“First do no harm” is the famous dictum drilled into newly minted doctors as they begin to practice medicine. The phrase is at the heart of the Hippocratic oath and reminds doctors that when treating a patient they must consider the possibility that when faced with a medical emergency doing nothing might be the best course lest they make matters worse for the patient.
Perhaps it is time to invent a foreign policy version of the Hippocratic oath for American politicians to discourage them from assuming that the phrase “American leadership” means that without active intervention in geopolitical problems anywhere in the world the United States is not doing its job. This interpretation of American leadership rests on the conviction that by using its military, the most powerful by far in the world, the United States can shape events to its own liking.
That the United States not only can use its power to force a resolution to complicated local problems but must do so for the common good is accepted by a wide spectrum of Americans of all political persuasions. Condoleezza Rice, former secretary of state, explained to the delegates to the 2012 Republican Convention why she thought America must always lead:
“There is no choice, because one of two things will happen if we don’t lead. Either no one will lead and there will be chaos, or someone will fill the vacuum who does not share our values. My fellow Americans, we do not have a choice. We cannot be reluctant to lead.”
Over the last 12 years this belief in the universal indispensability of American leadership has had disastrous results. First in Iraq and then in Afghanistan, American leadership has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, including at least 6,500 U.S. troops, at a cost to the United States of trillions of dollars.
These quixotic quests for forcible creation of stable democracies at the heart of the Middle East and at the crossroads of Central Asia have led instead to opposite results. American leadership destroyed the balance of power in the Middle East and transformed Iraq into a failed state; in Afghanistan American intervention has done little besides adding to the corruption, creating scores of new Afghan millionaires and saddling the country with a military that it cannot afford.
Far from learning from these disastrous experiences in faraway lands, there is now increasing talk in Congress to demonstrate American leadership in Syria by intervening militarily in its civil war. Fortunately, congressional pressure to intervene in Syria is getting little traction, thanks to determined push-back by the Pentagon.
The nation’s top military officer, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee last week and forcefully countered Sen. John McCain, who is convinced American leadership requires military intervention in Syria: “Recent U.S. military experience should counsel caution since the introduction of military force can make things worse.”
The phrase “American leadership” used to mean Americans stepping out to help countries around the world by extending a hand of friendship and providing assistance the countries needed. Today the phrase stands for attempts by the United States to militarily convert societies and countries to conform to American beliefs and serve American interests.
This is a tragic reversal of the face most Americans want to show to the rest of the world, which is why a foreign policy version of Hippocrates’ famous dictum — first do no harm — ought to be adopted by American politicians as the operating principle of American leadership in the 21st century.
Sarwar A. Kashmeri is adjunct professor at Norwich University and a fellow with the Foreign Policy Association. He lives in Reading.MORE IN Perspective
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