Sunday, July 17, 2011

My Thoughts on Foreign Intervention

Almost everybody would agree, myself included, that the United States cannot intervene everywhere there is a violent conflict. Financial limitations, war-weariness, and national morale make this practically impossible, and the just role of constitutional government makes it ideologically wrong. Most people would also agree that we cannot afford to never intervene in times of violent conflict. In those instances where national security is at risk, the government is justified in stepping in. Because of this, I feel it is important that we are consistent in our decisions of when to intervene and when to stand back. Since we cannot intervene everywhere, and we cannot intervene nowhere, have to draw a line somewhere and stick to it. This post attempts to draw that line.

Ideologically, the constitutional answer appears simple: we are justified in intervening only in instances where the rights and freedoms of American citizens are in jeopardy. This is the most frequently used argument, that of defending national security. Most people concede the government is justified in pursuing this objective, even if it means intervention in a foreign conflict. However, we must be wary of overusing even this justification. National security has been stretched so far as to include US trade interests, or diplomatic interests, or the defense of resources which might one day be of use in protecting Americans from some other threat. Such an elastic definition can be dangerous, because it can cause our government to intervene even in situations which don’t truly threaten American citizens at all. If anything falls under the interest of national security, then the government can justify intervening anywhere. That the government should protect its citizens means if there is an invasion, it can defend them; if there is an attack, it can retaliate; if there is a strong threat of an attack, it can eliminate or lower that threat. But if there is a threat to our trade, it should not mean we can simply eliminate the competition; if there is an ideology we don’t agree with, it should not mean we can just eliminate those we are unsympathetic towards. As with many things, there is nowhere you can draw a line. What constitutes as a significant enough “threat” will always be up for interpretation, and we have to keep the government honest about which foreign expenditures of money and manpower are truly making us safer.

Beyond national security, some argue for foreign intervention on other grounds. One is the “moral obligation” argument, or that since are powerful enough to stop certain injustices from occurring, we are obligated to do so. This goes back to the boy-on-the-train-tracks analogy I made a month or so ago; can self-sacrifice ever be mandatory? Should we, for instance, intervene to help a freedom-yearning population depose of an evil dictator? To help a capitalist government stave off a communist revolution, or to help a capitalist revolution overturn a communist government? The first situation was used in Iraq; the second, in Vietnam. What about in instances of genocide? We’ve faced this dilemma during the Holocaust, and again in Bosnia, and again in Rwanda and more recently in Darfur. We intervened in the Holocaust, but more to stop Hitler and save ourselves than because we cared about the Jews. In the other three episodes, we did nothing. Was this the right thing to do? For years, I was convinced it was not, largely as a consequence of watching Hotel Rwanda. But constitutionally, it was. Neither Bosnia, Rwanda, nor Darfur really posed any threat to the US or its citizens. Intervening might have saved lives, but it would not have saved American lives. Intervening in Iraq saved lives, and secured freedoms for millions of people, but those people were not American (whether the National Security benefits from Iraq were worth it is another issue). There is no constitutional justification for using American tax money and soldiers to help protect non-Americans, and for this reason I no longer think it should be done.

Now, this appears wrong and heartless, just as it appears wrong and heartless to not advocate government “helping” the poor. Preventing genocides like the one in Rwanda and/or large scale acts of terror is perfectly within our means; how can we stand idly by while these tragedies occur? We should not. We should take action; merely, not as an American government. We should take action in the UN. I am not opposed to the UN seeking to resolve issues like this. I am not opposed to a UN Peacekeeping Force, or an even stronger force with the power to deploy at a moment’s notice and shoot at the bad guys (Paul Russeabagina, the real life hero who Don Cheadle portrayed in Hotel Rwanda, writes a good piece on this here: ). I am not even opposed to these troops being partially funded by the US, so long as other UN countries pull their weight and don’t expect us to do it all ourselves again. I feel the UN, however bogged down and overburdened it has become, does further US national security in a constitutional matter. While the individual conflicts it resolves may not always further US interests, the general aims of world peace and friendly diplomatic relations do. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 have taught us that instability in one part of the world often becomes our problem rather quickly, and peace is in everyone’s interests. Since the costs are split between many countries, it is not so burdensome on US taxpayers, making the investment more worth our while. So long as the American contribution to the effort is indirect, I am ideologically appeased by the thought of UN forces intervening instead of US troops. Politically, I am often opposed to the UN, and I think it oversteps its bounds too often. But if there’s one thing it is good for, it’s helping to solve the world’s conflicts, and it is the perfect vestibule for solving the “moral obligation” dilemma.

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