‘US like a hammer, everywhere else in world just nails for it’ – US vet

The US is the biggest military spender in the world. The American president took pride in that fact, pointing out that it's as big as the next eight countries combined. Despite the steady flow of money, the wars that America are fighting in the world, particularly in the Middle East, are not going all too well, with Islamic State still running wild and the Taliban never ceasing their onslaughts. Does all that money spent on war yield any fruits, or it would've been better spent for education and fighting poverty? Why is number of conflicts America's gets itself involved in growing every day? Finally, with all this bloodshed, what is the US protecting itself from? We ask Veteran American Foreign Service officer, author and ambassador: Dan Simpson is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Veteran American Foreign Service officer, author, ambassador Dan Simpson, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us, sir. Now, in his State of the Union address, president Obama said he wants the U.S. to "avoid being the world's policeman". He actually says that year after year. At the same time, he has publicly proclaimed his belief in American exceptionalism and moral duty to get involved in the world's affairs multiple times. So, aren't those two ideas a bit contradictory?

Dan Simpson: Yes, they certainly are, and when we someone uses this expression, "American exceptionalism", I have to see the term in somewhat ironic terms: exceptional, perhaps, almost in terms of the damage that we have actually done. But, you know, American politicians are obliged to say things like that, because if they don't, some other politician would attack them for being "unpatriotic" or something of that sort. But of course, what we've done is exceptional, but it's exceptionally damaging.

SS: Now, during the same speech, the President boasted that countries "do not turn to Beijing or Moscow to solve their problems", but call Washington instead. Is that the case?

DS: No, I don't think so. I think that it is a multi-polar world. I would say that centers of it are, of course, Washington, there's no getting around it, but also Beijing and Moscow, and Brussels for the EU, and so on. I've just came back from a trip to South-East Asia, and I would say, very much, that America is incidental player in what takes place there. The big dogs of that region are China, Japan and India, and probably, South Korea for its economic importance.

SS: You know what, we're going to get to China a bit later, but before, I want to talk about Washington's policy towards interventions. Do you think it's changing? I mean, the U.S. still isn't sending troops on a large scale to fight in Syria or Iraq, except special forces, military advisors here and there...

DS: I noticed you added the term "large scale", because if you take the number of wars that we are still involved in in the world, especially in the Middle East, it's quite something. We're still in Iraq, which started in 2003, we're still in Afghanistan which started in 2001. We've wrecked Libya and it has not been repaired. We are helping the Saudis to destroy Yemen, to reduce it to rubble, and, of course, the other part of all that, is that the things that we've done in that region have also led to this migration problem. I mean, the people, who are on the run from the Middle East into Europe and causing all the problems for the EU and for Europeans in general, are conflicts that we have either provoked or added to.

SS: I know you've been calling for U.S. troops to be sent home from places like Afghanistan. But, you know, some withdrawals have already taken place, and now Islamic State and the Taliban are recapturing cities. Is it a responsible thing to do, to just leave and let places like Afghanistan slide back into chaos? I mean, especially, considering, how Americans kinda helped bring about the chaos?

DS: I think that the problems of Afghanistan are something that the Soviet Union learned about very well, quite some time ago. We have been there since 2001, and I wouldn't say that Afghanistan is any better off with us being there. After 9/11 we had to punish both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda for the attack on the U.S., New York and Washington and so on. But, after that was finished, I can't say that we have done anything useful there since, and, in fact, we have caused, really, quite a lot of damage, and I don't think it's any near by the end day there now than it was shortly after 2001, shortly after the 9/11 affair.

SS: Yeah, but if the troops left....

DS: In other words, I think we should get out of Afghanistan.

SS: Yeah, I understand, but if you get out of Afghanistan, won't that only mean that you'll have to come back eventually, at some point, like in Iraq?

DS: No. Well, and I don't think we needed to go back into Iraq either. I think that the degree to which the U.S. let's these countries to work out their own problems, the better it is, not only for the country concerned, but for the U.S. and for the world. I just think we do nothing useful in these places. In many cases, we prevent the country itself actually working out its problems.

SS: I want to talk about another intervention: Washington has been sending arms to Syrian rebels, and, on many occasions, these weapons have ended up in the wrong hands of Al-Qaeda affiliated groups and even ISIS. How does Washington allow its arms to end up in the hands of terrorists? Why doesn't it have any control over this?

