America's Imprudent Obsession With the Muslim World

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The U.S. has interests in the Middle East and North Africa, but we're focusing on those regions to the exclusion of bigger threats

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After the U.S., which spends more on "defense" than all its rivals combined, the 10 nations that spend the most on their capacity to wage war are China, France, the UK, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Italy, India, and Brazil, in that order. In Tim Pawlenty's prepared remarks before the Counsel on Foreign Relations, meant to demonstrate his foreign affairs bonifides, here is an exhaustive list of the countries that he mentioned: Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine.

Why?

The former Minnesota governor's focus wasn't eccentric or unusual, or even entirely unjustified. Since 9/11, the Muslim world is what politicians have talked about more than anything else. It poses the biggest terrorist threat. And successive presidents have waged multiple wars there. I don't mean to suggest that we should discuss Germany, a stable ally, to the exclusion of Egypt, an unstable country in the heart of the Arab world, or that an Italy where the trains don't run on time should occupy us more than Iran, where the regime may acquire nukes.  

But I insist that a prospective president's insights on China, Russia and Mexico, to cite three examples, are incomparably more vital than their thoughts on Morocco, Tunisia, and even Libya. Isn't it odd that countries with the capability of killing us by the tens of millions with nuclear weapons, or else bordering our homeland and losing a war against drug cartels, often go unmentioned?

Our discourse reflects suspect decisions made by President Obama and his predecessor. Consider their foreign policy seen from 100,000 feet. American military involvement in the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan will ultimately cost up to $4.4 trillion, according to a new Brown University study:

The $1.3 trillion officially appropriated on Capitol Hill is the tip of a spending iceberg. If other Pentagon outlays, interest payments on money borrowed to finance the wars, and the $400bn estimated to have been spent on the domestic "war on terror", the total cost is already somewhere between $2.3 and $2.7 trillion. And even though the wars are now winding down, add in future military spending and above all the cost of looking after veterans, disabled and otherwise and the total bill will be somewhere between $3.7 trillion and $4.4 trillion.

Was that wise? Or do you think we'd be safer if instead of invading Iraq, or spending a decade trying to rebuild Afghanistan, we'd have spent it on different aspects of national security - stopping nuclear proliferation, say, and improving our foreign intelligence. And the next dozen items on your personal list of foreign affairs priorities. These opportunity costs never seemed to enter the calculus of folks who championed the course we took.

Take Christopher Hitchens. Agree or disagree with him, the War on Terror hawk is a formidable interlocutor in almost every argument, often offering the most persuasive case there is to be made.

The parts of his recent column that touch on Libya are among the least persuasive things he's ever written. He characterizes opposition to the war there as "isolationism," and says this about Michele Bachmann: "For Bachmann to choose this moment to say that the loony of Libya poses no threat is to disqualify herself from any consideration for high office. She evidently knows nothing about the four decades of dictatorship and depredation that have led up to this."

Daniel Larison offers the obvious rebuttal. "Until the U.S. and allied forces started attacking Libya, it was perfectly reasonable to say that Gaddafi posed no threat to the United States or Europe, and it was quite correct to say that the U.S. in particular had no national security interest in the outcome of the Libyan civil war," he writes. "The Libyan war is not being fought for allied security, much less U.S. security, and this has been obvious from the first day. The Libyan war turned Gaddafi back into a threat to the U.S. and Europe after he had ceased to be one."

That's exactly right.

An additional point Hitchens fails to consider: Congress has appropriated no money for the war in Libya. Spending there so far has simply come from elsewhere in the Pentagon budget. What if we hadn't spent those $750 million in North Africa? They'd have been spent by the military somewhere else.

Is preferring that outcome isolationism?

Too often, it seems that being a hawk is about backing whatever military intervention the president happens to seize upon, no matter if it is the most efficient use of our defense dollars. One day a country is completely forgotten. The next day, the president says it's a threat to global peace. Suddenly, the same old coalition of interventionists is not only ready to send troops, but insistent that anyone who thinks otherwise is an isolationist. In that atmosphere, no surprise that Pawlenty sells himself as a candidate by talking up Libya, a country sure to be forgotten by the time he'd take office, and ignoring dozens of countries that will actually occupy the next president.

Perhaps Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China, can broaden the GOP's foreign policy conversation now that he has joined the race. But the long term solution is to admit that Osama bin Laden scared us into dedicating too many resources to counter-terrorism in place of other foreign policy matters. Its a trend that's going to prove irreversible so long as foreign policy hawks rally around the president every time he decides to spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and countless hours of his limited attention, dealing with easily contained third-rate dictators.

Image credit: Flickr user pmarkham

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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