Collateral Damage

The term collateral damage is an icon of our time. Used to describe the unintended death and damage that always arises from the use of military force, collateral damage has become a euphemism for cold brutality. In the fanciful world of Hollywood, it is usually uttered by a villainous military man as a reckless excuse for ruthless excess. In the real world of foreign policy and military action, it is the cold finger of reality pointed at America’s every action. We the people, under the auspices of our government and in the realm of foreign policy, have got ourselves in a terrible pinch.

The United States of America has, since the time of Wilson, acted as the proverbial bull in a china store. We have rarely shown moderation in our foreign policy choices and military adventures, and have added to the discord by switching between wildly different strategies with each new presidential administration. Far from an admonishment, this is an acknowledgement of the activities of an eager young power, ready and willing to flex its muscles for good. The problem has always been that we the people have rarely been able to settle on what “good” really means. The current mess in the Middle East, and the choices and challenges it offers to our nation, stands as the prime example.

With foreign policy, choices are usually left to a decision of lesser evils; what collateral damage seems the easiest to bear? Add to the brew a dash of budget woe and a sprinkle of partisan politics, and we find our foreign relations degenerate into black magic. In the United States, far more than in nations that have parliamentary democracies, the inability of our chief executive to act unilaterally elevates the degree of difficulty. In the Middle East, our situation is compounded by the threat and fear of international terrorism. It is also muddied by the presence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and Israel. A brief summary of our challenges follows:


With the draw-down largely completed and a complete withdrawal under consideration (per an Iraqi request), questions settle around the issue of what we do with Iraqi democracy. What will happen if the Kurdish minority rebels against the Baghdad government? Will we take a side if sectarian strife erupts anew? We have had trouble with democracy in the past…we endorsed and celebrated it in Gaza until people we didn’t like won a democratic vote. A choice we may see in Iraq that we do see elsewhere, is the choice between security and credibility.


At $116 billion per year, an immediate pullout of U.S. forces from this war-torn area (it has never really been a nation-state in the Western sense), would accomplish all of the wildest budgetary goals of the Tea Party and more…without touching a single social service. It would also reduce one of the principle remaining sources of friendly fire from the political left (liberal that I am, the political junky in me enjoys the irony that aligns ronpaulian Tea Partiers with the anti-war left).

The persistent question remains; what happens in Afghanistan when the troops leave? I am not asking the Dick Cheney question either, I am asking the liberal question. What happens to organizations like Greg Mortenson’s Central Asia Institute? What happens to women in an area where ex-Cheney puppet and current women-hating bribery stooge Hamid Karzai holds court? What happens to security if the Iranian hooligans known as the basiji are allowed the potential to link up with the like-minded Taliban? Currently, collateral damage in Afghanistan includes the death and injuries sustained by America’s best, common Afghans, and the U.S. budget. In the context of foreign policy, collateral damage is more like matter and energy; rather than being completely obliterated, it just changes forms.

Egypt (and other sights of largely peaceful rebellions)

While the conservative mainstream media is hard at work drumming up fear about the next Egyptian government (rather than aligning with it, the Muslim Brotherhood is an organization that has been regularly attacked by al-Qaeda), the rest of us have been wondering what form will actually arise…and when. This could be Gaza and Iraq all over again…democracy is good, unless the winners make us nervous. At some point, we Americans are going to have to start embracing the courage of our supposedly deeply held convictions…”Give me liberty, or give me death” wasn’t just a punchline was it? Or was it only our liberty? I have my personal answer to those questions, we the people must embrace a national answer…then live by it.

Libya (and other sights of violent rebellion)

We can add up the possibilities in this column, and include troubled states with a direct impact on the U.S. like Nigeria, and states like Sudan that challenge us morally. Do we, once again, project our military might in the hopes that it acts as an instrument of good. We (and I describe our nation, not the warriors who prosecute its agenda) have a spotty record with military intervention. Again, the current collateral damage in Libya and Darfur include thousands dead; what form will that damage take if we choose direct involvement? What form will it take if we choose not to become involved?

In considering these questions, we must also consider damage inflicted via psychology and propaganda. U.S. military intervention is always the best recruiting and fundraising tool available to cave-dwelling extremists. Intervention, and any promises of intervention, must be weighed accordingly. President Obama has spent some time now walking a foreign policy tightrope; it is the opinion of The RM that he has done a solid job where rebellion is concerned, and a less-stellar job where Afghanistan is concerned. Into the future, the effects of domestic politics will continue to play a role in the ability of Mr. Obama (and every future leader) to chart a steady foreign policy course. As to the course I would suggest, I find little reason to abandon the wisdom of a president from a century ago who endorsed the West African proverb that we “speak softly and carry a big stick…”

The Rational Middle is listening…