I recently spoke with Dr. John David Lewis about American foreign policy, the uprisings in the Muslim world, the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the light that history can shed on such matters. Dr. Lewis is visiting associate professor in the philosophy, politics, and economics program at Duke University and he’s the author, most recently, of Nothing Less Than Victory: Decisive Wars and the Lessons of History. —Craig Biddle


Craig Biddle: Thank you for joining me, John.

John David Lewis: I’m glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

CB: Before we dive into some questions about U.S. foreign policy and the situation in the Middle East, would you say a few words about your work at Duke? What courses do you teach and how do they relate to foreign policy and the history of war?

JL: The courses I teach all bring the thought of the ancients into the modern day and always dive to the moral level. For example, I teach freshman seminars on ancient political thought. I also teach a course on the justice of market exchange in which I draw upon the thought of Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, etcetera, and approach the question from a moral perspective. In regard to foreign policy and the history of war, I just finished a graduate course at Duke University on Thucydides and the Realist tradition in international relations. International relations studies have been dominated by a school of thought called Realism. This course explores the ideas of Thucydides and how they’ve translated through history into modern international relations studies and ultimately into the formulation of foreign policy in the modern day.

I also teach courses at the University of North Carolina on the moral foundations of capitalism, which use Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged as its core text. I’ve been involved in speaking to Duke University medical students on health care where, again, I approach the issue from a moral perspective, namely, from the principle of individual rights.

CB: That’s quite an array of courses, and I know you speak at various conferences and events across the country as well, not to mention your book projects. Your productivity is inspiring.

Let’s turn your historical lights to some recent events. On the second of May, U.S. SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. This is certainly worthy of celebration, but it’s also almost ten years after he and his Islamist cohorts murdered nearly three thousand Americans on American soil. In the meantime, America has gone to war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where more than five thousand additional American soldiers have been killed, and now we’re at war in Libya as well. In all of this, neither the Bush administration nor the Obama administration has so much as touched the regimes that everyone knows are the main sponsors of terrorism, those in Iran and Saudi Arabia. What’s more, neither administration has identified the enemy as Islamists and the states that sponsor them. Bush called the enemy “terror” and “evildoers,” and Obama, uncomfortable with such “clarity,” speaks instead of “man-caused disasters” and calls for “overseas contingency operations.” Are there historical precedents for such massive evasions, and whether there are or aren’t, what has led America to this level of lunacy?

JL: That’s a very interesting question, with many levels of answers. The first thing to do is to congratulate the Navy SEALs and the military in taking this evil man out in a flawlessly executed operation. Congratulations are also due Obama insofar as he knew there was a good chance that bin Laden was in this compound and authorized the operation without notifying Pakistan in advance. That is very telling: Obama wouldn’t have done that without the advice of his major advisers, which indicates that everyone at the highest level of the administration—I mean, everyone—knows that Pakistan is not a reliable ally. Pakistan, in some way or another, with the complicit agreement of at least some members of the government, had allowed bin Laden to be there for years. His compound is less than two miles from a major military academy in Pakistan; imagine him hiding out in a house two miles from West Point and no one noticing he was there. So the Obama administration deserves some credit for recognizing that Pakistan is not a reliable ally and acting on the basis of that knowledge.

Now, why did it take ten years to get this man and why in the meantime did we get involved in wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya that are, at best, secondary to the main conflict? I think two main factors are at play here, one that I’ll address now and one that I’ll come back to later.

The first factor is altruism. The fight has gone out of Americans in the sense that we’re really afraid to hurt anyone on the other side, especially anyone who isn’t a direct combatant. We got into these wars for the sake of foreign peoples, not for the sake of our own freedom. I spoke to troops coming back from Iraq who said that their rules of engagement did not allow them to shoot someone carrying an AK-47 automatic weapon on the side of the road until the weapon was pointed at them, at which point they were allowed to take him out. This is the kind of thinking—literally sacrificing our men for the benefit of our enemies—that has come to dictate how we fight wars.

Take this to a higher level, and we realize that we deal with other nations the same way in our diplomatic efforts. We don’t want to offend the Saudis, partly because we get oil from them and partly because they pretend to be our allies. And, in some particular instances, their positions are consonant with ours. But their number one goal is the spread of Islam, and that goal couldn’t be further from America’s interests. Yet, because we don’t want to offend the Saudis, we evade this fact and pretend they’re our friends, at great risk to ourselves.

Similarly, as I mentioned earlier, we know that the Pakistanis support terrorists. Western Pakistan, in an area close to Afghanistan, is home to the prime breeding grounds for the world’s jihadists. Yet, rather than confront this fact, we pretend that Pakistan is an ally and materially support its government. This kind of altruistic thinking, placing the feelings and the interest of others above our own, has become a powerful force in American foreign policy. . . .

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