DS: Well, I'm sure you know really quite a bit about the Middle East, but the whole region is awash in arms. It's also awash in armed groups and keeping track of where one's arms go in the region like that, and whose hands they fall into, it's a little bit like trying to pick one's sock out of your laundry.

SS: Overshadowed by the war in Syria is the crisis in Yemen, what you've mentioned earlier on. While U.S. accuses Syria adversaries of human rights abuses, how come it's providing Saudi Arabia with cluster bombs and precision rockets. Why is the Saudis indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Yemen going unnoticed by Washington?

DS: Well, there's an easy answer to that, and that is the long-standing relationships between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, which used to be based primarily on oil, but it's also based very much on arms sales. The U.S. has sold to Saudi Arabia the largest part of its arsenal and, of course, it's a sad thing to say, but once you've sell a country arms, then you are obliged to a considerable degree to provide them with a technical assistance, which enables them to use those arms. I don't really want to get deeply into it, but it's very similar to the long-standing relationship between the Soviet Union and then Russia, and Syria. I mean, it's really basically the same thing, and I think that our support of Saudi Arabia in its Sunni crusade against the Houthis who are Shia, it's just a really big mistake. I mean what the U.S. is doing in the intra-Islamic struggle is just way beyond me. I know why it is, but I think it's wrong.

SS: So, the U.S. helped orchestrate the regime change in Libya, but after it was done, the country sank into anarchy and Washington sort of stayed out of it, largely. What's the reason for America's hands-off approach to Libya?

DS: Hands-off approach to Libya - I think it's too big a mess, nobody knows how to sort it out. I lived for 2 years in Libya really quite a long time ago, and I think there was not much thought that went into the U.S. intervention into Libya. There were a group of people around Obama who wanted to do that. Hillary Clinton was one of them, Susan Rice, who is the National Security adviser was another one, our current ambassador to the UN was a third one, and the group of them made the valid case that Muammar Gaddafi was not exactly a sweet person and he should be got rid off - but they didn't take the additional step of thinking: "let's think about it, if we get rid of Gaddafi, then what happens?" - they didn't think it through that far. They just intervened.

SS: So what is it? Is it a lack of understanding of the region from Washington? What's the result of this poor, poor foreign policy planning? Or is Washington, may be disillusioned in nation-building?

DS: What? I don't think we're very good at nation-building. I think we make a mess of that. If you ask what is the source of these mistakes, I would just put it down to ignorance. People who really don't understand the nature of the countries, that they have us intervene in. I think they just don't...they don't understand them. Could anybody in Washington - with any influence, which is to say, the senior politicians - explain to you the difference between Cyrenaica, Tripolitania, Fezzan and Libya and any of that? They don't understand it, but, you know, the U.S. is a little bit like a hammer, and if you're a hammer, everything is a nail. They look at military force as the first recourse in a difficult circumstance. Now, I would say that John Kerry's approach to Iran, which has been fully supported by Obama, was an interesting case to the contrary.

SS:  So, as you've been saying before the break, there's a lack of understanding in Washington of complexities of the region that it intervenes in. It still boggles my mind: how come the most powerful country in the world has no competent planning of its foreign policy? How's that possible?

DS: Well, we are, among other things, we are a very vigorous democracy, and we have an unfortunate tendency to put basically people who are amateurs in the field of foreign affairs in charge of our foreign affairs. There are exceptions to that, I would say that John Kerry is one exception to that. But in general, our politicians know almost nothing foreign affairs.

SS: Making the news, lately, it the implementation of the nuclear deal with Iran, and the lifting of sanctions. Obama's opponents accuse him of being "too soft" with Tehran, yet at the same day the agreement went into force, we've seen new sanctions slapped on Iranian officials. Obama also pledged to counter Iran's "destabilizing behaviors across the Middle East". Can we really expect a new era of relations between Washington and Tehran?

DS: Yes, but it will be two steps forward and one step back for a number of reasons. One of them is that Israel remains adamantly opposed to America's improving its relations with Iran, and that has a big impact here. Benjamin Netanyahu came and spoke to the American Congress on that subject, and the Israelis have not given up on sabotaging the agreement with Iran.

SS: I understand, but with the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq still ongoing, can the U.S. afford to further estrange a major regional player like Iran?

DS: No, I think not. As a matter of fact, one of the actions underway right now is an attempt to draw them into the battle against ISIS. Whether that will be effective or not, I don't know, it's complicated as you know: ISIS are Sunni, Iran are Shia, and who knows what the real attitude of Saudi Arabia towards ISIS is? I mean, even if its government states that it's opposed to ISIS, everybody knows that many-many Saudis with a lot of money support ISIS.

