Foreign affairs is the most difficult area of government policy. To be effective it requires a continuity and consistency that transcends presidential terms. Impatience serves us well as an entrepreneurial economic growth engine, but it is our Achilles heel in foreign policy.
We err when we assume that other nations and cultures will adhere to the same values we cherish, that they can be persuaded with the same logic, or that the principles which seem to work so well for us will work as well for them.
We also err when we assume that a leader with charisma and charm will achieve the peace that his ‘ignorant’ predecessors thought required military force.
Jimmy Carter felt betrayed when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The rage of the Muslims in Iran may have been ignited by our misguided overthrow of Mosedegh in 1953 and our support of the hated Shah well before Carter’s term, but it could not be reversed by conciliatory gestures or weak policy.
Neither Obama nor Romney will be able to charm violent tribal extremists into a free peace loving people. Whatever we may have done in the past that would in anyway justify their animosity is irrelevant. No apology, however merited, will bring peace.
Bush made the error of believing that democratic institutions would bring peace even if the social and cultural structures critical to democracy were absent. The result is Gaza with an elected Hamas slinging rockets into Israel.
Obama made a similar error believing that overthrowing a dictator would give way to a more tolerant and democratic country. Instead we have the Muslim Brotherhood, continuous violence, less tolerance and less democracy. Throughout history revolution has most often simply replaced one tyrant for another. Our own revolution was a notable exception, but we too often believe it will be the rule.
It is misguided to believe that the roots of terrorism are economic or political. Because we prioritize economics and political power far ahead of our religious institutions we refuse to acknowledge the religious and tribal priorities of our foes. Our highest virtues are deemed satanic and unworthy of the respect needed to reach a negotiated peace.
This is not to say we have not made serious blunders in the past, but like most errors they are only clear in hindsight. But nothing will pacify a hatred rooted in religious zealotry. This not about unemployment and poverty. There are many other poor countries who do not dispatch terrorists to destroy innocents.
It was naive to think that killing Osama bin Laden would reverse the rise of violent tribalism. The reluctance to face the reality that terrorism will proliferate if we do not secure our hard won gains in Iraq and Afghanistan leads one to discount continuous organized terrorism and believe instead in the power of second rate YouTube videos.
Terrorism and tribalism are very real and it will not go away if we remove our troops, set pull out dates, or lead from behind. And as we well learned, and seemingly quickly forgot, this problem will not remain isolated in the Middle East.