Intervention begets intervention. No intervention is ever complete; new countries must be constantly conquered or transformed to finish the job. Having intervened, one must continue to intervene to achieve one’s original objectives. There are always unintended consequences to overcome. Running an empire, acting as the global policeman, and spreading liberty, truth, justice, and happiness around the world are not tasks for the faint-hearted – or republic-minded.
The Mideast is the prime example. The U.S. invaded Iraq for all sorts of reasons, none of which hold up under scrutiny. But never mind. We now are there and must finish the job. We can’t cut and run. American credibility would be hurt, Iraq would degenerate into chaos – well, worse chaos. Terrorists – well, more terrorists – might set up operation. And the last great democratic hope for the region, and perhaps mankind, would disappear.
Since the administration is not known to err, the few problems in Iraq that Washington is willing to acknowledge obviously result from intervention by Iran and Syria. Thus, these countries should be dealt with. (The moderates want to threaten; the hardliners want to bomb or invade.)
Moreover, because America is dedicated to protecting Israel and promoting democracy in Lebanon (defined as a pro-American government, since Hezbollah has plenty of popular support), the U.S. has another reason to confront Iran and Syria. Since anti-Western forces by definition cannot have local roots, the key to peace in Lebanon must run through Damascus and Tehran.
The latest Mideast imbroglio continues a long trend. A desire to ensure access to oil and aid Israel led the U.S. to consort with, subsidize, and/or defend an assortment of unsavory regimes – Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Gulf sheikdoms. But doing so always has led to new problems and the necessity of continuing, and usually expanding, intervention.
For instance, go back to 1953, when the U.S. helped oust leftist Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh and empower the Shah. But all good things come to an end, and the Iranian people eventually rose up in revolt. Which led to rule by the mullahs.
Of course, no geopolitical defeat ever means “go home” to Washington. Rather, the U.S. worked more feverishly with friendly Gulf states to contain Iran. Washington even aided Saddam Hussein (providing intelligence on Iranian military dispositions and reflagging oil tankers of Kuwait, Baghdad’s banker, to protect them from Iranian attacks) after his blatant aggression against Iran.
Sadly, Hussein took this U.S. friendship stuff, including a high profile visit by Reagan administration envoy Donald Rumsfeld, too seriously and thought America would stand by when he invaded Kuwait. So the U.S. had to kick Hussein out and station troops in Saudi Arabia. The latter inflamed anti-American sentiments in the Kingdom, aiding the likes of Osama bin Laden.
To fix everything, Washington then had to take out Saddam Hussein. He would no longer threaten his neighbors; terrorists would be defunded; weapons of mass destruction would collected; Israel would be safeguarded; and a democratic wave would sweep over the region.
With these dreams now all gone aglimmering, as noted earlier, Iran and Syria are the new targets in Washington. This threatens to be the beginning of a new interventionist trail. We can only imagine the next steps.
The Mideast is not the only victim of endless intervention. Washington grabbed the Philippines from Spain in the Spanish-American War. Since Filipinos were not interested in trading one colonial master for another, the U.S. had to fight a brutal anti-insurgency campaign that cost some 200,000 Filipinos their lives.
Of course, Washington then had to prepare the Philippines for democratic rule, defend the islands (making a clash with Japan more likely), inundate the country with foreign aid, and eventually help oust kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos – after cheerfully working with him for years. Today the U.S. is aiding the incompetent, corrupt, and decrepit Filipino government in its fight against Islamic insurgents. After all, America cannot afford another failed state hosting Islamic jihadists.
South Korea has been an even bloodier interventionist experience. The defeat of Japan, overlord of the Korean peninsula, opened the territory to America. In 1945 Washington and Moscow split occupation duty and soon created separate states. Washington settled on the unpredictable, authoritarian nationalist Syngman Rhee, who threatened to “march north” to reclaim the land lost to the communists.
So the U.S. did not arm Rhee’s military with heavy weapons, leaving it vulnerable when North Korea invaded. Of course, Washington had to intervene to save the Republic of Korea, and then garrison the peninsula for decades to prevent a repeat war. Some 33,000 troops continue on station, even though the South is well able to defend itself. New proffered justifications include protecting the ROK from China and Japan.
Japan is a slightly different story. The U.S. went to war after Japan attacked America on Dec. 7, 1941. (The U.S. had imposed a stifling economic embargo and refused to negotiate for anything less than a Japanese withdrawal from China, a curious stance to take when Washington officials professed to be most fearful of global German aggrandizement.) After the war, America occupied its defeated enemy and proceeded to remake the country and destroy (or at least submerge) past militaristic tendencies.
