Home/Daniel Larison/Non-Interventionism and Thinking Seriously About Unnecessary Wars

Non-Interventionism and Thinking Seriously About Unnecessary Wars

Rubble aftermath of a Saudi airstrike on a Yemeni neighborhood in 2015. Almigdad Mojalli/Voice of America

Richard Fontaine claims that there is now a consensus for military restraint, and he believes the consensus to be wrong:

Faced with such a sweeping political consensus, one might conclude that Washington should simply get on with it and embrace restraint. The problem is that such a strategy overlooks the interests and values that have prompted U.S. action in the first place and that may for good reasons give rise to it in the future. The consensus also neglects the fact that, despite the well-known failures of recent large-scale interventions, there is also a record of more successful ones—including the effort underway today in Syria.

To assume that nonintervention will become a central tenet of future U.S. foreign policy will, if anything, induce Americans to think less seriously about the country’s military operations abroad and thus generate not only less successful intervention but possibly even more of it. Instead of settling into wishful thinking, policymakers should accept that the use of military force will remain an essential tool of U.S. strategy. That, in turn, requires applying the right lessons from recent decades.

Fontaine makes two mistakes early on his article that mar the rest of his argument. The first is to assert that a strategy of restraint “overlooks the interests and values that have prompted U.S. action” in the past. That is simply not true. Advocates of restraint don’t overlook these interests and values. We deny that the U.S. has interests in many of the places interventionists claim to find them, and we insist that waging unnecessary wars against states and people that have done nothing to us is contrary to American values. Proponents of restraint aren’t overlooking anything. We contest and reject many of the assumptions that interventionists take for granted. Constant warfare in multiple countries is not only harmful to U.S. security and interests, but it has been steadily corroding our constitutional system and giving virtually unchecked power to the executive. The forever war has horribly distorted our foreign policy, and it has been deforming our system of government as well.

The other mistake is to suggest that nonintervention will cause Americans “to think less seriously about the country’s military operations abroad.” The word seriously is doing all of the work in that statement, and it gets to the heart of the disagreement that advocates of restraint have with interventionists. Non-interventionists do think very seriously about U.S. military operations. Sometimes it seems as if we are some of the only people who do think seriously about them, because we consider their costs not only for the U.S. but also for the countries and peoples affected by them. Advocates of restraint also tend to think seriously about the illegality of a lot of these operations, many of which have never been authorized by Congress. Others rely on an expansive interpretation of the 2001 AUMF for their legal justification, and it has become extremely difficult to accept that a 2001 vote can be used to authorize military action in completely different parts of the world almost twenty years later.

It is debatable whether there is a “sweeping political consensus” in favor of military restraint. There is significant political support for extricating the U.S. from many of its current conflicts, but it is not clear that there is anything like consensus on how the U.S. should respond to foreign conflicts and crises in the future. Fontaine conjures up this imaginary consensus to serve as a foil for his argument, and then proceeds to point out that there really isn’t a consensus after all.

He also trots out the old cliche about presidents reluctantly going to war:

Even at a rhetorical and intellectual level, then, the end of intervention is not nearly as clear-cut as today’s politicians suggest. The reality of being commander in chief complicates things further: on the campaign trail, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Trump each pledged to engage in fewer foreign military adventures and redirect resources toward needs at home. In office, each reluctantly proceeded to not only continue existing wars but also launch new offensives.

Fontaine greatly exaggerates the reluctance with which these presidents have ordered the use of force. In Bush’s case, he simply makes it up. It is true that then-Gov. Bush campaigned against “nation-building” of the kind that Clinton had done in the 1990s, but his “humble” foreign policy rhetoric was belied by the fact that he didn’t oppose a single military intervention in the past and surrounded himself with extremely hawkish advisers who were only too eager to use force. The trope of Obama as “reluctant warrior” has been repeated so many times that it is easy to forget that this is also wildly misleading. The “reluctant” Obama ordered the bombing of Libya when he had no legal authority to do so, and he did so even though no vital U.S. interests were threatened. He then oh-so-“reluctantly” launched another illegal war in 2014 in Iraq and Syria that has continued to this day. A truly reluctant president would not start or join wars without Congressional authorization, but that is exactly what Obama did more than once. His decision to throw U.S. support behind the Saudi coalition was yet another example of how he involved the U.S. in a foreign conflict when didn’t need to. A consistently non-interventionist president is hard to imagine, but that is only because we haven’t had one for such a long time.

Fontaine then sets up a strawman by pointing out that U.S. interventionism after the Cold War is just more of what the U.S. did during the Cold War:

American military action is not, as many believe, a feature of post–Cold War overstretch; it has been a central element of the United States’ approach to the world for decades.

I’m not sure what argument Fontaine thinks he is refuting here. Non-interventionist critics of America’s post-Cold War foreign policy are almost always equally appalled by and opposed to U.S. military interventions during the Cold War. Some non-interventionists have been against unnecessary and illegal wars all along, and others have come around to recognizing the futility and folly of these interventions in recent decades. No one really disputes that intervening militarily in other countries has been “a central element of the United States’ approach to the world for decades.” We know it has been a central element. We think it has been the cause of enormous harm, and that’s why we seek to put an end to it! Fontaine calls attention to the fact that the U.S. has been frequently resorting to force for a long time as if that is an argument for letting this destructive pattern continue indefinitely.

