Why Military Intervention in Foreign Countries is Usually a Bad Idea
When President Obama came to office, the American public – and in all probability, the publics of various other nations – assumed that the militaristic, interventionist foreign policy of the most recent Bush-era had run its course. At the time, that opinion seemed justified. On the campaign trail, the president had said time and time again that if elected, he would call home the American troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, close the controversial detention center at Guantanamo Bay and usher in an age of relative tranquility in U.S. foreign relations. And yet now, roughly a half-decade thence, the War on Terror still has two American combat theatres in the Middle East, Guantanamo Bay and the ethical questions its existence poses to American legislators remain open, and now – to make matters worse – the US teeters on the brink of yet another foreign war.
The current situation leaves many scratching their heads. How can an administration founded on hope and optimistically twice-endorsed—albeit somewhat narrowly—with a popular mandate for peace devise a foreign policy that seems so utterly un-pacifistic? As to Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo, the answer is most likely that when making his campaign promises, the President failed to comprehend what logistical difficulties might arise in fulfilling them. Of course, politicians -and everyone else, for that matter – should not make promises they cannot keep. That having been said, President Obama is hardly the first elected official who, despite his best efforts, couldn’t live up to his pre-election rhetoric, and while a commonplace failure in judgment is a failure nonetheless, it does at least have comprehensible causes.
Far less understandable is the administration’s mishandling of the Syrian civil war. The president’s first and gravest error so far was to draw a proverbial line in the sand with regard to the use of chemical weapons, threatening an unspecified degree of military reprisal against the Assad regime in the event that it employed chemical warfare. The decision to issue this decree was woefully ill conceived in that signaled to the international community that the Obama administration and the American citizenry it represents bear the responsibility to ensure the ethical conduct of combatants in foreign wars, even when America is not directly affected by those conflicts. This endorses a view of American foreign policy that dogged America’s international image throughout the 20th century, and, in some corners of the world, left it irreparably scarred.
America has often acted militarily in the capacity of a global police force, but we and our leaders ought to question whether this is a suitable role for any national military to play. An effective police force must strive to serve the community at large, without deference to the special interests of one group or another. In the context of international military intervention, the community under threat is presumably the entire world – the international community. And yet, the police force answering that threat, if a national military, is not accountable to all members of that community, but only to the country that employs it. By virtue of being the U.S. military, the American armed forces necessarily place the interests of the United States above the interests of all other nations. While that in itself is a very good policy, it creates an inherent nationalist bias that prevents our military from constituting an effective World Police. While this reasoning may sound loftily theoretical, it is borne out by ample evidence in America’s military history.
The obligation of the U.S. armed forces to serve the American people before all others means that all too often, U.S. military interventions abroad end in public relations disasters. Military and U.S.-supported paramilitary actions – such as the forcible relocation of the Cherokee and other Amerindian nations, the annexation of Hawaii, the invasion of the Dominican Republic, and the occupation of the Philippines to name a few – have left many foreign nations embittered against an America they accuse of nurturing imperialist ambitions and hypocritically flouting the human rights and freedoms it claims to hold most dear.
Worse still are those occasions when planned interventions fail, or become prolonged beyond the endurance of the popular will to sustain them. In these instances, such as the current war in Iraq, accusations of national immorality contributing to the already raucous din of global anti-Americanism are bolstered by allegations of weakness.
Why then does America so often risk her national reputation and the lives of her servicemen and -women on the global stage? The altruistic answer would be that the American people are trying to save the world. Since at least the time of America’s successful intervention in the First World War, and perhaps as early as the Texan Annexation, our country has considered it a moral obligation to uphold virtuous causes against those who would threaten to defeat them, regardless of where in the world we might have to extend our influence in discharging that duty.
While this is certainly a noble aim, the sad truth is that it cannot be practically fulfilled. Every minute of every day, hundreds of thousands of people across the globe undeservedly succumb to the depredations of natural and human evil, and many of these injustices would be preventable by intervention on part of the government of the United States. By rationing the food of its own citizens, for instance, and distributing the resulting abundance of excess comestible products to the citizens of underdeveloped and agriculturally poor nations, it could do much to combat world hunger. And, by fully mobilizing and deploying the whole of its formidable armed forces to depose dictators and punish violent ethnocentrists, it could conceivably neutralize the greatest perpetrators of both tyranny and genocide. The reason that the U.S. government does not embark on such large scale humanitarian missions, theoretically possible though they may be, is that any government’s foremost obligation is to its own people. A once- bountiful America rife with abject poverty because the fruits of her labors have been distributed to the needy of other lands, or left undefended because her troops have been dispatched to guarantee the rights of foreign nationals living abroad, would mark the leaders of the American people as traitors to their offices and constituents. The Assad regime, having attacked its own citizens with chemical weapons, already bears the shameful badge of such a betrayal. But that does not make it our place to intervene in Syrian affairs, especially considering the special nature of this conflict.
