We Missed Our Chance!

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I think we missed our chance.  Up til that point, nearly all of our foreign policy objectives had been subsumed by the main objective: containing the Soviets.  Fostering democracy and human rights took a back seat.  In numerous countries especially in the middle east (“especially” only because I happen to be studying the middle east right now), we supported vicious tyrannical regimes against revolutionary forces simply because they had potential to go communist (though of course, sometimes there were already communist).  We kept military bases around the world.  We supported bad guys because we needed air bases.  We supported bad guys because we needed oil.  We embraced the status quo because we were trying to stop change for the worse.   We made selfish trade decisions, because we needed to keep ourselves strong to deter the Soviet threat to the whole world.

Regardless of what one might think of the Soviet Union, and whether or not it was worth deterring (I think it was), when we look at our foreign policy history, containing that threat was our main reason for pretty much everything we did, good or bad.  You would think that the Soviet collapse should have changed more than it did.

Our policies should have changed internally as well.  Reagan’s enormous defense spending spree was based on the Soviet threat.  In 1991, we should have gotten our house in order, and Clinton did balance the budget in fact, and we should not have allowed something as relatively insignificant as Islamic fundamentalism (compared to the Cold War and WWII) to balloon the debt and the culture of fear.

Instead, I wish Clinton, not because he was a democrat, but just because he was President at that time, would have made a speech in which he would have apologized to the world, even to specific countries, for how we had meddled in their affairs and how we had not stood for democracy, human rights, and economic fairness.  He should have promised to revisit our approach to every single country and region based on human rights, economic equity, and democratic ideals.  And he should have asked forgiveness by explaining how what we did we did out of a fear of the Soviet Union.

His speech could have ended,

“As the world’s only remaining superpower, we will not make it our goal to remain on top.  All great powers eventually fall and we will too.  When our time is up, when we slide below others in measurements of literacy, GDP, life expectancy, population, land controlled, and military capabilities, we want to have done so without making enemies and without creating more war-inspiring hatred and prejudice.  In other words, our greatness will not be determined by how strong we were for how long, but how much better the world became while we were strong.  Only this better world can ensure America’s long term security

‘In this world, tyrannical regimes are not welcome.  In fact, totalitarian regimes, you should know now, we will treat with you, we will accept your diplomats, but we will not respect them as legitimate representatives of your country if your country’s government is not a legitimate representative of your people.  We must get away from having policies for individual dictators or kings.  Instead, we are on the side of the people.  We may not always know what that means, but we will make the assumption that the people want, at least, these four things: 1) a say in how their government is run 2) the ability to make a decent living 3) the freedom to choose their own religion 4) the desire for their government to deal peacefully with disagreement both domestic and foreign.

‘Creating this new world will not be easy, but it is the only way to ensure our collective and long term security and prosperity.  Thank you.”

We missed our chance and it makes me sad.

(I have been listening to a lecture course by Dr. Salim Yaqub, University of Chicago called “The United States and the Middle East 1914-9/11.”  Professor Yaqub got his PhD at Yale and he currently teaches at UC Santa Barbara where he heads the Center for Cold War Studies and International History.  I find the lecture series fascinating, but I think he tends to denigrate the United States a little bit and leans left generally.)

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About Jer Clifton

Look up, friend. The world is too beautiful for my eyes alone. View all posts by Jer Clifton

4 responses to “We Missed Our Chance!

  • Cary

    You are right, we really did miss a lot in the early 90’s.
    I think people were associating linking human rights to policy and all that to Jimmy Carter, and everybody felt that he was a read dud when it came to foreign relations. So the atmosphere might not have been to congenial to that.
    I think also that the USA was so busy consolidating its power and making sure they were on top that they didn’t even think about what to do with it–at least it seemed that way. Short-sighted.

    • JDW Clifton

      Yeah, I think we had gotten into a bit of a habit of shameless self-promotion and supporting loyal if corrupt regimes that we just kinda stuck with it. Its like we should have fired everybody at the state department and started over…or something. I think you are right with the association of “nice” foreign policy with Jimmy Carter. I think there is a strong case to be made however that supporting democratic ideas, human rights, freedom of religion, and peace, is in our long-term security interest. Afterall, everyone wants to conquer the last strongest country. Wasn’t Rome sacked like 4 times? It wasn’t just because it was rich. It was a prestige thing.
      Thanks for the comment!

  • Will

    But isn’t America damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t? Three examples come to mind.

    (1) A conservative president intervenes in Iraq in 2003 on national security grounds. Human rights and the spread of democracy becomes a secondary justification. Anti-totalitarian liberals support the effort. Things go badly.

    (2) A liberal president intervenes in Libya in 2011 with a human rights agenda. These are early days, but things aren’t going particularly well.

    (3) A liberal president fails to intervene in Rwanda in 1994. Things go badly.

    I say this as a liberal who is having second thoughts.

    • JDW Clifton

      Will, I think you are right, but only when it comes to military interventionism, which is not really what I am talking about. I am not wanting the United States to be quicker, or slower for that matter, to invade a country. I’ll leave those decisions up to others. What I want is not to supply tanks and money to brutal dictators. For instance, when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter stopped applying pressure on Pakistan in regards to human rights, and instead gave them 300 million I believe a year to allow us to ferry money through Pakistan to the soviet fighting Mujahadim in landlocked Afghanistan. We also sent money to the Shah of Iran for years, and supported him in other ways, simply because he was willing to say he was pro US and anti-soviet. So my aims are more small: can we just not support bad guys? Maybe we can apply pressure on them in various ways, but lets at least not support bad guys.

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