As the United States gears up to probably take some kind of bomb-related action in Syria, we are all reminded once again of how shitty our foreign policy is. In my living memory, I can’t recall a time when it was remotely reasonable. The procedure seems to be: talk to the UN about it, then if it’s in our own “best interests” (whatever that phrase means), we just go ahead and do whatever the fuck we want to. And by “we” I mean select politicians and military men in positions of power. The American people as a whole aren’t generally too keen in getting involved in foreign conflict.
From a domestic point of view, now is a terrible time to get involved in another armed conflict. Sequestration budget cuts are threatening social services (such as the post office), and just as a wild shot at prognostication I predict more genuine and lasting good could be done by spending money here at home than spending it bombing people in the Middle East.
Besides, expanding military conflict is not something anyone should take lightly, especially these days when much of the conflict puts civilians in harms way. War is horrifying. War is a crime. War is brutality. War ravages land and civilizations, and more importantly it ravages combatants and civilians alike emotionally, psychologically, and physically.
The most important thing to understand about American (or for that matter Western) foreign policy is that it’s still based in old-school colonialism and imperialism. Remember how the British Empire used to occupy most of the globe? They (and other Europeans and to a lesser extent the United States) went into already inhabited, civilized countries and disrupted the flow of their history. When we look at troubled regions like Africa and the Middle East, we tend to look with pitying eyes: “Oh how sad that things are so horrible over there. I can’t imagine living in such a war-torn, impoverished area, with the threat of death and disease constantly hounding me.” And we forget that, whatever problems are plaguing other areas of the world, we did that. Westerners came in with our weapons and viruses and our belief that we were superior to all non-whites. We did our damnedest, for hundreds of years, to destroy existing structures of government and culture, then when we were torn by our own internal problems and the unsustainability of a colonialist, imperialist approach, we either left, or we found new, mostly economic ways to exploit these other countries. Many bloody foreign power struggles, whether the constant battling in the Middle East or clashes of warlords in Africa or ethnic cleansing, are directly traceable to the disruption brought about by Western imperialism.
I’m not saying that everything would be perfect if the West had never colonized other countries. Of course it wouldn’t, because if human history has proven anything it’s that there’s always plenty of trouble to go around. But we aren’t dealing in hypotheticals. We’re dealing in a world here and now, and unless we remember our history and learn to view things with some nuance really quickly, we’re about to try to solve another fucked up situation by fucking it up even worse.
I don’t know what the answer to the problems in Syria are. At the very least, I’m pretty sure lobbing bombs isn’t going to solve anything. Until we Americans, as inheritors of the wreckage of Western colonialism and the very much alive Western capitalist imperialism, face up to the complexity of the challenges faced by regions of the world that have been ruined in large part by our actions, we’ll never improve anything.
We are the Roman Empire of our age, but there’s no promise that humanity will be able to recover if we continue with our headlong rush for more and more power. The Romans could cut down military divisions and burn cities, but we toy with weapons that could destroy the whole earth if we took the technology far enough. We’ve got to play an active role in history and figure out a way out of this colonialist/imperialist clusterfuck, because if we just wait for the Empire to collapse under its own weight, who knows how this will end.