The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Saturday, January 16, 2010

On American Interventions

This piece was published in The Beaver under the decidedly more imaginative title "Dominance at the drop of presidents’ hats". A few might protest that there isn't nuance or balance in this piece. I can only plead that there is only so much one can do in 900 words, but one can list a few little-known, elementary facts and attempt to draw a truth from them.

The United States of America is the only country today with the ability to independently send large amounts of forces almost anywhere in the world. To those who face the prospect of American bombs and boys in their country, it can be hard to fathom why Washington might choose to intervene in their forlorn corner of the Earth, and not others.

The answer cannot usually be found in terms of “vital national interest”. The most hard-headed “realist” scholars – from Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan on Vietnam to Stephen Waltz and John Mearsheimer on Iraq – have tended to oppose America’s wars in the Third World. The countries of the South are underdeveloped, often fractious and unstable, typically lacking in industry and technology. So, when (as is frequently the case) our American presidents bring up Hitler and Stalin, World War and Cold War, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, we can only be somewhat dubious at the contrast.

American wars of intervention are overwhelmingly “optional”. Prior to waging war in Korea, General Douglas MacArthur had said the peninsula held little strategic value. The “fall” of South Vietnam to Communism could hardly mean that the Viet Cong guerrillas would now swim across the South China Sea to seize Malaysia or Indonesia (Lyndon Johnson once said they would be on the shores of Hawaii). Equally, in places like Rwanda, Bosnia or Kosovo, where “humanitarian intervention” is called upon or practiced, there is rarely a serious American national security interest. One could say the same with Iraq. There was no reason why Saddam Hussein with his little rump state would be more difficult to live with, even if he had nuclear weapons, than Stalin’s Soviet Union or Mao’s China.

American interventions occur because American leaders feel like it. But if the idea of war holds a certain mystique, Americans do not like wars. Or, at least, they do not like the cost in youth and taxes. So if American leaders feel like waging a war, it is usually because they think it will be an easy thing. Yet the “Wilsonian”, “universalist” and “liberal democratic” impulses of the American ideology place high standards. Suddenly they expect flowering Republics and economic miracles wherever American boots are, so many countries – whether composed of illiterate peasants or warring ethnicities – promise to become post-war Japans and West Germanies.

The record of past interventions, however, is not very encouraging. In Vietnam, “counter-insurgency” meant the pure and simple removal of the rural population. In Panama, the U.S. invasion of 1989 led to much chaos, looting and death. In Bosnia and Kosovo, huge amounts of international aid and ten and fifteen years of peace have not made Serb, Croat, Bosnian or Albanian any more likely to live in the same democracy. Their economies continue to be extremely weak, with over 40 per cent unemployment. All the disasters in Iraq – human, economic, ethnic, anarchic – were presaged in past interventions. Against this record, the invasion of Iraq can only be attributed to the Bush era national security clique’s inordinate sense of themselves and their power. That they in fact were gods in whose hands the Arabs were only so much malleable putty that they could reshape in their own image.

But we are not there today. We have a new, good, liberal president, one whom Europeans cannot accuse of pandering to religious bigots or of flaunting a crass American nationalism. Yet it is Barack Obama who is sending 30,000 men on a “quick-fix” mission to Afghanistan, as George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2007. Obama goes for political reasons above all. He campaigned relentlessly on this “good war,” largely to avoid the curse of Jimmy Carter. But more than that, it is difficult for any politician to concede defeat after so much effort, particularly in America.

Yet we can be reasonably certain, once the foreigners leave, that Afghanistan will again face “anarchy” and “warlords,” and no doubt a few of the latter will choose the moniker “Islamic” for good measure. The notion that the “Afghan National Army” will be tripled in size in half a decade and will be able to “secure the country” even as the U.S. and NATO are incapable of the task (and the attempt costs several times Afghanistan’s entire GDP every year) is manifestly absurd. Yet Obama must fight.

In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson chose to begin the movement that would lead to over 550,000 Americans in Vietnam, just so that the Republicans would not be able to accuse him of “losing” 20 million more Asians to Communism. The Vietnam War’s cost was great, wrecking Johnson’s half-fulfilled domestic programs, ruining an endeavor that might have given America a true welfare state. In purely economic terms, the Afghan War is likely to cost at least as much over the next few years as Obama’s vaunted project of universal health insurance. Of course, Johnson did not have the embarrassment of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in his first year in office, only to use the occasion to expound on theories of just war. Those time-tested words return: the first time as a tragedy, the second as a farce.


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