America’s Self-Crippled Foreign Policy - The Objective Standard

An Interview with Yaron Brook, Elan Journo, and Alex Epstein

I recently interviewed Dr. Brook, Mr. Journo, and Mr. Epstein of the Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights. Mr. Journo is the editor of a new book, Winning the Unwinnable War: America’s Self-Crippled Response to Islamic Totalitarianism (Lexington Books, 2009. 250 pp. $27.95 [paperback]), which contains essays by all three men. The book is scheduled for release this November and can be preordered through the Ayn Rand Bookstore ( This interview was conducted orally and retains the character of an informal discussion. —Craig Biddle

Craig Biddle: Thank you for joining me, gentlemen, and congratulations on the publication of your book, Winning the Unwinnable War. As the book is about a proper vs. an improper foreign policy, let me begin by asking what you regard as the proper overarching principle of American foreign policy and why.

Yaron Brook: As we argue in the book, the principle that should guide our foreign policy is the same principle that should guide all governmental action: Our government should protect the individual rights of Americans. That’s our government’s only proper function. Deriving from that same purpose, our foreign policy should work to protect the lives and the property of individual Americans—from threats that are initiated outside the borders of this country. Clearly one major threat that the government must be on guard for—and retaliate against—is that of countries or groups launching a war against us or sending out terrorists to cause the mass slaughter of Americans. Other kinds of threats include threats to the property of Americans: Think of the pirates off the coast of Somalia taking ships for ransom. It is part of the government’s job to secure our right to property, to protect our ability to trade freely, and to prevent our property from being stolen by thugs on the high seas.

Elan Journo: Hearing this, most Americans would likely nod in agreement—obviously, our government ought to keep us safe from foreign enemies. And if you listen to our policymakers, they’ll package everything they do in terms of serving American interests. But as we argue in our book—the facts tell a different story. From examining the intentions and actions of our military in the field, it becomes obvious that what animated Bush’s policy was the notion of bringing elections and social services to Iraq and Afghanistan—not protecting American lives. And while Obama wants to be seen as the anti-Bush, his approach is animated by a similar goal. In his high-profile speech in Cairo last summer, he promised to fund and create “centers of scientific excellence in Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia.” What’s common here is the moral idea behind these policies—the idea that America must serve the meek and needy of the earth. We argue in the book that this conventional outlook on morality has shaped American foreign policy, and that the effect has been inimical to our liberty and security.

CB: Some argue that the absence of a terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 proves that the Bush administration’s “forward strategy of freedom” was a success. What do you make of this claim?

EJ: It is grossly myopic to portray that fact as a success achieved thanks to Bush’s policy. The standard to apply here should not be the absence of another 9/11—the standard should be the thorough defeat of the enemy that attacked us that Tuesday morning. Judged by a rational standard, Bush’s policy has left us worse off.

The “forward strategy of freedom”—Bush’s misleading name for his crusade to bring elections to the Middle East—lived up to the name we give it in the book: the forward strategy of failure. It served only to empower our enemies—the Islamists—by granting them legitimacy and political control, for example, in Iraq and the Palestinian territories. Near the end of Bush’s time in office, some of his supporters began trying to salvage his reputation by claiming that the “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq has worked a miracle. But a look at the facts refutes that idea. In chapter 6 we explore what actually happened. Washington’s policy was to throw around wads of cash so that insurgents who were murdering Americans would switch sides—for as long as the money flows.

Further, many Islamists used Iraq as a training ground and have taken their battle-tested expertise to other fronts, including Afghanistan. Suicide bombings were once unheard of in Afghanistan; now they’re commonplace. There were thirty such attacks in the first five years of the Afghanistan war. In the first six months of last year, there were more than twelve hundred. The Afghan-Pakistan border is now a hotbed of jihadist training camps. Many terrorist plots, like the plot to blow up airliners crossing the Atlantic, trace back to that part of the world. The Islamist threat not only endured but grew worse under Bush—who watched as the most active sponsor of Islamist terrorism, Iran, chased nuclear weapons. This is what passes for “success”?

YB: It’s crucial to look at foreign policy issues from a broad context. The relevant consideration here is whether Americans are safer, not whether we provide Iraqis with uninterrupted electricity flow, unclogged sewers, and a respite in their gruesome ethno-sectarian civil war. And the fact is, Americans are not safer.

Remember that close to five thousand American soldiers—brave, heroic, patriotic soldiers—have died in Iraq. The same thing is happening in Afghanistan, and I think the casualties are going to mount. Because of Washington’s perverse strategy in regard to Islamic totalitarianism, we have suffered more casualties since 9/11 than on 9/11 itself. These casualties may be soldiers, but we must not think of them as “just soldiers.” They are American citizens who have died because of the corrupt foreign policy that placed their lives at the service of Iraqis, Afghanis, and our worst enemies—rather than in defense of the individual rights of Americans, which is what they volunteered to fight for and the proper purpose of our military.

