Republican Candidates Haven’t Learned The Foreign Policy Lessons Of The Past

Was Ike an interventionist?

“If we reelect Barack Obama, Iran will have a nuclear weapon. And if we elect Mitt Romney, if you’d like me as the next president, they will not have a nuclear weapon.” ~ Mitt Romney, the only man out of the two who has not killed Osama bin Laden.

Various readers and others have been quick to scold Andrew Sullivan over his defense of Eisenhower as a non-interventionist – and the greatest president of the 20th century. One reader notes that, “Eisenhower not only would have proceeded with Bay of Pigs, but was the final authority in the creation and structuring of the plot from the beginning. While the CIA and Dulles crafted the plans that led eventually to the idea of invasion, Eisenhower approved all of their machinations and saw that they were funded. Finally, the invasion idea itself was either concocted by Eisenhower or enthusiastically endorsed by him, and he and was prepared to persuade President-elect Kennedy of the invasion plan’s likely success.”

Others point out that Eisenhower involved the US in Lebanon and that the Eisenhower Doctrine pretty clearly states that intervention to halt or slow the spread of communism was legitimate. The doctrines states that intervention in another country is desirable if it is intended “to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of such nations, requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by international communism.”

Of course, in Andrew’s defense, those were very different times. Instead of the threat of an amorphous terrorism we fought a somewhat less amorphous communism that was embodied in two powerful enemies. Nuclear war was a new dark cloud looming above us.

Furthermore, Eisenhower didn’t have decades of failed interventions and botched, backfiring covert operations to guide him. Our current leaders should be aware of the shortcomings of interventionism in ways that Ike was not. We have the failure of Iran, Lebanon, Chile, Venezuela, Cuba, etc. etc. etc. to guide our hand. Ike had Korea, but he also had the success of WWII.

Commenter Nob Akitimo keeps asking for a detailed foreign policy post outlining my own positions. I will get him one. But for now, my tendency is toward extreme caution – not because it is necessarily morally wrong to intervene, especially in the case of genocide – but because we are fallible and short-sighted. The consequences of our actions can be inscrutable. We are losuy at managing our own domestic affairs and so, almost by definition, worse at managing the affairs of others. We risk, constantly, to overreach both in our military response and in our domestic response (think PATRIOT Act, water-boarding, warrant-less wire-tapping, etc.)

I am a realist (I call myself an owl) bordering on pacifist (maybe the lovechild of an owl and a dove), not because I don’t think we can wage a just war or because there isn’t moral justification to intervene in a place like Libya, but because we have such poor information about the future. In Libya, for instance, we can attempt to manipulate events, but there are too many wild cards. Even beyond the success of our mission there, we can’t predict the fallout, the eventual course that nation will take.

In Egypt, the overthrow of Mubarak is also the rise of fundamentalist Islamic Brotherhood and the likely end to peaceful relations with Israel. The dominoes keep falling every time we intervene and regardless of our intentions, noble or otherwise, where they fall is simply not up to us. Once upon a time I did believe in intervention as a way to promote peace and end the brutality of wicked men. Now I believe that in most places without cultural foundations to support peaceful democracy, wicked men will be replaced by other wicked men.

Once upon a time the world was full of possibilities. America was the super-power emerging from a World War that left our friends and enemies alike in heaps of rubble. We believed we could do anything, achieve anything, through a combination of commerce and force of arms. We were right about the former, wrong about the latter. And yet here we are so many years later watching men like Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich talking tough about Iran, forgetting entirely the lessons of the power of peaceful, free trade to radically change the world for the better.

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