SS: Ambassador, coming back to the State of The Union address, President Obama praised America's might, it's military budget, which is as big as the next 8 countries combined. Now, saying how no other country in the world is seriously contemplating offensive action against the U.S., is all this military spending justified?

DS: No. It hasn't been for years. I mean, if one looks at our track record, in terms of wars, the last that we won was against Granada in 1983. Now, the First Gulf War against Iraq under Saddam Hussein can be considered to have been successful, but it was also very clearly an effort of, by and large, alliance. So, it's not even as if all of this money and energy that we've put into our wars has been very successful, and of course what it has done is draw money and then of course also American lives, but particularly it's drawing money away from other things that we should've been doing. I put in that category: education, infrastructure, health, many-many domestic and other problems that have been left lying on the table, while we chase around the world, fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and so on, and the results are plain to see, here in the U.S..

SS: Okay, but ending U.S. foreign deployments and intervention would mean curbing all that military spending. How does that sit with American defense, hawks and the arms industry? I mean, who would allow that?

DS: They wouldn't like it, because they make a lot of money out of it. Also, they were very clever in signing on the Congress in support of their activities. There's, probably, either some sort of arms factory or some military presence in the constituency of virtually every member of the American Congress, and if anyone tries to cut that, you could hear the screaming and yelling all the way to Moscow. So, they do have support.

SS: I just wonder: Ambassador, you're a foreign diplomatic service veteran: are there a lot of those who serve in the State Department who share your views?

DS: Probably not.

SS: Why is the peace lobby's influence so weak, judging by what ends up being policy?

DS: Because there's so much money behind the opposite point of view, that's why. I mean, we're talking money.

SS: So does this mean that the U.S. is stuck in the military interventionist posture forever?

DS: I hope not, and one looks at each presidential election with some hope that this might not change, but I would have to say, that even though I voted for Barack Obama twice, and some of the early things that he said offered some promise that he might take a different view of all this, it hasn't worked out in practice, and in fact, the words that he used as a slogan, when running for President: "Change you can believe in", are words with such an ironic cast to them now, that it makes me angry just to hear them. Now, this time around, we're looking at Bernie Sanders as a possibility for change. I would say that none of the Republican candidates would move us out of this "American exceptionalism", "American power world-wide makes all the difference" - none of the Republican candidates would change that. Nor would Hillary Clinton. So, in other words, not much hope.

SS: Before we end our interview, I want to touch upon a topic that you like, and that's Asia. I know that you've just come back from Asia. Barack Obama planned a pivot to Asia once he finished with Bush's legacy in the MidEast; now that trouble in the Middle East has no end in sight, is that "pivot to Asia" a realistic strategy? Does it have enough strength to do both?

DS: I think it's important, I think it's a right thing to do. I think it reflects the economic and commercial and financial realities of our times. Also, in a way, it was to remedy a shortfall in our overall foreign policy, which had concentrated on Europe and had particularly concentrated on the Middle East and South Asia. Also, it recognizes the importance of the growing role of China and India in the world. So, I think it's a good policy.

SS: But as part of this new Asia strategy, the U.S. is sending warplanes and ships into the Asia-Pacific. Will the increased military presence contain China, or only irritate it?

DS: Well, that's the trick, isn't it? I mean, to see whether we can improve relations with Asian nations without this emphasis on military force, military presence. I am worried about that. Pittsburgh Post gazette, which I wrote points out that we're going to be involved in military exercise with Thailand and some other countries, called "Cobra Gold", early next month, which puts us in an uncomfortably close relationship with a military government in Thailand.

SS: But this whole U.S. staging drills in water around China, do you think that could escalate into a military conflict?

DS: It could, but I think the only way to avoid it is, number one, to try to restrain our own deployment, and number two, to stay in close communications with the Chinese leadership, Xi Jinping and so on, as we do whatever we do there. It's dangerous, there's no question, and of course, why the U.S. cares about rocks sticking out of the South China sea is way beyond me. One of the reason for it, of course, is that the U.S. Navy felt that in the wars in the Middle East it didn't get as much money or a bigger role as the Army and the Air Force did, and it wants to make up for that by getting more ships, so you have to watch that too.

SS: Ambassador, it's been so great talking to you. Thank you for this lovely interview. We were talking to ambassador Dan Simpson, former U.S. Foreign Service officer, about American overseas challenges and the future of the country's foreign policy. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.