During the height of the Cold War, many conservatives had a favorite accusation to make against liberals who were critical of some aspect of American foreign policy.

“There goes the ‘blame America first’ crowd,” they would say, when liberals objected that the result of a U.S. government-backed overthrow of a foreign leader had resulted in chaos, for example in the Congo. Such criticism was seen as a weakening of America’s standing vis-a-vis the Soviet Union, an indication of a basic lack of patriotism.

With the end of the Cold War, this label largely disappeared. But I recently found myself thinking that it might be time to revive it, not as an indication that people lack patriotism, but rather that they are deficient in good judgment.

Last weekend alone gave me three examples of the problem.

Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham criticized President Obama for the fact that Iraqis are shooting each other. Because Obama rejected the policy of a permanent military presence in Iraq and brought home the troops that accomplished the mission for which they were sent – the overthrow of Saddam Hussein – they blame him for the violence.

Second, a New York Times story expressed criticism of the Obama administration because two ethnic groups in the new country of South Sudan are also killing each other. This article took the position that since America once did something helpful to a country, we thereby acquired a perpetual obligation to make sure everything goes well there.


Our political pressure did help get the people of South Sudan the right to secede. Tragically, since independence, vicious ethnic warfare has broken out, with the president, representing one ethnic group, firing the vice president, who represented the other, and the two groups then brutally clashing.

The viewpoint of the writers of the New York Times article, and of the people they quoted, was that to avoid the embarrassment of having one of our accomplishments jeopardized, it was our responsibility to fix things, even though the cause of the problem was entirely internal to that country.

Finally, a second front-page article in last Sunday’s New York Times applied the “blame America first” analysis to the entire Middle East.

This argument was that it is America’s fault that radical elements are gaining power in various Middle Eastern countries, and that their inhabitants are slaughtering each other.

But these civil wars are intra-Muslim clashes – Sunni versus Shia. How is a non-Muslim America, disliked by both sides, supposed to mediate this?

I first thought of reviving the label last September when I heard a “Meet the Press” panelist complain that because of the Obama administration, Bashar al-Assad had become a major factor in the Syrian situation. Since Assad is the president of Syria and has been since 2000, when he inherited the position from his father, I was incredulous that someone would argue that it was a failure of our policy that the president of a country had “become” a serious factor in its affairs.


If there were ways America could intervene non-militarily to reduce the terrible bloodshed that people in these various regions are inflicting on each other, I would be strongly inclined to support them. And while I’m very skeptical of military intervention, there are cases where even that would be justified – for example, I now believe that one of the major mistakes I made as a member of the House was voting against President George H.W. Bush’s decision to send American troops into Kuwait to expel Saddam Hussein.

But even with military intervention, there is no reason to think that America can resolve these disputes. Iraq is the clearest example: We spent well over a trillion dollars and suffered tens of thousands of casualties to overthrow Saddam and pacify the country. As soon as we left, the fighting started. McCain and Graham say we could have prevented this by an indefinite, expensive military presence.

We are now hearing that same argument from Obama with regard to Afghanistan: That having spent enormous amounts of money there and incurring many casualties, we somehow now have the obligation to keep our military in the country for at least 10 more years because its inhabitants will not otherwise be able to get along with each other peacefully.

McCain and Graham and others are obviously entitled to argue for a global American mandate to referee internal conflicts in other countries. What they are not entitled to do is to couple with it with simultaneous support for the notion that we must substantially reduce America’s expenditures in order to cut our deficit.

Had we kept our troops in Iraq, if we were to have intervened militarily in Syria, if we are to stay indefinitely in Afghanistan, our deficit would be hundreds of billions of dollars higher than it now is.

The notion that American tax dollars and military personnel should be put into service in civil wars all over the globe because of some obligation for us to be the enforcer of world order is a recipe for serial policy disasters, financed by a much larger deficit.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: @BarneyFrank

— Special to the Telegram

Comments are no longer available on this story