Yet it's becoming less and less clear what America actually gets out of the immensely complicated foreign policy devised by our foreign affairs mavens.
Strange as it may seem to readers of the Washington Post, there are countries that essentially have no foreign policy—such as Switzerland, which has espoused strict neutrality for the last two centuries, and Finland, which was forced to delegate its foreign policy to the Soviet Union from 1945-1989—and yet are famously pleasant places to live.
And that's not very hard accomplish these days. because war has gotten too expensive to be profitable. Sure, in the age of Metternich, foreign entanglements were essential for any country in danger of being overrun. Back then, most of the asset value of a conquest was in the farmland, which war couldn't damage. But now, most assets are buildings, equipment, or human capital. These are terribly vulnerable to the destructiveness of modern weaponry.
So, since invading other countries is seldom profitable nowadays, humanity is losing interest in it. The portion of the rest of the world's Gross Domestic Product spent on the military has dropped to only about one and a half percent. America, which spends about four percent of its GDP on the Pentagon, now accounts for almost half of the entire world's outlay on the military.
Foreign policy is becoming a luxury good indulged in by countries during times of prosperity, such as oil-rich Venezuela and Russia following the rise in oil prices earlier in this decade. Hugo Chavez has had a grand time giving away his country oil earnings to his allies in Cuba, Colombia, and elsewhere. But how his profligacy has benefited the Venezuelan national interest is not obvious.
Likewise, the suspicion is growing that, two decades after victory in the Cold War, American foreign policy is becoming an extremely expensive hobby for various cliques of elites, who vastly overstate the benefits that any particular foreign policy (other than a negative policy of "Stop doing stupid stuff") can bring to Americans.
The various foreign policy hobbyist factions can be loosely categorized as:
John McCain is clearly a War Enthusiast. Over the last 15 years, he's seldom met a war he didn't like. He wistfully dreams of new wars to come … if only the American people could somehow prove worthy of them.
However, as with so much about him, it's unclear where Barack Obama stands. Although he's often extolled by his supporters as the international man par excellence, his entire career trajectory up through his early forties was centripetal, as he tried to remold himself from an exotic in to a "race man" on the parochial South Side of Chicago.
The only foreign countries Obama has shown much interest in are Kenya—where his father was born and where his friend Raila Odinga, Luo warlord and new Prime Minister, claims (dubiously) that Obama is his first cousin—and Indonesia, where Obama spent four years as a small child. (Obama admits in The Audacity of Hope that he's largely lost touch with Indonesia.)
The common denominator linking Kenya and Indonesia is that both were nominally capitalist allies of America during the Cold War—much to the dismay of Obama's leftist parents. Obama's white mother despised the Texas oilmen with whom her Indonesian second husband, Lolo, socialized as part of his job with the government oil company. When he asked her to attend a business dinner with her fellow Americans to help his career, she hissed: "They are not my people."
Similarly, Obama's economist father pushed socialism for Kenya, earning the ire of Kenya's biggest "Big Man", Jomo Kenyatta. Kenyatta's Kikuyu tribe sided with the U.S. in the Cold War, so the Luo, their rival tribe, to which Obama's father belonged, were anti-American.
Has Obama's inherited disdain for America's Cold War foreign policy made him skeptical about foreign policy in general? Or does he feel we just needed a more left wing foreign policy? Although Obama is largely running on his autobiography, his Dreams from My Father, nobody seems to have asked him these obvious questions about the influence of his leftist parents.
It would be nice to find out before the election.
Obama has, however, done a nimble job of exciting the Stuff White People Like coterie—by repeatedly acting as if he cares about Darfur, a god-forsaken expanse of arid grassland just south of the Sahara in western Sudan, where militias backed by the "Arab" central government in Khartoum have been attacking locals.
Darfur has become a cause célèbre among celebrities such as George Clooney and Matt Damon. Obama has been addressing fashionable rallies and hiring foreign policy advisors, such as Samantha Power, who are passionate about America getting involved in this huge bit of damn-all in the middle of nowhere.
Darfur's appeal as a foreign policy issue to many Obamaniacs is it's utter uselessness—America has no national interest in Darfur whatsoever, so therefore we should get involved because it wouldn't do us any good—thus demonstrating the purity of our intentions.
In contrast, virtually no celebrities have expressed any interest in "raising awareness" about Zimbabwe, a verdant country at a pleasant altitude in southeast Africa. Over the last decade, dictator Robert Mugabe has destroyed the economy and driven his subjects to the brink of starvation. As with Darfur, the U.S. has negligible national interest in Zimbabwe. Nevertheless, in contrast to Darfur, Zimbabwe doesn't interest the partisans of purity because of the unfortunate details behind why it is now prostrate: In 2000, Mugabe unleashed his goons to beat up and steal the farms of the efficient white farmers who raised most of the food.
