The United States has misunderstood everyone in the world outside its borders and mismanaged everything. It has done so with a bipartisan consensus so broad and deep that it has no opposition except simple-minded isolationism. America gets unwanted results — most recently in Iraq - because it wants the wrong things in the first place. And there seems to be no way to persuade Americans otherwise. The crumbling of the Iraqi state will provide yet another pretext for mutual recriminations among political parties. The trouble is that both parties wanted the wrong thing to begin with.
It is impossible to recruit clever young people out of American universities to the dour, depressing mission of managing the decline of other civilizations. Americans are missionaries, not imperial mandarins. America cannot ignore the Middle East
because it has critical interests in the region, including the free flow of hydrocarbons, but it cannot fix it.
It tried to fix Libya, and traded the nasty regime of Muammar Gaddafi for a Petrie Dish of jihadist militias; it tried to fix Egypt, and traded the miserable regime of Hosni Mubarak for the Muslim Brotherhood, and the inevitable return of military rule in the face of the twin threats of terror and starvation; it did not even try to fix Syria, which has collapsed into sectarian division. It spent US$1 trillion, 5,000 dead, 50,000 wounded, and several million disrupted American lives trying to fix Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the Pillars of Hercules to the Hindu Kush, America confronts a belt of countries unable to feed themselves, let alone to invest their capital in profitable businesses or educate their young people. Without hydrocarbons their economies would resemble the worst of sub-Saharan Africa. The only four that have conquered illiteracy - Iran, Turkey, Tunisia and Algeria - have suffered a sudden collapse in fertility, from pre-modern to post-modern levels, in a single generation.
What should America have done?
i: Invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein was a reasonable alternative after 9/11. I supported the invasion at the time because America needed to make a horrible example out of one hostile Muslim government in order to persuade the others to cooperate in suppressing terrorists. But America should have installed a strongman and left, with the option of returning to install yet another strongman, as Daniel Pipes proposed at the time.
ii) The Sunni-Shi'ite conflict was inevitable, but the US could have reduced it to a low boil by neutralizing Iran - bombing the nuclear weapons facilities, decapitating the Revolutionary Guard, and financing the opposition. That would have cost a few hundred million dollars all in. iii) With Iran neutralized, the Assad family's lifeline in Syria would have been severed. As Erik Prince once suggested, Washington could have struck a deal with Moscow on succession: allow Moscow to choose Assad's successor.
iv) Israel should have been encouraged to reduce Hezbollah in Lebanon with the West's blessing, rather than handcuffed under the 2006 American plan to end the Israel-Lebanon War. Then Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice forced the Israelis to withdraw with the promise that the Iranian-controlled militia would be disarmed. With Iran unable to help, Hezbollah would have been easy to destroy.
v) With Iran out of the picture, America would have been able to demand that the Saudis and Turks stop supporting the sort of militant jihadists who are now rampaging through Syria and Iraq. Absent the Iranian threat, the Saudis would have agreed.
vi) America should have ignored Libya and continued to support a military government in Egypt. The aging Mubarak had to leave, but an orderly transition plan still would have been possible.
The devil is not in the details, however, but in the original design. No-one could have walked into the Oval Office in 2001 and told then president George W Bush that his job was to manage the inevitable decline of Muslim civilization: to humiliate the Iranians, to hobble the contending parties and to leave as much power as possible in the hands of abhorrent military or monarchical governments. No-one could have gone to American universities and recruited the soldiers, spies and diplomats to execute a plan which preferred the slow and inevitable spread of human misery to a cataclysmic alternative.
The British Raj ruled India with just 3,000 regular officers, as Sir John Keegan observed, but these were officers trained in Greek and Latin at British schools and who knew the history of Rome's decline as well as their American counterparts today know the plot of the Game of Thrones. They learned local languages, wore local dress and commanded local troops. They had no intent of saving India, much less of rebuilding it in Britain's image, for all the missionary twaddle about the White Man's Burden. The British were in India to get rich, and their cynicism and self-dealing made them cannily effective. Poor but clever Scots and English lads enlisted in the Colonial Service to seek their fortunes.
Americans never lived off colonies (although the Southern Confederacy intended to, by extending slavery through Latin America). They lacked the imperial motivation to bestir themselves outside their country's borders. We never nurtured foreign policy elite that views America as radically unique, and other parts of the world as existentially challenged by comparison.
America has neither the students nor the teachers to fix its problems overseas. There are a few sages still left, notably Angelo Codevilla, who holds up the example of John Quincy Adams against the utopian obsessions of the major schools of foreign policy thinking.
On the left, we have the likes of Obama's so-called national security team, including human-rights dabblers like Samantha Power and Ben Rhodes. On the right we have the neoconservatives, who believe that Being Determines Consciousness (democratic institutions will make people into democrats), and Catholic natural law theory, which boils down to the assertion that unaided human reason will lead everyone to the Western idea of individual liberty and democratic governance.
