but by continuing to insist that the Assad regime in Syria must go, the Obama administration makes it difficult to build an international and regional coalition to take away its infant caliphate.
The mainstream candidates in both the Republican and the Democratic parties continue to speak as if the problems we face in the Middle East today result from poor or half-hearted strategy on the part of American political leaders; only Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul, two fringe candidates, question whether it makes moral, legal, or political sense to base American foreign policy on regime change. But it is not our right to pick other people’s governments for them; nor do we have a duty to govern other peoples until they meet our own standards of self-government. Above all, it is not in our best interest to seek to transform the world in our own image by force.
If the future resembles the past, the result of our endeavors will not be freedom but the kind of anarchy in which extremists, like supporters of the Islamic State, can flourish. Heinous as the Assad regime may be, no one has a coherent vision of a better replacement, though the Islamic State would be grateful for all American aid getting rid of Assad. And when all is said and done, our stake in this part of the world is small and getting smaller. We must contain, degrade, and destroy the Islamic State as a political organization, which will take time because we must rely on regional actors whose interests are not always compatible. We must prevent nuclear proliferation to avoid a nuclear arms race in this volatile region. We need to secure the free flow of oil, though less for ourselves than for our trading partners. And we need to prevent the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran from escalating any further. These goals are daunting enough. If we limit our goals, we may find strategies to obtain them, but if our goals are to remove and replace regimes throughout the Middle East, we are doomed to fail at a price we cannot accept and will not sustain. We already have.