Some who now urge action in Syria remind us of the glorious role America played in the Second World War and claim the existence of a moral imperative to punish the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime that is every bit as strong as the one that impelled Americans to crush Nazism in the last century, but this comparison does not withstand scrutiny. While the example of World War II does stand as one military intervention on part of the United States that immensely and undeniably benefitted almost all humanity, it bears no relevance on the current Syrian conflict. In the first place, the Syrian conflict differs from World War II in that American involvement could not achieve the objective that supposedly necessitates it. While the Obama administration’s stated goal is to curb the international use of chemical weapons, the utility of a U.S. invasion of Syria in achieving that goal remains dubious at best. The Assad regime has not employed chemical weapons as a routine policy, but in a desperate attempt to secure its increasingly tenuous hold on power. If another, similar dictatorship finds itself in equally dire straits, it is highly unlikely that a U.S. chastisement of Syria, however severe, will deter it from mistreating its citizens for the sake of its survival. To frame the situation metaphorically, one might imagine a morally bankrupt man who is starving, but has at his disposal his minor child. If, in desperation for his life and against all standards of human decency, he kills and eats the child to stay alive, maiming him in retaliation would not prevent a similarly wicked and malnourished person from committing cannibalistic infanticide in the future.
In the second place, whereas the Second World War arose as the natural consequence of the demoniacal Nazi ambition to conquer the world, the Syrian Civil War is, its name suggests, predominantly confined to Syria. Although Russia and various other regional powers have contributed munitions and insurgents to one side or the other, the outcome of the conflict is ultimately the responsibility of the Syrian people, who must chose their allegiances and then fight, flee or defend their neutrality accordingly. If any of them choose the second of the three options, then they are welcome to seek asylum as refugees in the U.S. Beyond offering eligible Syrian civilians a place of safety, however, it must not be the responsibility of the United States to intervene in a conflict which, no matter what its course or the nature of its resolution, would be of no significant benefit or detriment to the United States.
Indeed, regardless of which belligerent proves victorious in the conflict, the U.S. stands to gain little or nothing. If Assad proves victorious, then Syria might return to a state of peace and stability, but only under the auspices of an iron-fisted authoritarian regime with no concept of civil rights and strong ties to an increasingly undemocratic Russia. If, on the other hand, the rebels win, then years of internal restructuring must necessarily follow, marred by political infighting, economic stagnation, and – if the examples of Iraq and Egypt prove oracular – simmering sectarian strife that at any time could erupt into anarchy, despotism or another armed conflict.
Even if America does elect to follow her self-prescribed moral imperative and punish the twisted ethics of the Assad regime, it would be difficult for our leaders to then justify their evident hypocrisy in not militarily intervening to prevent blatant acts of injustice elsewhere in the world.
In Burma, now unhelpfully referred to even in the U.S. as Myanmar, rogue Buddhist monks and their disciples have abandoned their traditional pacifism to orchestrate the wholesale slaughter of the country’s Islamic minority. Though fully aware of this genocidal act, the U.S. is content to stand by. In China, human rights abuses occur systematically and regularly, with the most vocal political dissenters summarily subjected to torturous imprisonment in the Lao Gai, or Chinese gulags, and ethnic minorities – particularly the Tibetans – are stripped of their cultural heritage and forcibly assimilated into the Chinese mainstream. Once again, our leaders know what goes on, but do nothing. The situation in Israel is admittedly more complex, but there, too, a government is brutally suppressing a subject population. While in this case, national loyalties render military intervention unthinkable, U.S. diplomats could at least attempt to persuade our Israeli allies to grant the Palestinian nationals under their authority a more acceptable level of autonomy and civil liberty. But, although they could, they have not. These cases of non-intervention do not indicate a moral failing on the part of the American people or our government. They are simply situations in which it is neither prudent nor practical for America to become militarily or politically entangled at the present time, and the Syrian Civil War belongs undeniably to the same category.
Is that to say that Americans should never intervene in foreign conflicts? While it is unwise to establish absolute guiding principles in fields as complex and protean as foreign relations, I would urge that for the most part, we as a nation should keep to ourselves, engaging only in those conflicts that directly affect our interests. Examining the past in keeping with the goal of cultural recidivism, we can see that – contrary to popular belief – non-interventionism was the spirit with which America was founded. Proponents of interventionist policies often cite the famous 17th century sermon wherein John Winthrop likened the colonies that would one day become the United States to a “city on a hill” as evidence that America was a proverbial beacon in the moral darkness of the world, a standard to which other nations should be held accountable. But this interpretation is wrong. Winthrop’s biblically inspired sermon is a warning to Americans to examine our own national conduct, because – like a city on a hill – we are visible from a distance, and therefore exposed to the scrutiny of the world. Moving into the 18th century, George Washington, unarguably the most revered American founder, urged in his farewell address that the American people should steadfastly avoid “foreign entanglements”, of which, in the modern age, Syria is certainly one. In order to maintain a vision of America in keeping with its founding principles, the American government should carefully evaluate its military role in foreign conflicts. That should mean no more Middle Eastern land wars, much less overt meddling in other nations’ internal conflicts, and an end to drawing lines in the sand.