After more than a decade of high-cost, low-return investments in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, American support for intervention abroad is waning, drastically. It's time for a little nihilism in America.
- By Whitney KasselWhitney Kassel is a director focused on strategic analysis and risk management at The Arkin Group, a private intelligence firm in New York City. Kassel spent four years with the secretary of defense, where she focused on special operations, counterterrorism, and Pakistan policy.
Regardless of one’s position on the Iraq war, when militants from the Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS) last month paraded through the streets of Mosul — a city over which U.S. forces fought a pitched battle in 2004 — in U.S.-supplied Humvees, waving the Islamic State flag as barefoot children watched from the curb, it came as a very hard blow. Add in the crucifixion of eight Christians by the same group in Syria and countless other horrors unfolding now in the Middle East and beyond, and one is left with the overwhelming feeling that U.S. efforts abroad since 2001, including spending vast amounts of money, blood, and political capital, have done little to make the world less dangerous, less brutal, or less cruel.
This jaded disposition seems to be widely shared. Last week Politico released the results of its latest foreign policy and national security poll, with results that reflect what most of us already know about how the American public feels about U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts: It’s really, really not interested. Of the 834 "battleground voters" polled from nearly every state, the preference for nonintervention around the world was high: 77 percent in favor of full withdrawal from Afghanistan by the end of 2016; only 15 percent and 17 percent interested in more involvement in Syria and Ukraine, respectively; and 67 percent agreeing with the statement that, "U.S. military actions should be limited to direct threats to our national security."
These results underscore once again that though loudly maligned in the press, the Obama administration’s reticence to intervene in the world’s staggering number of problem spots continues to be broadly supported by the American public. However, when poll participants were asked why they think the United States should eschew further foreign adventures, their responses were less predictable.
At least among some respondents, doubts about whether the United States can fix global problems emerged as often as whether they should. In its rollout article, Politico quotes Deborah Cantrell, a 58-year-old nurse living in Georgia who, in addition to supporting the United States’ withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, said the following about Ukraine:
"I think any time ethnic nationalism goes on, it’s really bad.… I hope we don’t get terribly involved right off the bat because I’m not sure we can do anything to make it better. I generally don’t think we can go in and have people behave properly just because we’re there."
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche described nihilism as a crisis resulting from the realization that the value systems around which we build our behaviors rarely impact their outcomes. Existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre put it in more succinct terms: "All human activities are equivalent … and … all are on principle doomed to failure." This line of thinking, grim though it may be, bears a striking resemblance to Cantrell’s doubts about the potential efficacy of U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts. Not only are they expensive and dangerous, but in the minds of many Americans they seem to have little chance of working, or even simply not making things worse.
My own discussions with colleagues inside and outside the Beltway indicate these doubts are widely shared, and it is clear that similar concerns are in part driving U.S. policymaking, despite some cynics’ allegations that U.S. "inaction" is the result of lack of resolve or domestic distraction. On Syria, for example, it is surely true that Barack Obama’s administration is loath to get drawn into another war in the Middle East, but in addition to what is repeatedly cited as war weariness, there lies at the core of that resistance a glaring uncertainty as to whether U.S. involvement would actually lead to a better outcome, either for the United States itself, for the Syrians, or for America’s allies in the region. And there is every reason to think U.S. involvement could easily make things worse, based on the state of the nations in which the last few interventions have occurred.
Throughout its history as a superpower, the United States has often vacillated over whether it bears the responsibility of having to fix the problems of the world, with periods of isolationism occurring prior to World War II in the 1930s and in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the 1970s. But today it appears that many Americans may have lost faith in America’s very ability to do so, in addition to its leaders’ abilities to control or even predict the outcomes of their decisions. As FP columnist Rosa Brooks wisely noted in her recent piece, Americans both in Washington and around the country are watching their leaders repeat the same mistakes in interactions with the world (underestimating the nationalism of others, overestimating U.S. intelligence, etc.), which are yielding many of the same suboptimal outcomes (unexpected resistance to interventions, unreliable local partners, and more).
Such concerns are not entirely new, of course, and policymakers of all kinds know well the law of unintended consequences, at least in the abstract. But the growing frustration with, and the lack of faith in, the positive power of U.S. action abroad represents a new variety of American isolationism based on the growing sense that the intentions behind foreign policies bear little relation to their ultimate effects — the very definition of nihilism.
Of course, this perspective is terribly bleak, but it’s not an impossible view when considering, for instance, the $1.7 trillion and nearly 4,500 U.S. fatalities spent on the war in Iraq, an adventure from which the United States has "gained very little," according to a study by the Costs of War project at the Watson Institute for International Studies. If that’s not enough to make all hope seem lost, the report gives a bit more color as well: "The war reinvigorated radical Islamist militants in the region, set back women’s rights, and weakened an already precarious healthcare system. Meanwhile, the $212 billion reconstruction effort was largely a failure with most of that money spent on security or lost to waste and fraud."
And Iraq is far from the only example of arguably well-intentioned U.S. foreign policy having less-than-ideal results, both in the past and at present. The war in Afghanistan increasingly looks as though it has produced something very far from what the United States and its allies had hoped: an unstable and impoverished country with vast swaths of land controlled by the Taliban. The U.S. relationship with Russia has reached an all-time low over the conflict in Ukraine and the shoot-down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, while America’s ability to stop the bloodshed in Gaza seems wholly unimpressive. No wonder Americans have doubts about whether the United States can influence events abroad.
The resulting sense of impotence certainly explains the gray pall that seems to have fallen over Washington, particularly in foreign-policy circles. But the implications of a nihilistic and thus largely inactive approach to U.S. foreign policy are much more dangerous than a lot of frustrated policymakers, primarily because inaction has its own set of risks and unintended consequences. It also has a funny way of coming back to bite the United States in the butt.
Nietzsche had his own ideas about how to overcome nihilism, stating, "I praise, I do not reproach, [nihilism’s] arrival. I believe it is one of the greatest crises, a moment of the deepest self-reflection of humanity. Whether man recovers from it, whether he becomes master of this crisis, is a question of his strength!" Unfortunately, the actualization of this approach, which Nietzsche coined Übermensch, was appropriated — by most accounts mistakenly — by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, though others (feminists, anarchists, etc.) have also used his ideas with less horrifying results. In each case, however, powering through nihilism by forcing a unified ideology on a world that doesn’t abide by one rarely meets with great success.
Nevertheless, it is essential that U.S. decision-makers look closely at the rise of nihilistic attitudes toward foreign policy among the American people and consider and come to grips with the holes in their own ideas about cause and effect. Acting responsibly and pursuing national security objectives in an unpredictable world means mitigating risk to the greatest extent possible and considering the various potential consequences of foreign intervention, not just the desired ones. It also means staying engaged and leaning in when required, learning from history (cue Rosa, again), and, most importantly, understanding that both action and inaction have direct and indirect results, which are extremely difficult to predict.
Throwing up one’s hands is certainly warranted, but unfortunately it is not a strategy. Instead, if the United States can mold a foreign policy that understands the limits of foreign actions without being pushed into nihilism by its own fear of error, there is a chance that a constructive way forward could emerge in Washington. Until then, it is unlikely that most Americans will be willing to poke their heads back out into what will continue to be a frightening, chaotic, and extremely unpredictable world.