I have always maintained that American foreign policy is an institution. By this it is meant that American foreign policy, like all unmovable institutions, is static and monolithic. There are many historical examples one could use to illustrate this. But perhaps there is no other blunder that better emphasizes the intransigence of foreign policy leaders then the continually repeated policy of aiding violent movements, whether explicitly or implicitly, of national independence in foreign countries.
The history of American assistance to foreign non-governmental forces is long and sometimes nefarious. Perhaps the most contemporary example readers will be familiar with was the United States strategic decision to arm the mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Readers no doubt are aware that America armed and trained the mujahedeen in an attempt to thwart the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Much to our chagrin it was this group that American military forces would later confront in a protracted adventure in an attempt to thwart the terrorist friendly Taliban regime.
Fast forward to today. Once again America is training non-governmental forces; Syrians in Jordan. And implicitly America is again allowing others to arm this unknown and unaccountable quantity in the region of the Middle East. Please put aside the fact that recent news reports have pegged Russia as supporting the embattled Assad regime. How can it be that it seems once again American foreign policy is making the same mistakes? How can it be that this bares resemblance to proxy wars of yesteryear with structural level geopolitical outcomes lurking in the shadows as justification for American action? How can it be? Amnesia, and the aforementioned institution like quality of American foreign policy.
America’s intent should be to bring about a swift end to the human suffering caused in crisis and foster political reform. Regardless of actual or hypothetical intent I ask will; American means, training and implicitly arming Syrian rebels, achieve the ends, peace and most likely regime change? Too frequently these rebel groups lack the organizational structure to affect the swift end that is hoped for when trained or armed by the U.S. What is more in such situations when the rule of law has been abandoned it is not only government forces that commit atrocities but rebel groups who lack accountability to anyone commit similar atrocities. Sadly, the situation in Syria currently reflects the old trend. As I sit and write this, the United Nations Human Rights Council has published a damning report of the situation. This independent non-partisan commission has brought to light that both government and non-government forces have committed crimes against humanity. These crimes include torture, murder, and hostage taking among others. It seems the political high ground of training rebels is not always the moral high ground. America is once again training and implicitly arming human rights offenders. America is once again culpable in a protracted situation where human suffering persists and political solutions are pushed aside as military solutions are sought.
Is American foreign policy’s institutional intransigence a result of amnesia? I don’t know, but I do know remembering is hard changing is hard, maintaining the status quo is much easier. Perhaps in situations like the one in Syria we train and arm rebels because it is the easy solution. It is easier then actively supporting international law and actively protecting human rights. A great American once said “We do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.” Maybe we should begin to do the “hard” things in American foreign policy. Hard like protecting civilians. Hard like abandoning pragmatism for humanitarianism.
Londrigan is a professor of Political Science at Pace University-Westchester and faculty advisor of the university’s award winning Model United Nations team.