America's Imprudent Obsession With the Muslim World

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


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.


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.

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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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