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Editorial: Doomed to repeat mistakes?

Chalk up the muscular tone on the campaign trail concerning foreign policy to two factors: it’s campaign season and candidates don’t want to appear weak in the face of Russian aggression and, two, too many have forgotten the nation’s recent history or never learned it well.
Fareed Zakaria, foreign affairs columnist for the Washington Post and host of a show on CNN, wrote an excellent column last week in which he chastises the foreign policy establishment for “swooning” over Vladimir Putin’s brash moves in the Middle East. He cites several columnists and veteran diplomats for saying things like: “It’s the lowest ebb since WWII for U.S. influence and engagement in the region,” and “Not since the end of the Cold War a quarter-century ago has Russia been as assertive or Washington as acquiescent.”
Zakaria acknowledges Russia hasn’t been this aggressive since its involvement in the late 1970s and 1980s when it invaded Afghanistan and interfered in several other countries, but he asks: “Just how well did that work out for Russia?” More importantly, he reminds us that political commentators and some hawks within the diplomatic ranks were similarly critical of the executive branch for being soft and suggesting that Moscow was winning the Cold War. History tells us otherwise. But can we learn from those lessons?
Zakaria pinpoints the current problem: “Washington’s foreign policy elites,” he says, “have developed a mind-set that mistakes activity for achievement. They assume that every crisis in the world can and should be solved by a vigorous assertion of U.S. power, preferably military power. Failure to do so is passivity and produces weakness. By this logic, Russia and Iran are the new masters of the Middle East. Never mind that those countries are desperately trying to shore up a sinking ally. Their clients, the Alawites of Syria, are a minority regime — representing less than 15 percent of the country’s people — and face deadly insurgencies supported by vast portions of the population. Iran is bleeding resources in Syria. And if Russia and Iran win, somehow, against the odds, they get Syria — which is a cauldron, not a prize. The United States has been ‘in the driver’s seat’ in Afghanistan for 14 years. Has that strengthened America?”
Logic notwithstanding, it’s campaign season and portraying military might seems to win more supporters than advocating caution and diplomatic solutions, but Zakaria poses this scenario: “Imagine if today’s interventionists had their way and President Obama escalated force and the Assad regime fell. What would be the outcome?” He notes that America’s recent intervention in desposing dictators in Iraq and Libya have not gone as planned, and in Yemen, where he U.S. has supported regime change and new elections, the results is “a civil war that is tearing the country apart. Those who are so righteous and certain that this next intervention would save lives should at least pause and ponder the humanitarian consequences of the last three.”
Zakaria also notes the similarity of today’s political climate with that of the 1950s, a time that Americans now think of a high-water mark for the country, but at the time Washington elites were “despairing that Washington was passive and paralyzed in the face of Soviet activism.” The 1950s, Zakaria concludes, “abounded with what seem in retrospect deeply dangerous proposals designed to demonstrate U.S. vigor — including deposing Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, military confrontations with Hungary and the use of nuclear weapons over Taiwan. Pundits were outraged that North Vietnam and Cuba had gone communist, while the United States just sat and watched. 
“In the midst of this clamor for action,” Zakaria writes, “one man, President Dwight Eisenhower, kept his cool, even though it sank his poll numbers. (The Kennedy/Johnson administration ended the passivity, notably in Cuba and Vietnam, with disastrous results.) I believe that decades from now, we will be glad that Barack Obama chose Eisenhower’s path to global power and not Putin’s.”
What campaigns teach us is that it is very difficult for the American voter to see the country as being stronger politically and economically by staying out of international hotspots (and in the face of humanitarian crises that can’t always happen), but Zakaria suggests it is at the very least a lesson worth considering.
Angelo S. Lynn

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