The Eternal Recurrence of Interventionism

In response to each terrorist attack or foreign provocation, the depressingly familiar tone of the loudest voices in government and media has noninterventionist activists in despair, wondering just what they are doing wrong when making their case against the rush to war. That tone, the reflexive pro-interventionist agitation for counterattacks and broad military campaigns, is a continuous background hum in times of relative calm, and bursts forth when a threat or attack, no matter how insignificant, appears. Each time as well, there is no shortage of sane voices countering the drum beat for retaliation. By all accounts, their case is airtight. No one, after the momentary hysteria has passed, denies the irrationality of war and intervention. The horrifying costs of war, in blood and treasure, provide ample evidence that this favorite pastime of all governments is a mindless exercise in mass slaughter. Yet after each fresh attack, the chorus rises in support of the next great war, the next great legislative endeavor. Looking deeper into the origins of the current crisis just doesn’t happen in a government that’s fueling the chainsaw and sharpening the cleaver.

Why does foreign interventionism retain such a firm grip on US political discourse? The flood of editorials advocating "DO SOMETHING" is unending, with almost everyone holding "something is better than nothing" as an implicit axiom. Every talking head has a plan, some surefire positive government intervention that can improve something at home and overseas. How often do any of them say that there is nothing to be done? That the only thing to do is withdraw and keep an eye on the horizon for roosting chickens?

Interventionism is able to hold sway in political circles because it has on its side the general inability to conceive of anything good coming from doing nothing. This is the same logic that drives advocates of government intervention in the economy. And they are just as afraid of the unplanned and undesigned in that arena as well. Thinking beyond the first stage of an act is alien to this crowd. Besides, they can’t afford to do nothing. What if something good comes of it? They need some way to justify themselves, after all. We can’t have foreign conflicts resolving themselves without our help. Bad PR.

Interventionists depend on the natural inclination of the population to never look beyond stage one, to never think through what could possibly be the consequences of this or that bombing campaign, or rebel-arming enterprise or avalanche of legislation.

Henry Hazlitt’s simple lesson in his classic work, Economics in One Lesson, can and should be applied to intervention in foreign affairs: "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups." This, however, is asking too much of most people.

Antiwar activists have their work cut out for them. Similar to advocates of nonintervention in domestic affairs, they have to make the case against the as-yet-unseen consequences of the proposed foreign intervention. And they are making the case to people that, when they care at all, they instinctively support positive action on the part of government. Each successive foreign adventure is unhampered by historical insight and critical thinking. Each campaign is undertaken in the belief that it will be all cakewalk, no blowback.

The mistake is made, the lesson isn’t learned, the consequences come home, and retaliation is vowed. Rinse and repeat.

Thankfully, no major terrorist attack has occurred on American soil since 9/11. Every antiwar activist cringes though at the thought of the potential political aftermath if another attack did happen. Where would we be if even just two or three Charlie Hebdo-style attacks had happened on US soil in the last thirteen years? Would we be a full-throttle Garrison State?

Neoconservatism, that chimerical faith in the efficacy of military might to remake the world in the image of Western democracy, will always be with us because the primal inclination to see only what is immediately visible, and therefore act on what is immediately visible will always be with us. Our emotional hardware is wired to react in this way, and to reject the unseen benefits of government inaction. Of course, inaction on the part of government means allowing peace to genuinely heal real and perceived crises.

Interventionism will always be the default position because a large number of Americans seem to have an unwavering faith in it, and politicians are more than happy to answer their demand. No amount of evidence will ever convince those that pull the levers of power that the current crisis is the fruit of previous intervention, or that the seeds of future crises are being planted by the choices that are made today. They are political opportunists, and they realize the fundamental truth of all political opportunists: people rarely ever think beyond stage one. And peace is boring; war is a spectacle. Government action is flashy and loud; the benefits of peace operate slowly and indirectly.

"Without principles we drift", wrote Friedrich Hayek in his essay, Individualism: True and False. Principle allows us to judge our actions by a standard, and principle should be used as a prism through which we view the actions of our government. Instead of this, an illusion of principle permeates political discourse. A sappy fealty is paid to an abstract concept of "Freedom", a hazy mental diorama of sentimental quotes by the Founding generation jumbled up with images of flags, troops, and patriotic songs, and we drift toward the fate of all empires. With our emotional well-being tied firmly to this a-historical, eminently malleable mental picture, we become drones for whatever the welfare/warfare state demands next.