Fontaine offers a number of “guidelines” that he wants us to use when judging future military interventions. He gets off to a bad start with the first one:

The first guideline is to avoid overlearning the supposed lessons of past interventions.

It is impossible to read this and not think of the many hawkish admonitions that Americans have “overlearned” the lessons of the Iraq war. No doubt it is meant to bring that to mind. The idea that Americans have ever “overlearned” lessons from our failed and unnecessary wars is almost funny, because it seems obvious that our political leaders have barely learned anything at all. It is true that each case is different and should be judged on its own merits, but surely we should draw on past experience to inform how we judge these new cases. When hawks consistently underestimate how difficult and costly a war will be, it is relevant to cite the Iraq war as an example of how disastrously wrong war supporters can be. When we hear promises from proponents that war with Iran won’t be as costly or prolonged as the Iraq war, it is probably worth recalling that proponents of invading Iraq promised that the war would be cheap, easy, and quick, too. Many of our politicians and analysts stubbornly refuse to learn from what they euphemistically call the “mistake” of the Iraq war. That brings us back to the earlier point about thinking seriously about military operations abroad. As a general rule, interventionists treat going to war very cavalierly and don’t think through the consequences. When things predictably go awry, they then insist that we can’t quit the war we should never have waged.

Fontaine adds, “Sticking to rigid lines based on prior errors can easily lead to new and different pitfalls.” It is always possible that in avoiding certain errors the U.S. will end up making different ones, but surely that is an argument for intervening as infrequently as possible. If we keep missing the mark every time, perhaps we should stop shooting. This also ignores that sticking to a rigid line against a Vietnam or Iraq war-style intervention is always the right call. There is no scenario in which waging a war like that would be a prudent and necessary use of force. If subsequent military interventions have also caused problems or failed to resolve everything, that is much better than being bogged down for years (or decades) in unwinnable wars that serve no American interests. I am probably the most vocal critic of the Libyan war then and now, but Obama’s error was intervening in the first place. The “failure” to follow up the intervention with an occupation was the best of the bad available options. If Obama had committed U.S. troops to Libya after Gaddafi was overthrown, they would probably still be fighting there in large numbers today, and we would be hearing from the usual suspects that they can’t be withdrawn for many more years.

Fontaine’s second guideline sounds reasonable, but it isn’t all that helpful:

Another guideline is to pick interventions that meet clear conditions and commit to those that are chosen. The United States should generally undertake interventions only when political leaders—namely, the president and a majority of Congress—believe that force is necessary to attain a clearly stated objective.

This doesn’t seem like a bad guideline, but we should remember that this guideline wouldn’t have prevented the Iraq war. The president and a majority of Congress were in agreement that the U.S. should launch an invasion to achieve regime change, and they were horribly wrong. Even when a majority of Congress is on board with the idea of launching an illegal invasion, that doesn’t make it right.

Another guideline sounds sensible, but it is not as useful as it seems:

They should conclude that the benefits of a military intervention over the long run are reasonably expected to exceed the costs.

The problem here is that interventionists always conclude that the benefits of intervention will exceed the costs, and in the debate before a war begins the cavalier proponents of “action” usually prevail because of the ingrained bias in favor of “doing something.” They often do this by grossly overestimating the benefits (of which there are usually few or none) and ignoring the costs all together. The Iraq war is the most famous example of this, but it is true of virtually every military intervention that the U.S. has engaged in over at least the last thirty years. This guideline raises a number of questions: how are the benefits being calculated, who benefits, and how long is “the long run”? The fact that U.S. politicians and policymakers have usually done a horrible job of calculating the costs and benefits of past interventions should make us question why we think that our government is a fit judge of such matters.

There are a few big omissions in Fontaine’s argument that need to be addressed. First, he says nothing about international law or the Constitution. More often than not, U.S. military interventions bend or outright break international law and the U.N. Charter. Many of them are also carried out in clear violation of the Constitution. One of the main rules in future debates has to be that any future military intervention needs to be authorized by Congress and consistent with the U.N. Charter’s prohibition against the unauthorized use of force except for self-defense. Very few U.S. interventions since 1989 have met this standard, but it is an extremely important one. The U.S. wages so many wars of choice because it can, and very few of them have been legal.

Fontaine says near the end of his article:

No grand strategy can be built on the presumption that military intervention is mostly an erroneous activity of yesteryear, rather than an enduring feature of U.S. foreign policy.

We are having this debate because we all know that military intervention is not an “activity of yesteryear.” It is what our government is doing right now. We are still very far from having a consensus that it is an erroneous one. Military intervention does not have to be an “enduring feature” of U.S. foreign policy if we were to adopt a grand strategy that makes it a much rarer thing. Fontaine doesn’t want to adopt a strategy of restraint, but he has not made the case that the U.S. would have to keep intervening on a regular basis if that were our government’s strategy. He takes for granted that interventionism is inevitable, and dismisses the possibility that it could ever be stopped.

Fontaine’s article misses the biggest argument against frequent military interventions: the U.S. has no right to bomb and invade other countries at will. The assumption that the U.S. has the right to use force in other countries whenever it decides to is wrong in principle, and it is the source of countless policy failures and tremendous human suffering. If we respected the “rules-based international order” that we claim to support, our government would use force sparingly and only when there were no other alternatives. That is a “rigid formula” that we should insist on upholding.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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