Having pacified Japan, Washington then sprinkled bases around the country to protect it from potential Soviet attack. Washington also used this same military presence, in the words of Lt. Gen. Henry Stackpole, then commander of the Marine Expeditionary Force on Okinawa, as a “cap in the bottle" of Japanese military power. That is, the U.S. was occupying Japan to defend everyone else from that same Japan – which we supposedly had reconstructed. Nearly 50,000 troops remain, for reasons largely unrelated to America’s defense.
The U.S. was in and out of Latin America for years. Washington has been trying to create “democracy” in Haiti for a century. America helped empower Nicaragua’s Somoza dynasty. No surprise, Nicaraguans ousted Anastasio Somoza when given the chance.
So Washington then had to try to get rid of the Sandinista regime that succeeded Somoza. Daniel Ortega was stupid enough to hold an election and lost, but the so-called democratic parties have been corrupt and incompetent, despite ample American advice and aid. Now Washington desperately wants to prevent the Sandinistas – and the very same Daniel Ortega – from regaining power in the upcoming presidential election.
But the most colossal interventionist blunder might be Europe. The celebrated “Old World” collectively jumped off a cliff in World War I. There really wasn’t that much to choose between the two sides: the Triple Entente included the great anti-Semitic despotism of the czar, which had come to the aid of Serbia, itself complicit in the murder of the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary (and whose ruling dynasty took over after the brutal murder of the previous king and queen).
Moreover, even democratic Britain and France held hundreds of millions of people in bondage in their colonial empires. Finally, Italy joined the allies only because it was promised territorial booty, Austrian and Middle Eastern lands populated by people who did not wish to be ruled by Rome. The Central Powers wouldn’t win a beauty contest either, but at least they made fewer pretensions to represent all that was good, right, and true.
Yet the U.S. jumped into the war on the Allied side. The formal justification was to protect the alleged right of Americans to travel on reserve warships (civilian ships mounted guns and had orders to ram submarines that surfaced) controlled by a belligerent power (Britain) carrying munitions through a war zone. (As was the Lusitania, which actually sank when the explosives it was carrying ignited from the torpedo strike.) No one, except perhaps Woodrow Wilson, was so moronic as to believe that such a right existed. Other reasons leading the U.S. into war included Wall Street’s financial commitment to an allied victory, undifferentiated Anglophilia, brilliant British propaganda, and President Wilson’s realization that only as the representative of a belligerent power could he remake the world.
But he failed. The Versailles Treaty simply laid the groundwork for the next, and far deadlier, war. So of course the U.S. had to intervene to confront Nazi Germany, which would not have arisen except for its earlier defeat and the peace settlement, both of which derived from America’s entry into World War I. (Otherwise a compromise peace was likely – a seemingly unsatisfactory result for everyone after four years of war, perhaps, but far better than what was to come.)
Of course, World War II left an even greater tyranny in control of much of Europe and threatening the rest of the continent. So Washington kept military forces on station, created NATO, and asserted “leadership” over its European allies. Although the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact now are gone, NATO continues and U.S. military garrisons remain. Apparently no geopolitical development, no matter how favorable, ever warrants ending an intervention.
America’s experience suggests that intervention never ceases. The fact that there always are extended and unintended consequences of intervention does not mean that some action might never be necessary. But surely U.S. policymakers should count the cost very carefully.
War is rarely easy. Conflicts are seldom over quickly. Spill-over effects often are predictable but impossible to contain. Costs, in terms of lives, money, and reputation, are usually far greater than expected. Consequences are often unexpected and catastrophic. So the bias should be against intervention, especially for goals that look decidedly frivolous compared to the risks incurred.
So it is with Iraq. After listening to and, sadly, believing, the war enthusiasts, the president undoubtedly found it easy to go marching off to war – the Iraqis would welcome America, Iraqi oil would pay for the operation, U.S. allies would take over the occupation, and American-style democracy would sweep the Mideast. But history proved impossible to overcome.
We can argue about how and when to get out of Iraq. But we shouldn’t need to argue about this misbegotten war’s basic lesson. No more frivolous interventions heedless of the consequences. No more listening to the Siren’s song of the easy conquest.
Read more by Doug Bandow
- The Rise of ISIS: Iraq and Beyond – July 16th, 2014
- Squaring the Pentagon – March 12th, 2009
- Balancing Beijing – February 27th, 2009
- The Asian Century – February 20th, 2009
- Peace, Prosperity, and Liberty: The Battle Continues – February 6th, 2009