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by Haviland Smith

American foreign policy must be based on American moral beliefs, yet it inevitably encounters problems in dealing with regions where belief systems are fundamentally different, such as the Middle East. Moreover, this essay argues, domestic political pressures based on moral and religious beliefs have divorced U.S. foreign policy from objective U.S. interests in the Middle East. The author believes that a more rational policy debate may at last be getting underway. – Ed.

America faces some grim realities when it attempts to formulate foreign policy for regions in the world that cleave to belief systems that are radically different from our American moral and ethical foundation.  The problems come in two different ways:  First, for American foreign policy to be supported by Americans it must be consistent with our belief system.  Second, once formulated and implemented, to be successful it must also be relevant to the beliefs of the region in which it is being implemented.   When belief systems are radically different, these two realities are seldom compatible.  This could not be more true than it is for American policy in the Middle East today.

Afghanistan’s Marriage Law

American and other Western media have learned recently of the existence of a new marriage law in Afghanistan that they have characterized as legalizing rape within marriage and forbidding married women from leaving the house without permission.

It has made good copy and, in playing on the “backward and anti-human rights” aspects of the law, the media, at last count, have managed to incite protests from the British, United States, French, New Zealand, and Canadian governments, as well as the United Nations and numerous feminine rights organizations. All have responded with righteous condemnation, a completely understandable reaction.

But this melodrama is interesting not just because of its inflammatory allegations of legalized rape, or for discussions of the appropriateness of the Western response to the story. It is far more interesting in the way it illuminates the problems that exist for the West in general, and the United States in particular, in formulating and implementing foreign policies for the Muslim world.

Mohammad Asif Mohseni, a senior Afghan cleric and a main drafter of the law, has said that a woman must have sex on demand with her husband at least every four days, unless she is ill or would be harmed by intercourse. He amplified, saying, “It is essential for the woman to submit to the man’s sexual desire.”

In addition, he has said that the legislation cannot be revoked or changed because it was enacted through the bi-cameral legislative process and signed by President Karzai.

However, Mohseni’s most interesting and telling comment was that “The Westerners claim that they have brought democracy to Afghanistan. What does democracy mean? It means government by the people for the people. They should let the people use these democratic rights.”  He further condemned the Western outcry saying that Western countries were trying to thwart democracy because the results did not please them.

In our culture, forced sex in or out of marriage is equated to rape. It is therefore at least inappropriate and probably illegal here at home.

In Afghanistan, the law that in our eyes “legalizes rape,” was drafted after three years of debate by Islamic scholars and Afghan legislators. Even though it was condemned by many Afghan women, it was supported by hundreds of other women who affixed their signatures or thumbprints to it.

Looking at the new law through our cultural filter, the American government and most Americans roundly condemn such legislation as at least unethical or immoral, probably as illegal, and certainly as unacceptable.

If we were to support this law as a foreign policy position, how would the National Organization of Women, the ACLU, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, to name but a few, react?  How much support would such a foreign policy get from the American people?

On the other hand, the Afghan government as well as most Afghan men and significant numbers of Afghan women, accept it as reflecting the Koran, Sharia law, and tradition, the bases of Islamic law.  How should we expect them to react when we tell them how to live their lives?  It’s easy to say that there are universal standards that apply in these cases – that they concern fundamental human rights.  And for us, they do.

Are Human Rights Universal?

However, consider the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UNDHR). No matter how appropriate and universal it seems to us, it has never been universally accepted. Quite the opposite, it has precipitated a nagging debate that has persisted over the last 60 years. Muslim countries have always objected, saying that the document was written in the Judeo-Christian tradition and as such failed to acknowledge the cultural and religious differences of Islamic countries, thus denying Muslims the freedom and right to a dignified life under their universally accepted Sharia law.

How could anyone possibly object to such fundamental truths as those in the UNDHR, we ask?

Much as we would like to think that our laws and traditions are a perfect reflection of mankind, there are plenty of other humans who would argue that point. Those differences are greatest where the belief systems are farthest apart.

All human beings are victims or beneficiaries of their own ethnocentric cultural environments and biases. Laws exist as contemporary forms of cultural traditions, and when one culture begins to tell another very different culture what is right and wrong, there is bound to be friction and conflict.

Who are we to say that our culture is right and theirs is wrong? And yet, that is invariably the problem when we start to tell disparate parts of the world how to run their lives.

Politics and National Interests

Formulating foreign policy in the United States has never been an easy matter.  As a land of immigrants, America has always had to grapple with the strongly held interests of those citizens who came here from the areas concerned.  A further complicating issue is the range of passionately held opinions ranging from right to left that flourish in our democracy and have always existed here.  A policy that satisfies one constituency is often likely to infuriate another.

The result of this is that U.S. foreign policy is more often than not formulated not on the basis of the objective facts that exist in the area concerned, but on the basis of the internal political needs of the political party in power.  In this context, it is normally understood that our policies have to be consistent with our values.  If foreign policy for a given region is out of sync with American values, that fact will cause political problems for the administration in power.

