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The Myths of Interventionists

Frenetic meddling in the affairs of other nations hasn't made and won't make America any safer.

Dakota Wood makes the usual alarmist case for throwing more money at the military. This passage stood out for how wrong it is:

Churchill repeatedly warned his countrymen of the dangers of complacency, misguided priorities, and weakness of will, of the foolishness to see the world and major competitors as being anything other than what they truly are. While praising the virtues and spirit of moderation that defined the English-speaking peoples of his day, he also urged them to recognize the necessity of having the courage to take timely action when dangers threatened and clearly visible trends in an eroding ability to provide for their common defense were leading toward disaster.

A similar state of affairs afflicts the United States today. To the extent America intervenes in the affairs of others, it is because the United States has been attacked first, an ally is in dire need of assistance, or an enemy threatens broader regional stability [bold mine-DL].

Over ten years ago, Rick Santorum talked incessantly about “the gathering storm” in a very conscious echo of Churchill, and subsequent events have proven his alarmism to have been just as unfounded and ridiculous as it seemed to be at the time. Hawks are often eager to invoke the 1930s to try to scare their audience into accepting more aggressive policies and more military spending than our security actually requires. Some of this may come from believing their own propaganda about the threats that they exaggerate, and some of it may just be a reflex, but as analysis of the contemporary scene it is always wrong. There are dangers and threats in the world, but all of the threats from state actors are manageable and deterrable without spending more on the military, and these threats are much less severe than anything the U.S. faced between the 1940s and the end of the Cold War. The U.S. can and should get by safely with a much lower level of military spending, and our government should also adopt a strategy of restraint that keeps us out of unnecessary wars.

Churchill-quoting alarmists aren’t just bad at assessing the scale and nature of foreign threats, but they are usually also oblivious to the shoddy justifications for intervening and the damage that our interventionist policies do. The section quoted above reflects an almost touchingly naive belief that U.S. interventions are always justified and never cause more harm than they prevent. Very few U.S. interventions over the last thirty years fit the description Wood gives. The only time that the U.S. has intervened militarily abroad in response to an attack during this period was in Afghanistan as part of the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks. Every other intervention has been a choice to attack another country or to take sides in an ongoing conflict, and these interventions have usually had nothing to do with coming to the defense of an ally or preventing regional instability. Our interference in the affairs of others is often illegal under both domestic and/or international law (e.g., Kosovo, Libya, Iraq), it is very rarely related to U.S. or allied security, and it tends to cause a great deal of harm to the country and the surrounding region that are supposedly being “helped” by our government’s actions.

The Iraq war is just the most obvious example of how the U.S. forcibly intervenes in other parts of the world over the objections of allies, in flagrant disregard for international law, and with no thought for the destabilizing effects that military action will have on the surrounding region. The U.S. didn’t invade Panama in 1989 to help an ally or because we were attacked, but simply to topple the government there. Intervention in Haiti in 1994 didn’t come in response to an attack or to assist an ally, but because Washington wanted to restore a deposed leader. Bombing Yugoslavia in 1999 was an attack on a country that posed no threat to us or our allies. The Libyan war was a war for regime change and a war of choice. A few allies did urge the U.S. to intervene in Libya, but not because they were in “dire need of assistance.” The only thing that Britain and France needed in 2011 was the means to launch an attack on another country whose government posed no threat to them. Meddling in Syria since at least 2012 had nothing to do with defending the U.S. and our allies. Wood’s description certainly doesn’t apply to our support for the shameful Saudi-led war on Yemen, as the U.S. chose to take part in an attack on another country so that our despotic clients could be “reassured.”

It would be much more accurate to say that the U.S. intervenes often in the affairs of weaker countries because it can, because our leaders leaders want to, and because there is usually no other power willing or able to stop it from happening. Exorbitant military spending far beyond what is needed to provide for our defense makes it possible to take military action on a regular basis, and the constant inflation of foreign threats makes a large part of the public believe that our government’s frequent use of force overseas has something to do with self-defense. This frenetic meddling in the affairs of other nations hasn’t made and won’t make America any safer, it makes far more enemies than it eliminates, and it imposes significant fiscal and human costs on our country and the countries where our government interferes.



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