There are many good explanations for US policy failures. Ignorance, stupidity, arrogance all play a part, as do more specific desires to control various happenings in various parts of the world. But what all these failures have in common is a certain sort of naÏve cowardice, a fear of ever encountering any bad consequences of any decision. I call this aftermathophobia.
Perhaps the fear is not so much of the consequences themselves as of what Americans will think of them: US foreign policy is increasingly determined by what will play well or badly in the next election. The increase may be due to America's realization that events abroad affect their interests even less than previously imagined. Assuming America ever wants to influence anything or anyone abroad, this has gone too far. The contempt of American 'power' has become pervasive and overwhelming - a shame, because America's love for vile régimes has faded and the US might actually do some good abroad. An understanding of aftermathophobia might help push the US in better directions - and at the same time drag it out of virtual helplessness on the international scene.
The US showed the world how to manage an aftermath with the post-World-War-II Marshall Plan, a resounding success. It went downhill from there as the decline in America's military fortunes bred an acute failure of nerve. Korea, an ambiguous 'draw', at least produced a stable, prosperous South Korea, not least because the US was again prepared to station large forces there for decades. Then the defeat in Vietnam gave way to an aftermath entirely out of America's control, not only there but in Laos and Cambodia. This disaster apparently spawned a pathologically broad and deep fear of bad outcomes, complemented by an incorrigible desire to minimize painful losses by substituting money for blood.
When the US saw the failure of its client army in Vietnam, it responded by deploying more American troops. This failed. Since then the US had adopted the bizarre strategy of dogged reliance on client armies while reducing US troop support. In Afghanistan, over many years now, the US has saved American lives by relying on laughably unreliable proxies, as if these client troops could count for anything in the forces deployed against the Taliban. In Iraq it avoided an aftermath altogether by refusing to enter Baghdad in the first Gulf War: that this led to a gruesome strangling of the country and many thousands of civilian deaths mattered little. In the second Gulf War it relied again on client forces and never committed the resources even to maintain basic control of its conquest, with the terrible results we see today. No matter, it seems. American lives were saved.
This fixation on saving of American lives has all but displaced consideration of policy objectives. It entirely eclipses concern for the lives of anyone else. It has propelled the fear of bad consequences to ridiculous extremes. America now abhors bad consequences even when the risk to Americans is negligible, far less than in its militarily modest Afghan and Iraqi adventures. Take note of how ludicrous this fear has become.
For one thing, it's apparently now gospel that the US should never pursue any alternative that might lead to arms falling into the wrong hands. American leaders and analysts, perhaps too far removed from the realities of warfare, can't get over its sloppy unpredictables. We never hear the end of how the US armed Bin Laden with, among other things, Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. Is that because these weapons enabled him to mount the 9-11 attacks with, um, a few box-cutters? Are we obsessed with the knapsacks used in the July 7th bombings in London and the Madrid attacks? Is it really supposed that, had we just not armed Bin Laden, all would be well in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is doing just fine without the benefit of American equipment? American strategizing has been reduced to a childish sort of score-keeping, where real disasters like the second Iraq war are as nothing compared to even the most distant prospect of Americans, however few, being killed with American weapons.
The full idiocy of the obsession with arms emerges with the concern that IS now has American weapons. Why does it have them? Because it captured them from the government. In civil wars, the insurgents typically do capture their weapons from the government. So unless you don't arm governments at all, some weapons you provide will fall likely into insurgent hands. Why is this any particular concern? Would it somehow be better if the government had been armed with non-American weapons and the dreaded insurgents wielded them instead?
Another childish obsession that guides US policy is 'trust'. We must have trusted allies. What sort of trust is expected? Eternal love? In the world wars, the various allied powers had a more mature attitude. The Americans, British and French allied with the Soviet Union yet fully believed the Soviets had the intention and quite possibly the means to destroy them. The Soviets had the same sort of beliefs about their allies. Both judged it best to ward off one threat of destruction now and deal with another possibly resulting threat later. They made specific preparations to do this. In other words, they dealt with the fact that, of course, their allies were not entirely to be trusted. They saw the prospect of friends becoming enemies as an eventuality to be confronted, not as some terminally humiliating faux-pas.
Instead of planning to deal with the undesirable consequences of a strategy, the U.S. now looks for a strategy without undesirable consequences. This is not an adult approach to foreign policy. Indeed it is not an adult approach to policy of any kind and it's not one practiced in domestic politics. Obama's Medicare policies, for example, are full of measures designed to avert potential undesirable consequences: one of them is that small businesses get tax credits to avoid excessively high health insurance premium costs. No one stops building transportation links even though we know new links mean more usage and more fatal accidents. But in the Middle East, you don't deal with dangers or disadvantages. You run from them. You search for a future which, however unlikely or horrific, has great potential to protect you from the accusation that you've 'done stupid shit'.
How does this phobic behavior surface in the US' Syria policy?
It is this phobia which makes the US fixated on creating its own *trustworthy* client force in Syria, despite the fact that it has failed miserably to create such forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. This ponderous, useless effort reflects a desire to be certain there will be no bad consequences from supporting the rebels. The same phobia accounts for the disastrous strikes on Jabhat al Nusra, dedicated fighters against Assad. On the US' own account, the bombing campaign cannot but benefit him. That doesn't matter to the Americans because so many rebel groups are 'untrustworthy'. However much this helps Assad, however much horror it causes and prolongs, however much it encourages anti-American extremism, however much it undermines the prospects of regional stability - none of this matters. All that matters is that America does nothing whatsoever that could possibly have some bad results.
