American Interventionism and the Tragedy of Foreign Policy

Since World War I, every American president has had to confront the potential agonies, moral uncertainties, and quagmires of military intervention abroad. Certainly, the price of intervention weighs on Barack Obama even as he pulls out troops from Iraq and vows to do the same from Afghanistan. He has already spent American energy and resources on a seemingly successful intervention in Libya. But what will he do if the situation in Syria gets out of hand and Bashir al-Assad begins slaughtering people at an even more horrifying rate? What actions will he take if Iran, defying the sanctions and warnings of the world community, builds a nuclear weapon? What is his responsibility in the Congo, where countless people have been murdered and rape has become a primary weapon of war? The West has yet to intervene.

Throughout the history of American foreign policy, particularly after World War II, essential strategic and moral questions have circulated concerning the use of American power. Rarely is there a strong oppositional voice when the United States is under imminent threat —self-defense is the prerogative of any state—but beyond such attacks as Pearl Harbor, the rightness of intervention is in the eye of the beholder. Some protested the Korean War in the 1950s and an even larger number protested the Vietnam War, particularly after 1967. Ronald Reagan’s raid on Grenada, George H.W. Bush’s invasions of Panama and Iraq, Bill Clinton’s belated intervention in the Balkans, Clinton’s failure to quell the Rwandan genocide, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya in the past decade. In each case, a question presented itself of whether or not to send American forces abroad to accomplish a certain announced (or unannounced) goal relating to national security, economic interests, humanitarian purposes, or terrorism, and in each case the debate between realists and idealists was revived.

In the post-Vietnam era, all foreign policy decisions were seen through the lens of Vietnam, which served as an example of what not to do.

American foreign policy realists such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft believe that the only genuine motivation for the use of force abroad lies in the defense of an essential national interest, while idealists in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson believe that America’s great power gives it enormous responsibility to stop genocide or other atrocities whenever possible. One indication of the complexity of this debate is that these categories frequently cross party lines, a rarity in American politics. Many consider Woodrow Wilson the quintessential idealist, but the same title could also be given to George W. Bush. Much more often, modern presidents do not fall under one category or the other, but somewhere along the continuum. President Obama exemplifies just that. As an Illinois state legislator with ambitions to run for the U.S. Senate, Obama famously said at an anti-war rally in Chicago in 2002, “I don’t oppose all wars. What I am opposed to is a dumb war.” Neither a complete idealist nor realist, he protested the Iraq War not on moral or ideological grounds, but on practical considerations. In making that argument, Obama was agreeing with people like Scowcroft, national security advisor to George H.W. Bush. In 2002, Scowcroft famously published an editorial in the Wall Street Journal titled “Don’t Attack Saddam,” which many saw as a tacit message from father to son—a message that enraged the son, and one that he, of course, ignored.

When Obama entered office in January 2009, his foreign policy priorities included getting out of Iraq as quickly and responsibly as possible and ratcheting down troop levels in Afghanistan without setting off a civil war. The president preferred to see those resources being used domestically and in developing nations like China. But of course he could not have anticipated everything that would take place in Libya, and that presented Obama with a dilemma: the United States faced a deep recession at home, an overextended military in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the harsh fact that Libya is not an important strategic interest for the United States. It is, after all, a lightly populated, isolated country in northeast Africa that we no longer label a terrorist state. Gaddafi had stopped giving oil money to terrorist states and developing a nuclear weapons program, but in the midst of the Arab Spring uprising he remained a brutal dictator on the verge of slaughtering countless Libyan citizens in Benghazi and elsewhere.

The United States did not anticipate any of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. For generations, we had adjusted to the idea that the most stagnant part of the political world was the Arab world, and we were very accustomed to dealing with, and even supporting, autocrats in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Then, suddenly, the world turned upside down, and America had to deal with the consequences. The rebel armies that had sprouted up in Libya were disorganized and weak. They didn’t have tanks, nor did they have planes—they had whatever they could get their hands on. Meanwhile, Gaddafi was prepared to lay down the law and kill his own people. Obama, consumed with so many problems, both foreign and domestic, allowed France and Britain to take the lead in building support for a NATO operation in Libya. When an advisor to Obama was quoted anonymously as calling this strategy “leading from behind,” detractors were quick to criticize the President. Another way to describe Obama’s strategy in this particular case could have been “tempered idealism.” In the debate over Libya, realists begged America to stay home, fearing unintended consequences and the possibility of a prolonged entrenchment there, while idealists asked how we could allow this massive slaughter to occur. Obama did indeed side with the idealists, but he refused to allow the war to reach of the scale of Iraq. In the post-Vietnam era, all foreign policy decisions were seen through the lens of Vietnam, which served as an example of what not to do. In a way, Iraq has become Obama’s Vietnam.

In foreign policy, however, the fact that American efforts in Libya have been deemed a success is no guarantee of the capacity to engineer a success in a place like Syria, which, is in an entirely different circumstance. Syrians want their freedom too, but they face a dictator who is prepared to kill his own people and a country that is a client state of Iran, sits on a border with Israel, and has a tacit alliance with the Hezbollah faction in Lebanon. It is hard to see what even an ideal international military coalition would look like. And yet, if we don’t intervene, we could witness the slaughter of thousands of Syrians. Meanwhile, the war in Congo has led to millions of deaths, rapes, and displacements, yet it is unclear what exactly the United States could do about it. This inaction is not uncommon, as we often allow for mass killings in far-away countries with which we have no direct interest.

In the study of intervention, the legacy of the Holocaust looms over all, serving as a constant reminder of the folly of inaction in the face of horror. Occasionally, leaders have apologized in retrospect for their failures to intervene in conflicts around the world. Bill Clinton has called his inaction in Rwanda “one of the two or three greatest regrets of [his] presidency.” Presidents will continue to be forced to make these great decisions, and they will undoubtedly continue to have great regrets.The looming question now seems to be what, if anything, President Obama will regret when he looks back on his foreign policy initiatives. Will he wish he had been more realistic, or more idealistic? Will he be remembered for intervening too much, too little, or for navigating the margins in a manner that met our country’s needs and moral responsibilities? Given the tragic state of global civil war, factionalism, terrorism, poverty, and despotism, it seems virtually impossible for any president to succeed entirely at all times. And that is the great tragedy of foreign policy.

Noah Remnick is a freshman in Saybrook College.

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