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A Must-Do Foreign Policy

Was there ever an American president who publicly told more people on this planet what they must do than George W. Bush?  I suspect not.  He’s gone, of course, but America’s version of a “must-do” foreign policy didn’t exactly leave the scene with him -- the only difference being that from Saudi Arabia and Bahrain to Libya, Iraq, and Pakistan, ever more places are taking those “musts” ever less seriously.

Just the other day I noticed this lead paragraph in a New York Times piece on Yemen, a country boiling with protests aimed at unseating its autocratic ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh: “The United States, which long supported Yemen’s president, even in the face of recent widespread protests, has now quietly shifted positions and has concluded that he is unlikely to bring about the required reforms and must be eased out of office, according to American and Yemeni officials.”

Admit it: whatever you think of Saleh, or the movement to unseat him (if you think about either at all), the idea that the U.S., only recently eagerly supporting him and his military forces as a bulwark against al-Qaeda, must now “ease him out of office” reeks of a very special kind of hubris.  Behind all this lies a kind of institutional self-love, Washington's deeply embedded belief that we are still the only superpower in town and all situations should be amenable to our shifting needs and desires. 

Increasingly, as Andrew Bacevich, the bestselling author of Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War, indicates in his latest TomDispatch post, even when we send in the planes, drones, and missiles, as we did in recent years in Yemen and have just done in Libya, those “musts” have a remarkable way of working out rather badly -- to the eternal surprise of Washington. 

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