How American Is Interventionism?

For all its popularity among pundits, how much of an historical, much less strategic, background does it really have?

Foust Aug 30 p.jpg


Back in March, Roger Cohen wrote of how Iraq taught him to be cautious about intervening recklessly in countries we don't understand:

There are many reasons I oppose a Western military intervention in Libya: the bitter experience of Iraq; the importance of these Arab liberation movements being homegrown; the ease of going in and difficulty of getting out; the accusations of Western pursuit of oil that will poison the terrain; the fact that two Western wars in Muslim countries are enough.

But the deepest reason is the moral bankruptcy of the West with respect to the Arab world. Arabs have no need of U.S. or European soldiers as they seek the freedom that America and the European Union were content to deny them. Qaddafi can be undermined without Western military intervention. He cannot prevail: Some officer will eventually make that plain.

This week, Cohen's tune changed remarkably:

I, too, fell under its influence. Mea culpa. Whatever the monstrosity of Saddam, and whatever the great benefit to the world of his disappearance, the war as it was justified and fought -- under false pretenses, without many of America's closest allies, in ignorance and incompetence -- was a stain on America's conscience...

The intervention has been done right -- with the legality of strong United Nations backing, full support from America's European allies, and quiet arming of the rebels. The Libyan people have been freed from a crazed tyranny. Unlike in Iraq, burdens were shared: America flew the intelligence missions and did the refueling while the French, British, Dutch and others did most of the bombing. Iraq was the wrong prism through which to look at Libya. I'm glad I resisted that temptation. Another cycle has begun.

In the end, I think interventionism is inextricable from the American idea.

Ignoring that his reasons for opposing the Libyan intervention still exist and haven't ended along with Qaddafi's regime, and that his reasons for supporting the intervention don't actually mean the intervention will ultimately be a net good for Libya, there is something else, and much darker to consider.

First of all, Interventionism is most certainly not the American idea. America as a philosophy is about choice and self-determination as much as it is about freedom. Cohen endorsed the first two in opposing the intervention in Libya; he ignores them in declaring it successful.

Secondly, the Founding Philosophy of the United States never endorsed interventionism, nor does rejecting interventionism automatically lead to isolationism. Quite the opposite is true, in fact. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine introduced the American public to the idea of leaving other countries alone; his ideas then created controversy at the Second Continental Congress over the wisdom of forming an alliance with the French to defeat the British (the Second Congress eventually chose to do so, but only reluctantly, and only because they felt they had no other choice).

In his farewell address, George Washington took it a step further:

The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns. Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.

Washington thought Europe should deal with European problems, since we have our own to handle. But that shouldn't preclude us, he said, from warm relations or from trade. Thomas Jefferson made this explicit in his 1801 inaugural address, saying America's foreign policy should be defined as "peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none."

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Joshua Foust is a fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from He is also a member of the Young Atlanticist Working Group. More

Joshua's research focuses on the role of market-oriented development strategies in post-conflict environments, and on the development of metrics in understanding national security policy. He has written on strategic design for humanitarian interventions, decision-making in counterinsurgency, and the intelligence community's place in the national security discussion. Previous to joining ASP, Joshua worked for the U.S. intelligence community, where he focused on studying the non-militant socio-cultural environment in Afghanistan at the U.S. Army Human Terrain System, then the socio-cultural dynamics of irregular warfare movements at the National Ground Intelligence Center, and later on political violence in Yemen for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Joshua is a columnist for PBS Need to Know, and blogs about Central and South Asia at the influential blog A frequent commentator for American and global media, Joshua appears regularly on BBC World, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua is also a regular contributor to Foreign Policy's AfPak Channel, and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor.


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