This conundrum is easily observed in the formulation of our Middle East policy.  The issue of Israel and Palestine has been on the books at least since 1967 and perhaps since 1948.  On the one hand, we have a passionately strong and effective pro-Israeli lobby that ranks among the most powerful and successful lobbies in Washington.  This amorphous grouping includes Americans who are the most unequivocal and passionate supporters of Israel.  That group is both Jewish and Christian and includes the Christian Zionists who believe that the second coming of Christ will not occur until Jews occupy all the biblical lands, including Samaria and Judea, which are currently – at least partially – under Palestinian control.

With the horrendous legacy of the Holocaust to unite and motivate them, many American Jews join the Christian Zionists in support of Israel and her territorial ambitions as mirrored in the settler program.  This group is often called “the Israeli Lobby.”

On the other hand, there is a growing group of Americans, both Christian and Jew, who look very differently at the situation.   Their views have spawned increasing interest in the two-state solution and can be seen in the birth of new pro-Israel but also pro-peace groups like J Street.  They see Israel’s West Bank settlements, as well as recent Israeli military activities in Lebanon and Gaza, as counterproductive to their notion of a decent future for Arabs and Jews alike.

This group includes a number of Americans, including foreign policy experts, who simply believe that there is a growing divergence in the perceived national interests of the United States and Israel.  This situation has been aggravated by the recent bellicosity of the new right-leaning Israeli government and its stated animosity toward Iran.  This has been manifested in increasing support for a two-state solution and opposition to the settler movement and to Israeli military aggressiveness.

In the past, it was a politically accepted although rarely tested premise that only rigorously pro-Israel parties, politicians, and policies could win American elections.  If a candidate appeared not to toe the Israeli line or showed a weakness on matters that hard-line Israeli supporters did not favor, it was political suicide.  And that may have been true.

Today that seems to be less true.  Perhaps a combination of Gaza, Lebanon, and Iran, abetted by the legacy of 100% support of “Israel right or wrong,” has tipped the balance a bit.  The beginnings of a discussion on our national interests in the Middle East, of the healthy kind that always has existed in Israel, but which has been politically suppressed here, is beginning to creep into the national dialog.

Defining Interests

Just what then are our national interests in the Middle East if we define national interests as our country’s survival and security, its wealth, economic growth, and power, and the preservation of its culture?

Survival and security, at this particular moment, pertain to terrorism and to the existence of nuclear weapons in Pakistan and their possible development in Iran.  Wealth, economic growth, and power can clearly encompass oil, trade, our balance of trade, and the national debt incurred by our military activities in the region; and all of those things can be wrapped up in the effect, largely negative at this time, of our foreign policy on the inclination of other nations to support us in our national interests.

We thus find ourselves in the difficult position of facing the fact that Policy “A,” which may very well be the objectively ideal policy to employ in Country “A,” is unacceptable either to the American people or the people of Country A for emotional, philosophical, or cultural reasons, thus making it impractical and unusable.

There really is nothing new here.  This situation has probably obtained in democracies since they began.  In trying to deal with the problem, U.S. presidents have generally gone one of two ways.  They have either done everything as much as possible in secrecy – consider Iraq or Viet Nam – or they have done it openly while trying to help the American public understand what they are up to and why – consider FDR.

There is a lesson here for President Obama.  America has reached this contemporary impasse in the Middle East for two very basic reasons.  There has never been the kind of open debate in America that exists in Israel about the day-to-day happenings in the region.  Such debate has been stifled by one-sided, pro-Israeli American organizations.  That has meant that, in general, Americans have never had sufficient information to enable them to come to valid conclusions about U.S. policy in the region.

That, in turn, means that far too many Americans are unable to understand that American and Israeli national interests, where more often than not congruous, are not always the same.  It is when they are not, as in the case of the possibility of an attack on Iran, that we need to act on the basis of our own national interests in order to avoid very real disaster.

A More Rational Approach

It is difficult if not impossible to change the values of the inhabitants of countries where we wish to apply any foreign policy, but we can surely do better at home.

Absent a real understanding of Islam and the differences between us, it is incredibly difficult, as we have seen over the past seven years, to conceive and implement a successful foreign policy based on American cultural values for a region with wildly different cultural biases.  FDR overcame a similar problem in his handling of American entry into World War II by explaining in excruciating detail why that entry was necessary.

We could use that kind of approach today to our problems in the Middle East or in any other region where our cultural differences are markedly divergent.

This rational approach to foreign policy is a difficult sell.  Despite the fact that the U.S. government and academia were full of experts who really did and still do understand the cultural and political dynamics of the Middle East, we have been unable to make our policies there rational over the past decade.  In fact, many of those policies have been directly counterproductive to our national goals and interests.

The old, irrational way of doing business into which so many administrations have fallen over the decades, has done us so much damage that any move in a more rational direction is worth every bit of the time and effort it will demand.   And it all starts with a totally free and open domestic debate conducted by our national leadership about the Middle East and our interests, policies, and goals there.  For the first time in decades, that may now be meaningfully underway under the Obama administration.End.


Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.


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