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The Perils of Reflexive Interventionism

It accustoms our leaders to treat the use of force often as a first option rather than as a last resort.
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Trevor Thrall warns of the dangers of automatic elite consensus in favor of military action:

In the case of Syria, Republican and Democratic elites supported Trump’s missile strike not because they had an extended debate over its wisdom–in fact, there was zero debate before the surprise attack was announced–but because they all relied on the same basic doctrine that strongly endorses the value of military intervention, what Obama recently called the “Washington playbook.”

The main tenets of that “basic doctrine” are that the U.S. must “lead,” “leadership” is exercised through “action,” and that “action” is almost always military action. It makes no difference if the action is necessary for U.S. security, so long as the U.S. is seen to be responding forcefully to some event overseas. There is never any serious question of whether military action is justified, since another default assumption of this view is that our government’s use of force is always justified if for no other reason than that it is ours. Likewise, there is usually no thought given to whether military action is legal, and even blatantly illegal military action receives support because these people take for granted that it is invariably the “right thing” to do.

Once one accepts those core assumptions, it is extremely easy to approve of almost any use of force. There is typically no risk for politicians or pundits to endorse military action, and there is absolutely no reward for skepticism or raising awkward questions. That makes it even easier for those that have no strong objections to war to endorse the latest attack. Unless American forces are exposed to serious risk, it is fair to say that most adherents of this consensus view don’t think twice about their support for each new proposed intervention. The many failures of previous military interventions usually have little or no effect on the bias in favor of action, because adherents of the consensus view approach each new military action as if past failures are irrelevant to the present case. But if military action is perceived to have “worked” even once in the past, that example is held up as proof that everyone should support the latest action.

The perils of such reflexive interventionism are many and fairly obvious, but it is worth identifying at least a few of them here. First, it guarantees that very few serious questions will be asked in the media or in Congress about the necessity or desirability of using force abroad, and because of that presidents will involve the U.S. in many unnecessary conflicts for dubious reasons. Broad bipartisan elite support for military action eliminates one of the only real checks on executive warmaking and contributes to cutting Congress out of the process of deciding when and how the U.S. goes to war. The default preference in favor of using force also has a corrosive, degrading effect on our political culture as we become used to having our government inflict death and destruction on other people on a regular basis, so much so that we come to accept this as “normal” foreign policy. It accustoms our leaders to treat the use of force often as a first option rather than as a last resort, and thus makes it more likely that our government responds to each new crisis in an overly aggressive manner.



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