Barack Obama is willing to withdraw almost every American soldier from Afghanistan and wants to reduce the Army to a size that would make another prolonged engagement abroad nearly impossible. Under his plan, the force of 450,000 would be the smallest since 1940—which was the dawn of the national security state. Now is an excellent time to start a debate about whether the U.S. should be attacking and invading other countries at all.
Intervention will be a difficult habit to break. Nearly every year during the past century, Americans have been fighting or occupying someplace outside their national borders. Which of these wars, big or little, justified what they cost in lives and dollars? It’s not a simple question. But a quick, admittedly contentious, sweep through our country’s military history since World War I might help.
Few of the dozens of conflicts the U.S. waged in what used to be called the Third World would qualify as worthwhile. From chasing revolutionaries around Central America to carpetbombing Indochina to ousting Saddam in Iraq, the U.S. brought chaos and incurred hatred more than it spread liberty and democracy. Stopping Kim Il Sung from tyrannizing a united Korea stands out as the one great exception to that dreadful rule.
World War II was an unavoidable conflict—the first time since 1812 that the U.S. was arguably fighting for national survival instead of exercising a strategic or moral choice. But if two million American doughboys had not streamed into France during the final year of World War I, that “Great War” would likely have ended with a compromise settlement. Without a humiliating surrender and a punitive peace treaty to attack, the Nazis might have just been a marginal threat to the Weimar Republic.
U.S. politicians and generals learned the wrong lesson from their total victory in the war against Hitler and his Axis allies. The Soviet empire was a brutal failure, not the latest mortal threat to the U.S. and its allies. Neither the Pathet Lao, the Vietcong, pro-Castro Cubans, nor the Sandinistas were savage, expansionist forces which “freedom-loving” Americans had to subdue. In the Third World, more than a thousand U.S. bases did little or nothing to end oppression or nurture free societies. In Okinawa, the Philippines, and, more recently, Iraq, they were deeply resented by the local population.
However, distinctions should always be made. Following World War II, American bases may have helped stabilize democratic governments, although Stalin had no plans to send the Red Army into Italy or West Germany. And the duty to protect citizens in danger justifies a short and limited incursion that has a decent chance of achieving its purpose. Ironically, a single U.S base in Central Africa could have done more good than all America’s other Third World interventions combined. In 1994, several thousand well-armed Marines might have stopped the genocide of up to 800,000 Tutsis in Rwanda. But, the Cold War was over by then, and the tiny nation lacked any strategic importance. So the President of the United States looked away.
At least, Bill Clinton now regrets that he did not act in Rwanda. Johnson, Nixon, and Reagan never thought to apologize for their wars of choice, all of which, save the tragicomic invasion of Grenada in 1986, were military failures and tarred America’s image around the world.
Many who now criticize Obama for not taking military action in Syria neglect this woeful history; some, it appears, would like to repeat it. Writing in The New York Times, Michael Ignatieff blames the President for not helping the rebels overthrow Assad: “It is only prudent now to back diplomacy with force so that the consequences do not become deadlier still,” advises this much honored liberal who once thought it “prudent” to invade Iraq if there were even a 1 percent chance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. In The Washington Post, Richard Cohen complains, “An increasingly messy world is looking for guidance. But not only does the United States refuse to be its policeman, it won’t even be its hall monitor.”
An efficient police force may be able to impose order, for a while; it cannot rebuild a nation or teach its citizens to be tolerant democrats. Of course, a long series of failed interventions does not ensure the next one will fail as well. But that dismal record should require anyone who urges lethal action to give the American public a precise and honest explanation of how U.S. bombs and military advisors will force Assad’s regime to give up power and enable Syrians to erect a better government in its place.
When Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel proposed a shrunken Pentagon budget on February 24, he acknowledged the changes he was calling for could well mean the U.S would no longer be what presidents from Woodrow Wilson to George W. Bush considered the indispensable nation: “We are entering an era where American dominance on the seas, in the skies and in space can no longer be taken for granted.” Twelve and a half years after the frustrating war in Afghanistan began, polls show that a majority of Americans neither think their nation can nor should heal the ills of the world with planes in the air and boots on the ground. History suggests it seldom has.