If anyone can claim genuine success in the shadow of Bush’s policy, it is the Islamist regime in Iran. Bush left it untouched, and, by the end of his term, had ramped up the offers of appeasement—an approach that Obama has taken up with zeal.

And if any credit is to be given for the fact that there have been no more terrorist attacks on U.S. soil, it should be given to our intelligence services and the brave operatives who work for them. After 9/11, these agencies stepped up and made it more difficult for terrorists to inflict direct harm on this country. They have been continuously undercut by the Bush administration and now the Obama administration’s lack of a victory-seeking foreign policy.

I worry that Obama’s systematic attacks over the past few months on the CIA, his attack on “extraordinary interrogation tactics” (i.e., “torture”)—on our ability to extract information from terrorists, his insistence on sending some of these terrorists back to the Middle East—and his general attempt to appease the Arab world will have a negative impact on the vigilance of our intelligence community. Many of our best people in the CIA are now afraid of legal prosecution, and many are leaving the agency. This is a huge injustice, and its effect will be to significantly increase the risk of another terrorist attack in the United States and to further embolden our worst enemies all over the world.

CB: The Wall Street Journal recently reported that General McChrystal’s strategy in Afghanistan “puts a premium on safeguarding the Afghan population rather than hunting down militants.” What do you make of that strategy?

EJ: This same strategy was at the heart of Bush’s policy—and it meant that U.S. forces were never allowed to fight all out to defeat the Taliban. The Taliban and its jihadist allies scattered, then regrouped, and now are fighting to control Afghanistan and also Pakistan. U.S. casualties in the first eight months of 2009 are already higher than all of 2008, and more than double the toll during the first three years of the campaign. A key point we make in Winning the Unwinnable War is that this “compassionate” policy is self-destructive of American lives and security. It’s central to what has made the war seem unwinnable. Now we’re seeing that policy being implemented to the nth degree, and many more Americans—on the battlefield, and perhaps at home—will pay the price for it.

YB: In a chapter on “Just War Theory,” Alex and I discuss the moral ideas informing the policy you’re seeing unfold in Afghanistan. Those ideas—primarily the embrace of selflessness as a moral ideal—are why America today is unwilling to wage real war to defeat its enemies. Americans used to fight to win; think of General Sherman during the U.S. Civil War or Patton or MacArthur in World War II. But our policy in Afghanistan—seeking to win the love of Afghanis, rather than defeating the Islamists—can only serve to further embolden our enemies.

CB: With President Obama planning to pull most of our troops out of Iraq by next August and to increase the number of U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan, politicians and pundits are mired in a debate as to whether or not this is the right course of action: Should we or should we not be pulling troops out of Iraq and deploying them to Afghanistan? How would you answer this question?

YB: Just as Bush did on several occasions, Obama warns us not to expect “victory” in Afghanistan. And top U.S. military officials tell us the Taliban are winning. It is immoral to send any troops to fight in any war that our leaders believe to be—and through their policies have made—unwinnable. More broadly, it is outrageous that the mighty United States should find itself with two unresolved conflicts like these. In a sense we’re in an impossible fix, because neither option you mentioned is particularly good, nor is it clear which option is the least bad. This is precisely the kind of situation that our foreign policy should never get us into.

As for Iraq, what purpose do American troops serve there today? In what way does their presence make Americans safer or help in winning this war? Leaving the Middle East today would be horrible—it would embolden our enemies and make it more difficult to deal with future threats. But staying only places our troops in harm’s way, with no real benefit to U.S. security.

EJ: The options you bring up in the original question, Craig, are emblematic of the dominant approach to foreign policy. This is the ad hoc, crisis-management approach of dealing with each flash point or crisis in isolation, and throwing some policy at it to see what “works.” And “works” here means something like “makes the crisis momentarily less urgent.” The view we convey in the book is that America can achieve victory, but only if it adopts a principled, integrated approach. We can crush Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Islamists in Afghanistan-Pakistan. We can deal with Iraq. We can deal with sundry hostile nations in the region. To do that, though, requires a larger project that begins with defining and defeating our primary enemy—the Islamist regime in Tehran, which inspires and leads the Islamist movement. Our goal should be to defeat that movement and its followers, so that the Islamist goal of imposing sharia rule comes to be widely acknowledged as a lost cause.

