Of strategic thinking and isolationism
posted at 1:01 pm on May 24, 2014 by Jazz Shaw
Has America stopped thinking strategically when it comes to foreign policy and military intervention? That’s the question which Dr. Joyner tackles at Outside the Beltway this weekend. The piece features a lengthy essay from Peter Beinart at The Atlantic in which the author notes that such decisions are notoriously complex, requiring us to weigh any action against far reaching consequences regarding other global powers. But he also argues that there are some simple formulas which the American public considers before granting approval to an executive decision to go to war.
[R]eporters should begin their coverage of each foreign crisis with this question: Why should Americans care? In today’s environment, that sounds churlish. But it didn’t always. Lippmann famously called U.S. foreign policy the “Shield of the Republic.” Part of his point was that the best yardstick for evaluating U.S. policies overseas was their effect on citizens at home. By asking why Americans should care that Russia controls Crimea or that Iran has a nuclear program, journalists would force a discussion of American interests. They’d make politicians and pundits explain exactly how events in a given country might make Americans less safe, less prosperous, or less free. In some cases, after all, when America enlarges its sphere of influence, its citizens lose more—in money, freedom, or blood—than they gain. Focusing on ordinary Americans would bring attention to this possibility.
At times, the politicians or pundits might admit that Americans have no tangible interests in a given country, just a moral obligation to prevent killing, poverty, or oppression. That’d be fine. At least they’d be making their case honestly.
Joyner chimes in with some direct experience of his own.
My major professor in graduate school, Don Snow, used a similar device with the conflicts of the (now long ago) day. “Take out a clean sheet of paper,” he’d say, “and write down all of the ways [democracy in Haiti, a cessation of violence in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kurdish self-determination] would improve your life.” The exercise was rhetorical, of course, as the paper would remain clean.
As it turns out, ignorant though they might be about the facts of international affairs or even basic geography, the American people are generally quite wise on making these choices. Naturally, they support kinetic military action in response to direct military attacks against us or our close allies. The instinct to fight in those circumstances is universal and it’s bolstered here by the knowledge that we’re almost certain to prevail militarily. Additionally, Americans almost universally support intervention to perform humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and other non-kinetic missions to help people in other countries. They see these as the right thing to do given our place in the world and worth the relatively low cost to perform. Intervention in other people’s civil wars? Our default position is No. It takes some powerful convincing to move off that default.
I’ve long been saddled with the unpopular tag of being the token isolationist in the room when foreign policy discussions arise among Republican colleagues. It’s easy to paint such so-called isolationists with a broad brush, claiming that we ignore the wolves at the doors of others around the globe at our own peril. But the arguments in the two pieces above go a fair ways toward deescalating such food fights and allowing for at least consideration of the concept that moderating the impulse toward foreign adventurism isn’t always a bad thing.
One problem is that our recent history is filled with conflicting examples in terms of the results of such expeditions. Two stand as glaring examples in opposite directions. We might ask exactly what debt we owed to the people of Kuwait in the early days of the Bush 41 presidency. Of course, the potential disruption to international energy supplies was a factor, but was that enough to justify war? The stunning success we achieved in the first Gulf War, factoring in the nearly universal support the action garnered from the international community was enough to silence most critics, and rightly so.
At the opposite end of the spectrum was Vietnam. The justification there was much more fuzzy and long term, relating as it did to our tendency toward, as Beinart described it, [equating] containment with stopping Communism anywhere on Earth. A noble goal, but the long term results of our involvement pretty much speak for themselves.
Where we draw the line on this in the future – particularly as we grapple with fluid situations like the one in Ukraine today – will depend very much on what sort of of strategic thinking tests we apply on a case by case basis. Is the enemy attacking us or our interests directly, or even indirectly? Are they going after one of our close allies, as Joyner puts it, and if so, where do we draw the line as to who counts as a “close ally” today? Ginning up public support for any additional full scale wars with American boots on the ground in 2014, after more than a decade in Afghanistan, would be nearly impossible absent an attack which kills a significant number of American civilians or soldiers by a clearly identifiable nation state. And in such cases, maybe our leaders do need to be listening to the wisdom of the public… at least to a degree.
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