Several members of Barack Obama's inner circle of foreign policy advisers are leaders in the movement to demand we do something about Darfur. For example, in a 2006 Washington Post op-ed entitled "We Saved Europeans. Why Not Africans?" Obama confidantes Susan E. Rice and Anthony Lake and Obama superdelegate Donald M. Payne called for the U.S. to wage war upon Sudan. After the expiration of a one-week ultimatum, they trumpeted<
"The United States, preferably with NATO involvement and African political support, would strike Sudanese airfields, aircraft and other military assets. It could blockade Port Sudan, through which Sudan's oil exports flow. Then U.N. troops would deploy—by force, if necessary, with U.S. and NATO backing. If the United States fails to gain U.N. support, we should act without it."
Similarly, in an interview entitled "The McCain Doctrines" with Matt Bai in today's New York Times Magazine [May 18, 2008], John McCain volunteers that he's often thought about starting a war with Sudan, if only a way could be found to make it practical:
"I asked McCain if it was true … that he had been brought to a more idealist way of thinking partly by the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica. 'I think so, I think so,' he said, nodding. 'And Darfur today. I feel strongly about Darfur, and yet, and this is where the realist side comes in, how do we effectively stop the genocide in Darfur?' He seemed to be genuinely wrestling with the question. 'You know the complications with a place that's bigger, I guess, than the size of Texas, and it's hard to know who the Janjaweed is, who are the killers, who are the victims. It's all jumbled up. … And yet I look at Darfur, and I still look at Rwanda, to some degree, and think, How could we have gone in there and stopped that slaughter?'"
Note that, although McCain likes military adventures, the simpler task of intervening in Zimbabwe to avert famine does not appeal to him at all. While McCain volunteered Darfur, the NYT's Bai has to bring Zimbabwe up:
"Why then, I asked McCain, shouldn't we go into Zimbabwe, where, according to that morning's paper, allies of the despotic president, Robert Mugabe, were rounding up his political opponents and preparing to subvert the results of the country's recent national election?"
McCain tries to spell it out euphemistically for the journalist why a white President of the United States is not going to depose a black tyrant who wrecked his country by persecuting productive whites:
"'I think in the case of Zimbabwe, it's because of our history in Africa,' McCain said thoughtfully."
Well, not that thoughtfully—the U.S. doesn't actually have much of a history in Africa.
McCain notices his mistake and tries to make himself clear without actually mentioning the W-word:
"Not so much the United States but the Europeans, the colonialist history in Africa.'"
Of course, Europeans had a memorable colonialist history in Sudan, too: General "Chinese" Gordon's last stand in 1885, Winston Churchill's cavalry charge at the 1898 battle of Omdurman, and Kipling's Barracks Room Ballads:
'ere's to you, Fuzzy-Wuzzy, at your 'ome in the Soudan;
You're a pore benighted 'eathen but a first-class fightin' man…
So, "colonialist" isn't the difference between Darfur and Zimbabwe.
Indeed, it's closer to the opposite. What makes Zimbabwe so unsexy compared to Darfur is that in 1965 the British Colonial Office tried to give the colony of Rhodesia to its black majority. But its white population declared independence and for 15 years resisted an international trade embargo, building a substantial manufacturing base. Finally, in 1979, Margaret Thatcher organized the handover of the country to Robert Mugabe.
The new President devoted the next decades to slaughtering his tribal enemies, largely leaving the white farmers alone to feed the country. In 2000, however, Mugabe began to reward his supporters by telling them to drive out the white minority and steal their land. Not surprisingly, his bully boys proved to be worthless farmers and the country has teetered on the brink of starvation ever since. Mugabe's government has responded to the shortages it created by printing money, driving the annual inflation rate up to 165,000% in April 2008.
Since 2000, Mugabe has clung to power through three elections due to the support of the black South African government, which provides him with cheap electricity. As McCain delicately tried to put it:
"The government of South Africa has obviously not been effective, to say the least, in trying to affect the situation in Zimbabwe, and one reason is that they don't want to be tarred with the brush of modern colonialism"
In reality, the ruling African National Congress sympathizes with the Zimbabwean despot as they follow the path blazed by Mugabe a decade and a half earlier. Oxford historian R.W. Johnson writes from Zimbabwe for the London Review of Books:
"Ever since the Zimbabwe crisis first erupted in 2000, [South African leader Thado] Mbeki had seen it as his role to support Mugabe (while insisting that he was using 'quiet diplomacy' to solve the problem) and give him time to carry through his land revolution (i.e. to get rid of the white farmers) …"[Where do we go from here? May 8, 2008]
In contrast to Zimbabwe's famous role in the defeat of European white rule, Sudan is a member of the Arab League and the government espouses fundamentalist Islam, so it lacks the black cred of Zimbabwe. Granted, Sudan's leader Omar Hassan al-Bashir's complexion isn't much fairer than that of the typical member of the Congressional Black Caucus. But that little detail gets lost in most of the Darfur coverage.