Americans seem to think that because they had the good grace to stumble into world history a couple of hundred years ago, everyone else should stop what they are doing and emulate them. That point of view is not as ludicrous as it sounds: no nation has ever been more successful than the United States, which has brought more prosperity and security to more people than any other political experiment in human history.
America's genius lies in assimilating individuals of all ethnicities into a state based on a laws rather than race or language, and Americans assume that because Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Christians cohabit peacefully within their borders, they should be able to do so everywhere. That ignores the possibility that those individuals who wanted to leave peacefully with people of other ethnicities abandoned their home culture, leaving behind those who did not.
A sense of national exceptionalism may derive from long history; China may think itself external on the strength five millennia of history. America is a new nation and its sense of national exceptionalism derives from hope and expectation. But that is a very specific sort of hope and expectation: it derives from the Calvinist faith of America's founders, with its tension between Christian universalism and the notion of an Elect.
The radical Protestants who created the American experiment saw their achievement as a universal example but had no expectation that a depraved world would as a general rule choose to emulate it. Most of humanity, they believed, would be damned and forgotten. Today's mainstream of American Conservatism tends to see America as exceptional only in the sense that it an exceptionally good recipe that every cook ought to be able to master.
It has become nearly impossible in America to ask the question: Which cultures are viable and which are not? Individuals of all cultures are viable Americans, but that is not necessarily true of the culture they left behind. I have argued for the past dozen years in this space and in my book How Civilizations Die (Regnery 2011) that Muslim civilization will not survive: it passes directly from infancy to senescence.
That does not impugn the success of Muslim immigrants to America, nor of the hundreds of head-scarf-clad girls one sees at Ariel University in Samaria, but it does mean that Muslim states will be unstable and crisis prone and that Muslim populations will be discontented and prone to extremism for the duration. It is a fool's errand to stabilize them; the best one can do is to prevent their problems from spilling over onto us.
European culture may not be viable in the long term, but Germany continues to compensate for its declining workforce by attracting talented immigrants from the European periphery. It has postponed the impact of poor demography by a generation.
Orthodox Christian culture is attempting to revive after the terrible enervation of Communist rule. Few in the West have the remotest idea what this means. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently claimed that Western hostility to Russia stemmed from its return to its Orthodox roots (as noted by Paul Goble of the Jamestown Foundation): "The thesis (said Lavrov) has begun to circulate that the Soviet Union with its Communist doctrine [at least] remained within the framework of the system of ideas developed in the West, while the new Russia is returning to its traditional values, which are rooted in Orthodoxy, and as a result has become less understandable."
The Russians have difficulty believing that no-one in the West, at least no-one in a position of influence, has the remotest idea of what Russian Orthodoxy might be and what its quarrels with the West might mean, although these are vivid, living issues in the minds of Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin is not a new Hitler; he is what defeated Hitler, as well as Napoleon. It wasn't congenial to the West in 1812 and it isn't now, but it can't be booed away. America shouted at the top of its lungs at Putin after Crimea and waved a toothpick, and the Russian leader cut a deal with Beijing.
The Western consensus - among economists as well as political types - appears to be that China will collapse of its own weight. The Chinese will rise up against the Communist Party and the unfinished revolution of Tiananmen Square will triumph, the pundits claimed on the 25th anniversary of the suppressed student demonstrations. The Chinese have been living with an emperor for the better part of 4,000 years; what makes anyone think they are going to change now? China is doing very well, and American predictions of its implosion are a lot of whistling in the dark.
None of this will change in face of practical consequences, even the direst ones. The Republican foreign policy establishment will blame Obama for the stupidity of leaving Iraq without a modest American military force; there will be no introspection, no reflection of the errors that plagued American intervention from the outset. It isn't only that too many careers and too much political capital is at stake: Americans simply don't want to think about the world as it actually is.
By default, that ultimately may the world to other players with a sturdier sense of reality. China never has cared much about the world past its vast borders. But China is not burdened with the social engineering approach to remaking the world of American conservatives, nor the affirmative-action mentality of the Obama administration.
China has seen cultures succeeded and fail hundreds of times through its long history. It has no compunction about harsh measures against restless minorities. News media reported that President Xi Jinping has called for the resettlement of part of western China's Uyghur minority, a Turkic Muslim people. Uyghurs have perpetrated several terrorist acts recently, and Beijing is losing patience.
Chinese policy towards its fractious Muslim minority is cruel but entirely effective; I have no doubt that it will succeed, despite the hand-wringing of the human rights organizations. American policy has been generous and generally ineffective. Is there anything in between? I do not think we shall ever find out.
On the other hand, China has no interested in reforming any regime or shaping any culture as long as it does not pose a threat to its interests. China is concerned with the flow of oil from the Persian Gulf (it is Saudi Arabia's largest customer), and the orderly expansion of the "new Silk Road" through Istanbul and into Europe. I am not enthusiastic about a future "Pax Sinica" stretching into Western Asia, but in the absence of American power, someone will fill the vacuum.