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."

American foreign policy, and its philosophy of self, has of course evolved since the dawn of the 19th century. But to claim, as Roger Cohen does, that it is somehow un-American to oppose intervention, especially intervention done on behalf of our European allies, is to simply misconstrue a very Google-able history.

We might be able to accept that a modern American principle allows for intervention. The hand-wringing over the genocide in Rwanda, and the hemming and hawing over Libya, Syria, Yemen, and even the Balkans certainly suggests that might be the case. But again, to declare that this intervention has been done right when it's not even over yet -- when the rebels do not have a replacement government, when we do not know where Gaddhafi is hiding, when we do not know if there will be a horrifying post-regime insurgency like there was in Iraq, when we do not have the slightest clue what to do now apart from vague pantomimes to Libyan sovereignty (at least!) -- that is worse than premature.

America has never had much of a challenge with the fighting part of a war. The aftermath of war, however, especially when there is no surrender but only defeat, is where America has an especially poor record. Since World War II, in fact, Americas like Roger Cohen have been quick to declare victory when crisis are not yet solved, simply because some or most of the fighting has ended. As a result, we almost never plan for what comes next: no transition, no reconstruction, no stability operations, no development.

In Libya we still have no idea of what we're doing. We have removed Gaddhafi and helped the Libyan resistance, as we wanted to. But now that Tripoli stands leaderless and the rebels are estimating we've helped to kill nearly 50,000 Libyans in the process -- in the name of preventing an atrocity! -- there is no sense in the international community of what comes next.

We have to do better than this. If we are to decide "Responsibility to Protect" (often called R2P) or humanitarian interventionism is the newest American ideal to risk our soldiers for, we have to develop frameworks, laws, standards, principles, and most importantly strategies for how it can be enacted and how it can end. Because without that, we're left with preening, and hand wringing, and worst of all early triumphalism following ambiguous situations we never tried to understand. And that is a terrible place to be.