Commentary Magazine


Re: All Just Cover?

Jennifer, the Obama administration’s grand “shift,” toward engaging “in projects around the world aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states,” is a funny plan for a guy whose entire campaign foreign policy message was built on abandoning the Iraqis as they rebuild their country and escalating the conflict in Afghanistan. That’s because building up the diplomatic corps and employing more aid workers isn’t really “aimed at preventing conflicts and rebuilding failed states,” but at avoiding conflicts and soothing the American conscience about states we let fail.

This isn’t a shift. It’s a return. In a famous 1996 Foreign Affairs article entitled “Foreign Policy as Social Work,” Michael Mandelbaum criticized the Clinton administration’s misguided efforts abroad. Mandelbaum argued that, while Clinton intervened in accordance with “the standards of Mother Teresa” in Bosnia, Somalia, and Haiti, he ignored serious threats to American interests elsewhere. Where the Left always goes wrong is in thinking we have to choose between “social work” and American interests. For example, every time there’s a display of anti-American violence anywhere in the world, you’re certain to find a liberal who’ll tell you the answer isn’t bombs and tanks, but textbooks and education. In a way, they’re not wrong. But how after, say, 9/11, was the U.S. supposed to revamp the social studies curriculum in Mohammed Atta’s hometown in the Nile delta?

By comparison, you can be sure there’s a lot more Jefferson and Thomas Paine material available in Iraq today than there was before the shock and awe campaign lit up Baghdad skies. Consider this blurb from the website of none other than the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (initiated in 2004):

Why is AUI-S called an “American” University?

American colleges and universities are very distinctive things in this world. Most universities that are not American universities are institutes that have as their aim professional training, not a comprehensive, broad and liberal education. AUI-S not only will prepare you for a profession and make you an “expert” in your field, but it will also open up your mind more broadly, and educate you more widely.

How’s that for social work? The Left can’t stand the fact that curriculums change when regimes change, or when larger historical forces are brought to bear on regimes in need of change. At the end of the day, successful do-goodism is no less messy than war, and often amounts to the same thing.