Of course this caution is myopic. America's decisions don't avoid bad consequences; they just make sure the bad consequences don't obviously proceed directly from American actions. For example, the US doesn't provide serious support to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) because it doesn't want to empower the Islamists within the group, or the more radical Islamists outside the group. It's horrified to see a mere handful of FSA weapons appear in 'extremist' hands. The result? The FSA is crippled. The extremists provide, therefore, the best defense against Assad. They gain adherents. They capture far more weapons, 'advanced', 'heavy' and otherwise from the régime than they would ever have acquired from the FSA. Indeed there is not a single type of American-supplied weapon that has fallen into IS' hands, from tanks to anti-tank missiles to heavy artillery and small arms, that IS did not possess in abundance before its rise to power. Almost all of it was captured from government bases.
But what of the future? Even the US knows the rebels that dumping the rebels would cement its growing reputation for weakness, cowardice and betrayal, not to mention signing on to destabilizing horror. But what if supporting the FSA will just lead to sectarian-fueled chaos? Again, no matter that such an outcome is equally likely if the US does not support the FSA. But what matters to the US is not the outcome, but that the outcome is produced while the US stands on the sidelines. No matter that the decision to stand on the sidelines is just as much a decision and just as much responsible for the results. What matters that it will be a bit harder to blame the government for those results come the next election.
This phobic approach produces paralysis when, as is usually the case, all options raise at least the chance of bad consequences. All possible bad consequences, avoidable or unavoidable, are taken to be fixed quantities, deal-breakers. All possible good consequences count for nothing. If an option raises even a chance at anything bad, even if all options have that taint, it counts as a 'bad option'. Bad options are to be avoided, so the result is aimless fussing about how there are no good options.
Bleating that "there are no good options" is infantile; it's like expressing outrage at the discovery of an imperfect world. Grown-ups refine their assessment of bad options. They seek ways to make bad consequences less likely and good ones, moreso.
In Syria, for example, it won't do just to moan about how there are so many groups, so disunited, so unreliable, so cozy with 'extremists'. Of course there is disunity; of course there are extremists; of course the moderates associate with extremists; of course they're so impure that some of their weapons may end up in extremist hands. But disunity and extremism are far from fixed phenomena. Observers on the ground have noted that many Syrians side with extremists as the only option for fighting Assad in their area, not to mention the only way to get enough of a salary to feed a family. The 'extremists' themselves are not all human bogey-men. They include the sixteen year old kid who loves Al Qaeda "but also George Bush". They also include the many who change allegiance as soon another group provides greater hope of security and well-being. So an adult perspective on aiding the FSA would be to understand that half-ass assistance has bad consequences, while serious aid makes these consequences much less probable. If the FSA is built into the most powerful group, one which can pay decent salaries, there will be less 'disunity' because more people will gravitate towards the most powerful, well-funded alternative. And with serious aid, the US is in a much better position to demand good governance in rebel-held areas, which again will bring more adherents. This sort of support will also make 'extremists' less extremist, because the US will be seen as a real help.
Of course none of this will even in the best circumstances guarantee that Syria will be run by squeaky clean secularist lovers of Freedom and Democracy. Some of the reasons go back to when the US started getting hysterical about possible aftermaths. Since the 1950s, no indigenous movement for fundamental change, no attempt to overthrow ossified old orders, has been good enough for the West. They couldn't stomach the communists in Iran or Iraq or Afghanistan. They couldn't handle the Arab nationalists and their 'Arab socialism'. Now they abhor Islamists, 'political Islam'. Yet political Islam is the only credible alternative left now that, partly thanks to American fears about bad outcomes, secularism has produced little but the most blood-thirsty, politically vacuous governments in the region's history. So yes, even if the US takes a first step towards amending the disgraceful secularist record, it is not likely to produce a régime in love with Western democracy.
Yet Western concern about aftermaths is almost comical. The idea seems to be that disaster looms if the West isn't free to 'build nations'. Yet there is little reason to see tragedy in the region's future falling from Western hands. The places where the West really was forced to leave, where some dreaded local solution was imposed on the West by force of arms, also count as some of the few places where, from a strictly Western point of view, the aftermath has worked out very well. The French defeat in Algeria brought nothing but excellent and mutually profitable relations between Algeria and France. The American defeat in Vietnam has evolved into such good relations that America has just approved arms sales to that country. And what of the dreaded domino effect that did in fact envelop Laos and Cambodia? Not that Western interests were at stake, but the horrors of Pol Pot were stopped, not by the West but by the dastardly Vietnamese communists. Today Laos and Cambodia must be among the nations that pose the least worry for America and its allies. Contrast this with the places where the West had limitless opportunity to indulge its fantasies of 'nation-building'!
Perhaps then it is time to learn something from what international politics was in the days of Metternich and Bismark, before Woodrow Wilson imposed a blundering American Protestantism on its practice. The old-school diplomats didn't go fussing about the 'values' of other nations. Unlike some of the cheerleaders for colonial empires, they didn't want to promote their own 'values'. This doesn't mean the West needs to emulate their callousness and brutality. Perhaps, though, it's time to realize that problems go away only when there is fundamental change, and fundamental change most often comes from forces more radical than those who bleat about 'freedom and democracy'. In particular it seems clear that, having destroyed or connived at destruction of the left in the Middle East, the West likely has no choice but to accept Islamist solutions if there's any hope for an end to the domination of ossified élites, and the oppression that breeds extremist responses. Arm the rebels in Syria, with full knowledge that the outcome may bring some 'bad guys' to power. Don't suppose that the bankrupt strategies of client armies supplemented by timid injections of American ground forces are better than the less risky policy of supporting local forces but letting them choose their own futures. And do grow up about 'bad guys'.