What Happened When We Kept Out of the India-Pakistan Fracas?
America is the essential nation, the unipower, the country that stands taller and sees further than all others. So naturally it must meddle, righting wrongs, fixing problems, enforcing peace, protecting allies, punishing evildoers, preserving order, and so much more. Never mind that it does all this poorly, inconsistently, and often disastrously, creating new and even greater problems as it goes. Washington policymakers can’t allow any crisis to go unsolved.
Yet uncharacteristically, in Kashmir, there has been no American rush to make the lion lie down with the lamb. Two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, recently went closer to the brink than at any time since their 1971 war. The result could have been catastrophic.
Yet Washington apparently realized that it had limited influence in both Islamabad and New Delhi. Both nations were dealing with a potential existential crisis and not inclined to listen to others. The United States decided it could do little more than issue peaceful appeals.
This response should become a model for the future.
The world is full of geopolitical upsets, national implosions, military conflicts, internal collapses, humanitarian tragedies, political instabilities, and regional hostilities. The U.S. can safely ignore most of them. Indeed, America’s safety usually requires ignoring them. Intervening puts Americans at risk for little potential gain. Consider the other candidates for the South Asia “do nothing” model.
Impoverished, dictatorial Venezuela. The implosion of what was once a wealthy nation is tragic. But while the ongoing crisis has been disruptive to Venezuela’s neighbors, most obviously Colombia, it’s had little impact on America. Our attempts at intervention are inevitably tainted by more than a century of “Yankee imperialism” in Latin America. Washington’s sanctions, meanwhile, have intensified popular hardship without so far unduly discomfiting regime elites.
Starving people into revolt has rarely succeeded. Triggering a civil war would kill and destroy without guaranteeing anyone a better future. Direct military intervention would be even worse, opening an international Pandora’s Box while leaving America responsible for the potentially disastrous consequences. Instead, Washington should back the efforts of Venezuela’s neighbors and other Latin American nations to peacefully defuse the crisis.
Defense-dependent South Korea. The Cold War is long over. The Korean peninsula is no longer tied to a larger global struggle. The South has raced past its northern antagonist and is well able to defend itself. America and North Korea are attempting to reconcile.
The U.S. should withdraw its garrison and end its security guarantee. The North’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, which it is unlikely to abandon, makes that withdrawal even more imperative. The U.S. does not want to be drawn into a new Korean conflict in which nuclear-tipped missiles could be launched against the American homeland. Nothing on the peninsula warrants such a risk. Better for Seoul to build a countervailing nuke than for Washington to remain entangled in a multi-sided nuclear confrontation.
Ukraine in search of defense. Uncle Sam has the reverse Midas touch, turning most everything he touches into conflict. So it is with Ukraine. That land was part of Imperial Russia and then the Soviet Union. The latter’s collapse gave it an opportunity, but Kiev suffered under a succession of authoritarian, ineffective, and corrupt presidents.
America’s backing of Ukraine’s inclusion in NATO further angered Russia, which was already upset over our support for previous eastward alliance expansions. In 2014, Washington’s and Europe’s endorsement of a street putsch against the elected, Russia-friendly president triggered Moscow’s forcible annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in the Donbass.
Vladimir Putin’s actions were wrong, but imagine how Washington would have reacted had Russia acted similarly in Mexico. Anyway, Ukraine matters not for U.S. security and America cannot fix internal Ukrainian politics. Russia is likely to play a disruptive role in the Donbass as long as America threatens to add Kiev to NATO. Nothing short of a devastating war will cause Moscow to disgorge Crimea. Washington should leave the mess to Europe and seek a modus vivendi with Russia.
Enduring Israel-Arab conflict. Is there a worse, more emotional, less meaningful, lengthier, more intractable, less solvable struggle than that between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Is there one more destructive of the American republic, with U.S. interests often subordinated to the desires of other governments? Washington has no reason to spend so much money and devote so much effort into what is essentially a national act of masochism.
The Middle East isn’t even important for American security. The energy market has diversified and the U.S. has become a natural gas powerhouse. Washington no longer faces a global antagonist like the Soviet Union, which could attempt to disrupt the globe’s energy lifeline. Israel receives religious support, most strongly from Christian evangelicals, but it is a regional military superpower. Lately it’s even expanded its relations with the Gulf States, which fear Iran. Israel’s chief threat is internal, since its colonization of the West Bank may force it to eventually choose between being Jewish and democratic.
The U.S. should adopt the Hippocratic Oath and first do no harm. That means ending Washington’s virtual blank check to Israel.
Widening Sunni-Shiite divide. Who should Americans favor? Sunni fundamentalists ranging from Saudi royals to al-Qaeda terrorists? Or Shia extremists who seized power in Iran? Neither. Washington need not choose sides.
Perhaps nothing has so deformed U.S. policy in the Mideast as embracing the repressive Saudis and Emiratis because they back the Trump administration’s anti-Iran crusade. They are not America’s friends. They do not represent or promote U.S. values. And they would not advance American interests if dominant. Indeed, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Riyadh has become the most dangerous and irresponsible power in the region, starting with its murderous attack on Yemen. If various Middle Eastern countries choose to fight it out, they should do so without America’s involvement.
Syria’s brutal breakdown. As America has learned throughout its own history, civil wars tend to be the bitterest and bloodiest of conflicts. U.S. forces never belonged in Lebanon, taking sides during the 1980s in the midst of a score of contending factions. Libya yielded chaos, multiple governments, and power vacuums filled by the Islamic State.
Syria was far worse, a shattered Humpty Dumpty that Washington couldn’t put back together again. And it didn’t matter to America: Damascus did not threaten the U.S., had been allied with Moscow back during the Cold War, was unwilling to challenge Israel after losing successive wars, and was eclipsed by Washington’s numerous other allies in the region. Nor were America’s multiple and conflicting objectives achievable: oust President Bashar al-Assad, propel largely nonexistent moderates to victory, support radicals including al-Qaeda affiliates just enough to defeat Assad but no more, ameliorate the humanitarian consequences of fighting Washington supported, work with both Kurdish militias and the Turkish government, limit Russia’s influence, and confront Iranian forces. The U.S. should get out and stay out.
Territorial controversies in the Asia-Pacific. The Philippines hopes to borrow America’s Seventh Fleet to battle China over Scarborough Shoal. Japan expects U.S. aid in its squabble with Beijing over the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands to the Chinese). Vietnam looks to Washington as it contests Chinese claims to the Paracel Islands.
The U.S. has no direct interest in any of this. Washington wants to maintain freedom of navigation and promote the peaceful resolution of disputes. But it must resolutely resist its allies’ attempts to drag it into military conflicts not its own. In such contests, China has far greater interests in the outcomes and is willing to spend far more and take far greater risks.
Washington’s primary interest is in preserving the independence of friendly states and preventing hostile domination of Eurasia. However, those states could do much more on their own behalf, and would do so if the U.S. didn’t write them a blank check for defense. Increasingly more of Washington’s military budget will go towards projecting power against China, which needs to spend and do much less to deter American intervention. Washington instead should focus on the defense of its own core interests.
As the specter of nuclear war rises in South Asia, it is good to remember that not every problem on earth is America’s responsibility. Indeed, most are not, or at least should not be. Washington should instead enjoy the peace in its own neighborhood that has naturally resulted from its being the globe’s most powerful nation.
Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. A former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.