Americans prefer a foreign policy of soaring principles, in which our country is engaged in the great geopolitical struggles of our time. This desire is natural, and it can be very positive when it draws us out of our everyday lives to confront global problems.
But these grand narratives also can distract us from the human costs of our policies.
Let’s take distant Syria. We rightfully condemned President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies as they bombed rebel-held districts of Aleppo. To my dismay, many of my Russian acquaintances deny the scale of the killing, convincing themselves it is just Western propaganda. But to what extent have we taken refuge in similar self-deceptions?
At the beginning of the civil war in 2011, President Barack Obama said Assad must go, enamored with the idea that the Arab Spring should sweep aside autocratic dictators. There are credible claims that at this stage that the Obama administration and other Western nations turned down offers to negotiate Assad’s resignation if his political elite would be left in place. Such a backroom deal would have contradicted our chosen narrative of a people’s revolution. But could it have saved tens of thousands of lives?
Assad did not forget that the U.S.-led overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya destroyed their dynasties and political elites, as well as unleashing vicious sectarian conflict and civil war. So he turned to earth-scorching violence to keep control of Syria. Under this brutal pressure, the most violent and radicalized opposition factions came to the fore, including open allies of al-Qaida. As the regime and rebels fought over the largest cities, the Islamic State arose in the chaos.
Assad is unquestionably the greatest killer of this war. But did our blunt commitment to “Assad must go” ensure this conflict would turn into a zero-sum game with no rules? Did our policy of minimal support for the rebels prolong the bloodshed without changing the final outcome?
Or we can look to Yemen, where Iranian-backed rebels overthrew the government in 2014. Iran’s regional nemesis, Saudi Arabia, appealed to Washington with a surefire narrative: We must uphold American order in the Middle East and contain Tehran. With almost no debate, our policymakers approved supplying arms, fuel and intelligence to the brutal Saudi air war against the rebels that, along with artillery strikes from both sides, has killed thousands. Even worse, there are reports of a huge death toll from hunger caused by deliberate destruction of infrastructure and a Saudi-led blockade of the country’s ports. Just as Assad did to his people in Syria, the Saudis are using hunger as a weapon in Yemen.
The rebel advance justified a serious U.S. response. But rather than craft a policy that considers the Iranian threat and the hearts, minds and basic human rights of Yemenis, we let the Saudis feed us warmed-over geopolitical rhetoric while they waged a war of medieval cruelty.
Finally, there is eastern Ukraine. Russia bears the greatest moral responsibility for this brutal conflict, but I am troubled by the role U.S. policy may have played in its escalation.
When the Euromaidan revolution broke out in Kiev in 2013, our leaders praised it as people power against a corrupt autocrat, Viktor Yanukovych. In truth, this revolution drew on an enormous and sincere desire for reform, but it also empowered radical nationalists and alienated millions of people in the country’s east. Russia channeled that alienation into an armed separatist movement, triggering a conflict that has claimed at least 10,000 lives and displaced up to 1.7 million people within Ukraine. These are the victims of war I work with every day at my job in a humanitarian organization.
During this conflict our policymakers again embraced simple narratives. They rightfully condemned the separatists and Russians for shelling residential districts and throwing civilians into basement prisons, but they barely objected when Ukrainian forces did the same. The trauma caused by this mutual regime of violence has reinforced divisions that were opened up by the revolution, leaving eastern Ukraine deeply divided. The two sides are now stuck in a bloody stalemate, which many fear will turn into a frozen conflict without reconciliation or reintegration.
America does not have it strictly “wrong” in any of these conflicts. But each demands of us that we grapple with their complexity and their true cost for Syrians, Yemenis and Ukrainians. Our love for stirring principles and inspiring narratives should not distract us from this moral responsibility.
Brian Milakovsky is from Somerville. He has lived in Ukraine and Russia since 2009, and he is in eastern Ukraine, where he works for a humanitarian organization.