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Let George Clooney explain American foreign policy to you

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In the film "Three Kings" George Clooney stars as Major Archie Gates, a special forces officer. We join him in Iraq right after the cease-fire in the first Gulf War in 1991. You'll recall that the United States deliberately decided NOT to proceed to Baghdad and depose the government of Saddam Hussein.

Gates stumbles onto a meeting of other servicemen who've recovered a map to a bunker containing stolen Kuwaiti gold taken by the Iraqis during the occupation. (Where exactly the men found the map I leave to you to find out by watching the film.)

Gates and the others hatch a plan to take the gold for themselves, a plan that is based on the premise that Iraqi soldiers won't touch Americans inside Iraqi lines because of the cease-fire. This turns out to be the case. And, it looks like the crew will make a clean getaway with the gold even as Iraqi soldiers look on. But then these American warriors witness some sickening brutality carried out against Iraqis who have participated in the uprising in southern Iraq which followed the cease-fire. Unable to stand by, the American soldiers move to defend these dissident Iraqis, and that's when the Americans' plan for enriching themselves goes awry. Exactly how it goes awry is the subject of much drama as well as intense comedy for the duration of the film.

When I first saw the film years ago, it occurred to me that it was one of the clearest explanations of American foreign policy I had ever seen. I am certain, however, that this was not the intention of the filmmaker. But let's see how the story illuminates our foreign policy.

During the time the film depicts America and its allies had just liberated Kuwait, driven into Iraq and stopped. President George H. W. Bush encouraged the Iraqis to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Many Shi'ites, angry at decades of rule by Saddam and his minority Sunni supporters, did rise up expecting help from the Americans. None came. Instead, for a time the Iraqi army used helicopter gunships to massacre the dissidents until the so-called "No Fly Zone" was established by Coalition forces.

Not surprisingly, Americans had intervened in the conflict between Iraq and Kuwait with mixed motives. The invasion of Kuwait by Iraq was destabilizing and threatened to place even more oil under the rule of a volatile dictator who might not serve America's interests. Furthermore, it was not certain whether Iraq would stop its advance with Kuwait or continue into Saudi Arabia to capture even more oilfields.

The U.S. response had both humanitarian and realpolitik aspects. We wanted the flow of cheap oil to be unimpeded. But, when Saddam threatened to extend his control over not just Kuwait, but possibly Saudi Arabia, we acted in our own interests to make sure the oil flowed freely. In the bargain we gave Kuwait back to the Kuwaitis when we were done.

Americans and our political leaders are torn between the ideals we cherish--self-determination, individual liberty, and humanitarian concern for others seeking to achieve these--and the practical requirements of running a rich and populous consumer society now dependent on other countries for many of its critical resources. I would contend that it is this tension which underpins America's increasing ineffectiveness at achieving its foreign policy goals.

If one's objective is simply to get the goods one needs from others by subterfuge or violence, then the method is clear. Either a straightforward heist is what is needed or an arrangement of plunder aided by local elites sometimes referred to as a trade agreement. But if you are conflicted about these methods, then in the long run you will succeed well neither at the heist and plunder nor at spreading individual liberty and self-determination.

Perhaps the best example of this is the American role in the recent Arab Spring. On the one hand, U.S. foreign policy consisted of support for authoritarian regimes in order to maintain stability in the Middle East and therefore keep oil supplies flowing. On the other hand, we funded pro-democracy groups which helped prepare Arab peoples for the Arab Spring to come. Many will be surprised to find out that these groups received added support under the second President Bush.

We want stability in the Middle East to protect oil supplies. At the same time we worry that the autocratic regimes there won't be able to deliver that stability and that their oppression of their own peoples runs counter to our values. We want to help, but like George Clooney in "Three Kings" we always have one eye on the gold (or, in this case, the oil). Divided attention makes us less effective than we could be.

It has always been thus. Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase "Empire of Liberty" in the midst of the American Revolution. His idea was that an American Empire would dedicate itself to advancing freedom both at home and abroad. What he meant was that a new American nation would block British expansion on the continent and in doing so invite others to participate in the American experiment with liberty.

Though Jefferson's words have been used to justify military intervention in the name of spreading democracy, nothing would have horrified him more. The brutal, centralized apparatus of an imperial power exemplified by the Great Britain of his day was exactly what Jefferson sought to avoid. And, Jefferson would shudder to gaze upon the centralized power of the current federal government and its vast military apparatus which now sprawls the Earth with hundreds of foreign bases.

In 1898 America struggled with its newfound strength when it defeated Spain and occupied Cuba. Americans debated whether Cuba should be annexed or allowed to become independent. American forces had intervened to aid the Cuban independence movement. America would lose its moral standing if it turned out that we were only seeking territorial expansion. Opposing factions fought in the U.S. Congress over annexation. Of course, Cuba was granted independence. But the two strains in American foreign policy were clear to see.

The American interventions in World War I and World War II generally demonstrate American ideals at work in foreign policy though it is important to point out that the United States had substantial commercial interests at stake before and after the war.

Our recent withdrawal from Iraq and our continuing difficulties in Afghanistan show that our confused foreign policy is making us largely ineffective at achieving our aims, and this impotence is on display for all the world to see which only compounds our weakness.

Currently, the only presidential candidate claiming the mantle of Jefferson in foreign policy is Ron Paul. Whatever you may think of him, Paul is avowedly non-interventionist and thinks the American military should be recalled to American soil. He's fine with propagating American ideals abroad. However, this should only be done by peaceful means, both commercial and cultural. America has a right to defend itself. But any intercourse between nations should be between consenting adults, not at the point of a gun.

The British knew how to run an empire. Take the natives by surprise using superior firepower. Enlist local elites to help you subdue and run the place. And, above all, send a significant crew of Brits to live and work in the conquered territory. Learn the local languages and customs and endeavor to understand thoroughly those whom you've conquered.

The British adventure in Asia and Africa is the stuff of novels and films, romantic and exotic. But, Americans never truly went in for living among the natives and staying for the long term. The American way has almost always been to look for quick money and then move on.

That's why the British were so very good at building and running an empire. And, that's why Americans will never be very good at it. We are a restless people, constantly agitating to find better surroundings; impatient with foreigners and their ways; and naively devoted to ideals that we practice only half-heartedly at home.

We could focus merely on commercial ties with other countries, leaving their internal politics alone. But our restlessness makes us want to intervene for conflicted reasons of gain and the propagation of our presumed ideals. It's why a Hollywood filmmaker could create a film like "Three Kings" with George Clooney wandering the Iraqi desert looking for gold while at the same time feeling he ought to do something for the wretched, frightened people he finds along the way. And, it is why so many of us watch to see what he does, measuring ourselves against the shifting standard his character Archie Gates represents.

Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Copyright 1999

Kurt Cobb is the author of the peak-oil-themed thriller, Prelude, and a columnist for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen. His work has also been featured on Energy Bulletin, The Oil Drum, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique, EV World, and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights.

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