When we ask whether or not U.S. action can “help,” the relevant question is not whether it helps Americans. Too often, the national interest component of interventions is couched in upholding a system of norms or improving American perceptions abroad, but neither of these are really viable objectives of military interventions. Norm-enforcement can be a worthwhile outcome of military endeavor, but only if it is produced through the pursuit of a legitimate U.S. national interest. How do we know when a norm has been adequately enforced? How do we know when the regime will be adequately punished? The enemy, through his counter-actions, could undermine these perceptions through the force of arms. If, say, Assad in Syria were to simply disperse his arms, sacrifice a proportion of his military forces to the U.S. and then resume the task of brutal counterinsurgency later, will we feel our norm has been adequately enforced, or that Assad has been adequately punished?
When U.S. interests in a country are low, the chances that mitigation of a problem will result in a worse problem or an amelioration not worth the expenditure of resources involved increases. Rather than tolerating the unfixed problems in the wake of an intervention, a more useful approach would be to tolerate the existence of insoluble problems before the U.S. even launches another intervention [bold mine-DL].
As Trombly knows, humanitarian interventionists often take pride in how disconnected their preferred interventions are from U.S. interests. They will sometimes frame their arguments in terms of advancing U.S. interests, but as we saw in the Libyan debate these arguments are usually not very compelling. “Improving America’s image in the region” or “aligning our interests and our values” aren’t really goals for the intervention. They are rationalizations for why the U.S. should wage an unnecessary war. Some proponents of the Libyan war have been pleased that the U.S. joined in the attack on Gaddafi’s forces despite the fact that doing so served no U.S. interests and possibly harmed more than a few. Some of the common threads linking all of the “good” interventions of the last twenty years (e.g., Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya) are that they were all completely irrelevant to U.S. interests, they were at most tangentially important to some European allies, and the U.S. kept pretending that it had to become involved for the sake of the “credibility” of NATO. Of course, the U.S. was dragging NATO into these interventions as often as NATO allies pulled the U.S. in, and in all of these cases the “credibility” of NATO was never at stake.