The Dangers of Idealism: How America Destabilized the Middle East

Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation

For the last 25 years, the U.S. has based its foreign policy on a sense of primacy and idealism rather than restraint and realism, says William Ruger, Vice President for Research and Policy, Charles Koch Foundation. Ruger asserts that the U.S. failed to recognize the human and economic cost of international military and political intervention. "We've really opened up all kinds of challenges in this attempt to open up an exemplar for the Middle East. We actually have created an exemplar," he says, "an exemplar of what can go wrong if you engage in the world without first thinking carefully about what is necessary for American safety, and what the unintended consequences of our behavior could be..." The Charles Koch Foundation aims to further understanding of how US foreign policy affects American people and societal well-being. Through grants, events, and collaborative partnerships, the institute is working to stretch the boundaries of foreign policy research and debate by discussing ideas in strategy, trade, and diplomacy that often go unheeded in the US capital. For more information, visit

  • Transcript


William Ruger: U.S. foreign policy over the last 15 to 25 years hasn’t really been working on delivering the goods, on making sure that America is safe and secure, and at the same time being cognizant of the economic and human costs of our engagements.

If the United States had followed a more realist or restrained approach to the world then it’s not as if Libya or Iraq would be thriving liberal democracies. A foreign policy of restraint isn’t going to create heaven on Earth—but neither is a policy of primacy.

In fact, primacy has often led the United States to create situations where there’s greater instability, more problems, lots of unintended consequences that have spilled over to other places. And Iraq is a perfect example of that. ISIS would not exist in Iraq had it not been for the United States opening Pandora’s box by our regime-change efforts. And that obviously spilled over to places like Syria. You’d also have some of these problems with our allies like Turkey related to some of the issues dealing with the Kurds.

The problem is that these war games expanded well beyond what was possible, and again the U.S. really thought through what the ideal would be without thinking about the constraints that meant reality would look a lot different than that ideal. It would be great if Afghanistan were a liberal democracy, thriving economically, and not a place where folks like Al-Qaeda could operate out of. The problem is that that wasn’t really in the cards.

And so you had situations, for example, like in Helmand, where General McChrystal sent “government in a box.” And what ended up happening, as General McChrystal later said, is that you got a bleeding ulcer in that country. So these efforts at trying to nation build are often unnecessary for American’s core security interests and really impossible to realize in any kind of short run, and at a cost that we really think is appropriate given what we need to achieve as opposed to what might be ideal.

And so we’ve really opened up all kinds of challenges in this attempt to create an exemplar for the Middle East. We actually have created an exemplar: an exemplar of what could go wrong if you engage in the world without first thinking carefully about what is necessary for American safety and what those unintended consequences of our behavior could be—and how that spills back over into the United States in terms of the effects on Americans, the effects on our system of government, and our civil liberties, and really thinking about those human costs because often times we forget that there is a real price to be paid.

So, for example, when the United States has intervened in places like Iraq and Libya there’s been a huge human cost with thousands of American lives lost, tens of thousands of Americans harmed by that conflict, and a real human cost at home on families and communities. Not to mention the cost to those who were ostensibly trying to help in places like Libya and Iraq.
And so there are lots of unintended consequences of not following a more prudential or realistic approach to the world. And what restraint tries to do, or realism, is to really be cautious about that. To think about second-order consequences. To think about the human and financial costs, and to put that in the calculus before you reach for the sword or the bayonet to try to achieve American foreign policy goals.

So Libya is a classic case of a well-intentioned policy gone awry. So the argument was that the United States needed to get engaged as part of a responsibility to protect when conflict emerged in eastern Libya.

Unfortunately for the United States the consequences of this well-intentioned set of policies did not turn out the way we wanted it to. And this is a common problem in foreign policy, and something that a more realistic approach would try to remedy.

Namely in Libya we had a situation where we harmed those who were ostensibly trying to help—namely Libyan society. Libya is an unstable country with rival parties trying to control the government. There’s also been the problem that terrorist organizations have come to Libya; arms have spilled out of Libya, helping destabilize the region. Think about a place like Mali that was destabilized by the spillover effects of Libya. It also harmed our counter-proliferation efforts.
If you’re Kim Jong-Un in North Korea and you see what happened to a state like Libya that stopped engaging in a nuclear weapons program and that was working with the West in terms of counter-proliferation, then it’s no wonder that other states might be wary of giving up these programs or cooperating with the United States and the international institutions that are trying to prevent nuclear proliferation.

Look what happened to Muammar Gaddafi, the leader of Libya: he was eventually killed, the regime was toppled. And so there was a very clear lesson that was learned by the rest of the world when you saw that. Not to mention if you pivot over to Iraq where you saw a country like Iraq where the United States also engaged in regime change.

So even if these attempts are regime change were well-intentioned, the results have not been positive for America’s security and safety. Instead it’s actually harmed stability in these parts of the world thus harming American interests.