As millions throughout the Middle East and North Africa march through the streets chanting variations on the theme “the people want the fall of the regime,” the moral case for regime change has become dramatic and compelling. These brave millions deserve support from people everywhere, including in the United States. The only way to achieve the popular desire for freedom and justice is through a struggle by the people themselves, with solidarity from their genuine international allies—not through the intrusion of U.S. military and political power. Washington has a very different agenda.
While Alexander Downes’s article contains much useful information about the sorry history of U.S. military intervention, it suffers three major flaws. First, Downes seems to assume that in general stability per se is a virtue, but, in fact, destabilization from below is often what’s urgently called for—especially in the case of outright repressive regimes, but also in countries with formal democratic structures superimposed on grossly unequal political and economic institutions (just think about the recent inspiring events in Madison). Second, Downes’s undifferentiated view of American interests erroneously conflates the wellbeing of the Washington establishment with the interests of the vast majority of the American people. Finally, rather than addressing those who might effectively mobilize to challenge elite domestic and international policies—ordinary people in the United States—Downes addresses American leaders, arguing that it behooves them to rethink their historical commitment to military intervention, given its poor record.
Oddly, Downes says that repeated U.S. military interventions flow from an overly broad dedication to idealistic goals, “providing stability in most of the world, rooting out terrorism, stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction, curbing human rights abuses, spreading democracy.” But U.S. policy and interventions actually have been guided by pretty much the opposite of these goals. The United States has often favored the false stability of tyrannical governments. Downes himself notes that the United States has made “common cause with right-wing dictators,” and worked “to overthrow leftist regimes (or regimes viewed as susceptible to leftist influence) in Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Congo, Cuba, Ecuador, Brazil, Guyana, Chile, and Nicaragua.”
Indeed, the professed U.S. commitment to promoting democracy and curbing human rights abuses appears purely rhetorical when measured against the historical evidence: decades of support for despotic rulers in Latin America, the Caribbean, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, not to mention North Africa and the Middle East, where Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, and Yemen have exploded in popular rage against those brutal regimes. The United States’s support for undemocratic governments, its blind backing of Israel over Palestinian rights, its worldwide advocacy of devastating neoliberal economic austerity programs, its international network of a thousand or more military installations, and the CIA and Pentagon’s “drone” wars and covert operations haven’t promoted democracy. They have, however, strengthened terrorism.
The wellbeing of the Washington establishment is not the same as the interests of the American people.
As for curbing weapons of mass destruction, the United States has upheld a blatant double standard, threatening war with Iran for any actual or supposed attempt it might make to build nuclear weapons, while accepting the nuclear arsenals of Pakistan, India, and Israel. The United States could initiate a process of real disarmament if it took meaningful unilateral steps to rid itself of such weapons and radically reduced its swollen military budget, which today constitutes almost half of worldwide military spending.
No, the problem isn’t an excess of U.S. idealism. The problem is a foreign policy dedicated to perpetuating U.S. global hegemony—which Downes points out is a goal of regime change—and to enforcing an unfair and unequal world economic system. Leading politicians from both political parties assume that the United States should continue to be the world’s preeminent military power and do not question an international economic order that imposes inhumane austerity programs on millions around the world, including, now, right here in the United States. We are all in danger.
We need a fundamentally new and different approach, one that reflects the interests of people in this country. We need to learn to live as one of many countries in the world, cooperating with others, if we are to survive economically, socially, and ecologically. We need to live in the kind of country that offers genuine solidarity to democratic movements, not just lip service to democratic ideals. Today we are trying to derail and undermine them, as in Egypt where, after supporting Mubarak until it was clear that Egyptians would endure him no longer, the United States is doing all it can to preserve the power of the Egyptian military.
We won’t have a country capable of a non-imperial, just, and democratic foreign policy until we make a fundamental change in our government at home, which requires, for starters, the creation of a political party that is not beholden to corporate interests. In the meantime, we shouldn’t permit wishful thinking about an ideal military intervention by Washington to blind us to the need to oppose the actual, dangerous interventions it is pursuing.