My daughter and I were recently discussing the current situation in the Middle East, and particularly the urging of various parties that the United States do "more" in one or another nation to support one (or the other) side. My daughter opined that our Government should generally try to stand back and let the citizens of those countries work out whatever they were going to. Her reasoning was, as it often is, multi layered, nuanced and convincing. It triggered a series of thoughts - about the relationship between "control", "authority" and "responsibility" in both a general and foreign policy context - that make me even more inclined to agree with her.
Since this train of thought came from one of my children, let's start with children in general. As parents, we have at least legal (and hopefully other) authority over our children. We are also legally responsible for them, and may feel that responsibility emotionally even long after they have become adults. Control over how they act is usually a matter of degree, and normally decreases as a particular child grows older.
I remember being struck as a young parent with just how limited my control was. I was a youngest child, and had little experience with babies, and was actually somewhat taken aback when I realized that there were times that, no matter what I did, my infant daughter was not going to stop crying and go to sleep, at least for a while. I had responsibility for her. I had at least theoretical authority. But my practical control was very limited. Picture my shock when, my kids, at maybe 18 months of age, both gave me clear evidence that they were not merely "babies", but independent people, with their own strong ideas about how they and the rest of the world should act. Anyway, I had lots of responsibility, less authority and even less actual control of my children.
When I started practicing law, the same kind of disparity arose in another form. I was responsible (at least to the partners) for how "my" cases were handled, but my authority to do certain things was limited (and not always made clear), and my control was mythical, given the existence of clients, witnesses, opposing counsel, judges and juries. My professional life involved a combination of trying to keep my responsibility in line with my authority in any given instance (I had to actually say things like: 'If I'm going to be responsible for doing X, I need to have more authority about how it will get done"), and fighting with the other side (and sometimes my own) to try to control outcomes for the benefit of my clients.
As a result of this and other experiences, I concluded that if I were going to be responsible for something, I wanted as much authority and control over it as I could get. And that if someone else insisted on taking authority and/or control, they had better be prepared to accept some responsibility for the outcomes of their decisions. Of course, real life is much messier. Most of the times, all of these things are shared somehow, and control (by anyone) is often an illusion.
We come to foreign policy.
We, as Americans, assume that our Nation can do anything anywhere in the world if it puts its mind to it. (And maybe further- JFK told us we would put men on the moon in 10 years, and we believed him). Unfortunately (??), this idea American control over outcomes is simply not accurate. We can probably blow anyone up (if we can find them), but we can't make foreign politicians not corrupt, religious loons become tolerant, or a free people elect those candidates we would like them to (Hamas, anyone?).
Worse, for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to our military power, our wealth, and our aforementioned confidence, large chunks of the rest of the world also seem to believe that we have more practical control than we really do. Thus, the Palestinians think we can control Israeli policy, some Egyptians seemed to feel that the U.S. was responsible for either propping up Mubarak or for enabling his opponents (or both), lots of people think we should do something to ensure a "good" outcome in Bahrain, or Yemen, and that we should do much more to support anti-Government forces in both Libya and Iran. Everyone (including our own journalists and politicians) thinks we should DO SOMETHING! to ensure the victory of good vs. evil in the world. (As I pointed out in another post, I can usually find at least one set of "bad guys" in these situations; that doesn't mean that their opponents are "good guys").
Sometimes, I listen to native experts from the affected countries calling for American action, and I wonder how many of them will blame us if our intervention leads to bad results. Certainly, there are large factions of "revolutionaries" in those countries who would immediately see any American action as a form of Imperialism, and would use that as a rallying cry to do whatever. I'm drawn back to the "children" analogy. All teenagers want their parents to help and protect them (although they may not admit it), but we know who they are going to at least partly blame if things turn out "badly". OK, this is part of the job description with my children. Middle east political movements are not the "children" of the United States.
Maybe the smartest thing that George H.W. Bush did as President was to generally stay out of the demonstrations and revolutions when the Soviet Bloc disintegrated in 1989. Sure, there was no question about whose side we were on, and our people and press, as well as our diplomats, made that clear. However, we were not shipping guns to anti-Communists in Eastern Europe. Nor were we talking about sanctions or "no-fly"zones. Aha, you say. That was totally different. We could've empowered the old regimes and even started a major war if we had done too much. Exactly my point. It was painfully obvious (at least to most of us; there were many who did call for more active intervention) that we could not reliably control even short-term outcomes. The problem is when one gets to somewhere like Egypt or Bahrain or Libya, we could well have a lot of control over short term outcomes; the problem is with longer term outcomes.
The easiest example of this is Afghanistan. Did we have the ability to overthrow the Taliban, at least in the short term? Yes. Did we have the power to create a modern western democracy there? Right now, that's not looking good. To go back a step further - did we have the ability to help the resistance throw out the Soviets in Afghanistan? Turns out we did. Did that turn out to create a "better" Afghan government? My opinion is not. No translate that "lesson" to Egypt or Libya or Bahrain. Will assisting in the overthrow of those established governments result in a "better" outcome? (I'll get to "better" in a minute, or maybe not until the next post). Maybe and maybe not. Each of these countries is different, and no one really knows what will happen in any of them. "Wait", you say; "we couldn't do worse than Qaddafi". I disagree; He's awful, but I can imagine worse.
I am going to save "better" outcomes for the next Post.
So what should we do? What I think the Administration is doing. Think. Don't act hastily. Realize that each country is different, realize the dangers of appearing to take responsibility in situations you can not practically control. In short, try to not rush in to dramatic and forceful unilateral action.