CB: The regime in Iran is working feverishly to build nuclear weapons and may be only a year away from completing a nuclear bomb. The regime continues to support Hezbollah and Hamas, and the Iranian mullahs continue to call for the annihilation of Israel and death to America. Meanwhile, Obama has called for a moratorium on Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Israel has complied, Secretary of Defense Clinton has shifted from saying that Iranian nukes are unacceptable to now saying that the United States might extend a defense umbrella over the region (whatever that means) to protect our allies in that area (whomever she construes them to be) from the Iranian threat, and Obama is seeking dialogue, as he promised in his presidential bid, with Iran. Why can Americans not see the danger here?

Alex Epstein: The arc of our response to Iran, not just since the nuclear issue arose in the last decade, but for the last three decades, is illustrative of everything that is wrong with American foreign policy—namely, the failure to identify our enemies in unequivocal, moral terms, and an unwillingness to destroy enemies when necessary. When Khomeini-backed thugs stormed the U.S. Embassy [in 1979] and took hostages for 444 days, it should have been made clear to Americans that this is an illegitimate, barbaric, militant enemy regime dedicated to the destruction of Western values and freedom and thus to the destruction of America. If our leaders had done that, the case for using military force to destroy the new regime would have been clear-cut, but they didn’t. (At the time, Ayn Rand said that if we did not act with force immediately, we would never live it down. We still haven’t.)

Instead, everyone from Carter on refused to identify Iran for what it was, and thus was able to rationalize inaction in the face of acts of war, including repeated, Iran-sponsored terrorist attacks and, just as bad, the Iranian death decree against Salman Rushdie and his American publisher for an “un-Islamic” act of free speech, The Satanic Verses.

The failure to identify the enemy clearly, along with the mockery modern statesmen have made of the concept of “war” with the altruistic, faux wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, have left us in a place where we are afraid to go to war against anyone—since we know it would accomplish nothing—so we have every intellectual incentive to pretend there is no need for war. We pretended that “diplomacy”—a euphemism for appeasement in this case—would work to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons, and as it has failed time and again, we have just further and further rationalized that Iran having nuclear weapons is not such a bad thing.

And as if Iran wasn’t bad enough, there is no reason to think this wouldn’t happen elsewhere. If threats emerged from Russia, China, Venezuela, or anywhere else, what reason do we have to think that our leaders would do anything of substance until mass American blood had been shed?

The essence of a proper American war policy is an ability to clearly identify the enemies that threaten this country, and the willingness to do what is necessary to end the threat with minimum loss of American life and liberty. We are scarily far from that policy.

CB: Following the fraudulent election in Iran last June, which kept Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in place as the figurehead of the theocracy, millions of Iranians have protested in the streets, many have been arrested, and some have been shot dead. The Obama administration referred to this conflict as a “debate.” What do you make of that, and what would have been a proper U.S. response to the recent events in Iran?

YB: The Obama administration’s response to the demonstrations against the regime in Iran was pathetic and undermined our national interest.

It is not clear whether the opposition in the streets of Iran was truly pro-American, pro-Western, and pro-freedom. But we know this much: They oppose the current regime in Iran—and that is a good thing. To me the most hopeful sign was not the protests against the election, but rather the fact that the protesters were willing to stand up to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khameni. The Supreme Leader is like the pope: He is the guy who communicates with God, and his word is taken to be the word of God. The fact that hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of Iranians were willing to stand up to the guy representing the word of God is a huge step forward for Iran, a positive step that should have been encouraged and supported wholeheartedly by the intellectual and political leaders in the United States.

If there are elements in Iran that we could support who would overthrow the Ahmadinejad regime and establish a pro-Western government, then we should jump at the opportunity to help them. Even when the people who rise up against a totalitarian state are not our ideal allies, they deserve moral credit from us for the very fact that they are willing to stand up to totalitarianism. At the very least Obama should have verbally and morally supported the effort, but he might even have supported the effort by providing the opposition forces with weapons. We would be far better off if there was a civil war in Iran that wrested from the clerical regime its control over the country. We would be far better off with even a marginally more modern regime in Iran than what we have today. If there is any chance that by helping the opposition we could get rid of the Iranian nuclear program without going to war, we might escape ultimately having to put American troops in harm’s way.

With American backing, the protests could have turned out better than some of us might have expected—that is, there might have been true pro-freedom elements within the Iranian opposition who could make inroads toward establishing a relatively free government that is supportive of the West. But the Obama administration has crushed whatever hopes the students and other supporters in Iran had of overturning the regime.

Obama offered a response that was pathetic, appeasing, and ultimately destructive to U.S. interests in the Middle East. To call, as Obama did, the kind of violence we saw in Iran a “debate”—in which one side wields force against its own citizens in its internal affairs and violence against Americans in its external affairs—is horrific, immoral, and a huge injustice to the Americans who are going to suffer the consequences of an emboldened Iranian regime and to the millions of Iranians who bravely protest the authoritarian regime that they live under. Obama’s disgraceful response vis-à-vis Iran can only work to sustain that regime into the future.