From the perspective of an American politician such as McCain, Arabs are basically white people. Practically every successful politician in America knows at least one Tony Rezko—an Arab-American wheeler-dealer who is willing to whip out his checkbook and help a needy politician who might someday help him get a zoning variance or an earmark.
So, the racial taboos about criticizing blacks don't apply as much to the Sudanese Arabs. In the American politician's mind, they're just white people, more or less. But some of them are misled by anti-Semitism or Islamofascism or anti-Americanism, just like the Germans were misled by Nazism, So, it's okay to kill them. (Indeed, for neoconservative Darfur enthusiasts, killing Arabs is not a bug, it's a feature.)
But killing Mugabe's goons? They're black. And they beat up white farmers. Oh, man, that's a whole different kettle of fish—lots of domestic political implications that nobody wants to touch. So few white American politicians are excited about getting involved on the side of whites being victimized by blacks. There's no domestic political profit in that!
To a white American politician like McCain, Zimbabwe is the Jena Six brouhaha writ large. As you may recall, the six star football players on the Jena H.S. team had been using their privileged position as local sports heroes to run amok for years, beating up people. But their coaches and fans kept getting them out of trouble so they could continue to star on the Jena H.S. football team.
So, just like in Zimbabwe, you had a gang of black thugs outnumbering and beating up a white person. What was the upshot? Why Rev. Jesse and Rev. Al and all the media came to town and denounced the white people of Jena for their horrible racism!
It was hilarious, but you can see why even a war-lover like McCain wouldn't want to get involved in such a directly analogous situation in Zimbabwe.
Generally, African-American politicians have only loosely formed an ethnic lobby comparable to the Miami Cubans or the many boosters of Israel. From 1965 to 1994, they urged the overthrow of white governments in Rhodesia and South Africa. In 1994, during the Rwanda genocide, Bill Clinton closely monitored the Congressional Black Caucus's views to see if he should intervene, What he found, however, was the African American politicians weren't interested in saving Tutsis. Their priorities were celebrating Nelson Mandela's victory in South Africa—and consequently in no mood to call attention to the problems of black-ruled countries like Rwanda—and having the U.S. military invade Haiti to overthrow the mulatto regime.
Since then, African American politicians haven't shown much excitement about foreign policy, although they were (correctly) suspicious of the Iraq Invasion. In general, they seem to find Africa's many troubles to be depressing, confusing, and embarrassing.
Barack Obama, however, with his family ties to East Africa, may prove an exception to that trend.
Africa, especially the broad belt south of the Sahara in which Muslims and non-Muslims are most likely to clash, will probably furnish an increasing fraction of the excuses for American intervention over the next two Presidential terms.
The U.S. military has quietly been building bases in northern Kenya to combat the perceived jihad threat supposedly emanating from Somalia. Kenya parliamentary candidates now campaign in the U.S., soliciting funds from Jewish groups to outspend their Muslim opponents back home.
Likewise, the U.S. sponsored the recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia, a revival of the grand strategy of Europe in the post-Crusades era in which the Pope and kings from 1306 onward negotiated with Prester John, king of Abyssinia, to open a second front against the Musselmen.
There is increasing pressure from liberal interventionists and neocons to intervene militarily in Africa along the vague divide between the Arab-speaking and non-Arab parts of Africa. The bad guys will be portrayed as Muslim, fairer-skinned, and/or Arab, while the good guys/victims will be portrayed as more authentically African—blacker, not-Arab speaking, not Muslim. They won't be able to come up with a perfect division along those traits each time, but they'll come up with something pretty close, like in Darfur.
My hope is that Obama knows from his visits to Kenya that this is all hype, that Africa is of minimal strategic important to America, that Islamofascism in Africa is a joke, that Africa's problems go much deeper than just the current set of Bad Guys in power—and that America should just stay out.
But I don't know that he knows that.
I could easily picture Obama getting bullied by the "serious people" into intervening militarily in some ludicrously unimportant place like Darfur just to prove he's tough enough and anti-Muslim enough. I can see Obama wrapping it all in a lot of Kennedyesque rhetoric about America paying any price, bearing any burden to ensure hope and change in the strategically crucial crossroads of the Sahel.
On the other hand, to Obama's credit, I can't see Obama as any more likely than McCain to get us involved militarily in Zimbabwe. Obama didn't spend 20 years in Rev. Wright's church to put a bunch of white farmers back on their farms, even though that's what it would take to save hundreds of thousands of blacks from starving.
It's better that Africans starve than that the black race be embarrassed—As Rev. Wright will be happy to tell you.