CB: You mentioned American intellectuals. Would you elaborate on the role they play in U.S. foreign policy?

YB: The major impact American intellectuals—especially those in academia—have on our foreign policy is that they undermine Americans’ moral confidence in our goodness and thwart Americans’ ability to unequivocally identify the evil of those who seek to destroy us. A country not sure of its own right to exist is sure to be weak in the face of those who challenge that right.

For various reasons, a great number of American intellectuals have long been fundamentally anti-American; many, especially in the universities, have a deep-rooted hatred of the very base and core of this country. These are the intellectuals who teach that America and Israel are responsible for every bad thing that happens in the world today, that every Palestinian and Iranian rationalization for violence is legitimate, that we are the real terrorists. The Obama administration is particularly infected with these intellectuals. A deep-seated anti-Americanism pervades this administration and its State Department—and this is going to have tragic consequences. We know from history that the consequence of appeasement, the consequence of pretending that our enemies are good people with legitimate grievances, is that our enemies grow stronger and we grow weaker.

AE: Intellectuals are the prime movers of a culture. Whether they specialize in political science, economics, or theoretical psychology, their ideas set the course of the culture in general. And those who specialize in foreign policy are no exception.

One of the themes Yaron and I elaborate in the two chapters we coauthored for Winning the Unwinnable War is the role of false, destructive ideas in rendering this war seemingly unwinnable—and those ideas are the product of intellectuals.

It is the job of intellectuals to identify the basic goals of foreign policy and the basic means by which to achieve them. Unfortunately, as we discuss in those chapters, the options they have offered us relegate us to choosing among policies that will lead to failure.

Broadly speaking, in modern discussion there are two basic approaches to foreign policy: the “realist” approach and the “neoconservative” approach. In the chapters, we argue that both approaches invariably lead to a failure to defeat the enemy—inaction and appeasement for “realism,” endless welfare wars for neoconservatism. Neither embraces a self-interested approach to foreign policy, in which the rights of Americans are the nonnegotiable end, and neither embraces whatever will most efficiently protect those rights as the nonnegotiable means. Both approaches failed even to consider the possibility of a self-assertive America that the tin-pot terrorist sponsors of the world would be terrified of angering. Both, more or less, take for granted the “Just War Theory” framework for evaluating when and how to go to war, a framework that, as we discuss in the book, renders victory impossible.

Hopefully, this book will cause existing intellectuals to reconsider the spectrum of theories of foreign policy that they have been taught and to consider the moral and practical nature of a foreign policy of rational self-interest.

CB: At the outset of this discussion, Yaron, you said that the proper overarching principle of American foreign policy is essentially the same as the overarching principle of proper government: to protect the rights of American citizens. What can Americans do toward encouraging our government to adopt this principle?

YB: Americans need to understand what individual rights and freedom really mean. They need to be willing to identify the principles on which this country was founded, to understand the origin of those principles, and to understand that those principles are consistent with human nature, with freedom, and—most importantly—with morality. The morality the American people need is a new morality of individualism, a morality based on rational self-interest where people are left free to pursue their own happiness without a paternalistic state telling us what we can and cannot do. We will never have the right foreign policy until we have the right political philosophy. And the right political philosophy is dependent on the right moral philosophy—which is where the real revolution is going to have to occur. We need to break the stranglehold that the ideology of altruism has on our culture and introduce to the American people—and encourage and help them to embrace—the morality of rational self-interest.

AE: I’d point readers to the source of the moral framework that we are writing from, and that is Ayn Rand’s ethical system of rational egoism. Her book The Virtue of Selfishness is must reading, and, in particular, I would recommended reading the “Introduction,” “The Objectivist Ethics,” “Collectivized Ethics,” “Man’s Rights,” and “The Nature of Government.” Those essays really give readers a solid foundation in what rights are and why they are truly the proper principles for a government to operate by, whether in domestic or foreign policy.

As for foreign policy, I obviously recommend Winning the Unwinnable War, as well as remaining informed about events as they develop and using the book’s analysis of the past as a guide for understanding the events of the future.

CB: Any closing comments?

YB: For a short time, right after 9/11, Americans acknowledged the seriousness of the situation, but that awareness has faded—even as the Islamist threat grows. This new book is a wake-up call for the American people and policymakers regarding the persistence of the Islamist threat—and an important resource for understanding how we got here and what we can do about it. It demonstrates that the strategy we have been following—the strategy of the Bush administration—is a strategy of defeat, a strategy that makes the war unwinnable. The book also presents a positive alternative, a strategy for actually winning the war. I encourage people to buy it, to read it, to get it out there.

And for more on the Ayn Rand Center’s commentary on foreign policy, I encourage everyone to visit our website:

CB: Thank you, gentlemen, and best success with the sales of your book.

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