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On Foreign Policy (The War Sort)

Americans have a very twisted and unhealthy relationship with their foreign policy, when it comes to where and when we use force.

They want to be knights in shining armor wherever knights are needed, but they don’t want to ever feel responsible for anything bad ever coming from war or combat.  If I can encapsulate what Americans seem to want in one sentence: “Prevent unjust violence everywhere, but do it only by the perfect administration of just violence.”

So let’s get this out of the way, first:

That’s a terrible lens to use to evaluate whether or not your foreign policy is good, and it is far, far, far too prone for passing moral judgment on the leadership that is loaded with special pleading and confirmation bias.

Or to put it bluntly, far too often Americans seem to think it is okay when a President they like bombs somebody accidentally, because nobody can ever be perfect.

But it is horrible when a President they don’t like bombs somebody, because that President is ruthless and morally bankrupt.

Bill Clinton was slammed for not getting involved in Rwanda, by folks on the Right and the Left. Some folks regard it as the biggest moral failing of the Clinton presidency.

But then lots of those same folks were excoriating him again when he did get involved in Bosnia and Herzegovina, for not doing it right, or bombing too much, or not getting involved until it was too late, or getting involved too soon.

In my own personal experience, I find a very high correlation between folks that express one of the two opinions, “I’m more progressive than Bill Clinton” or “Bill Clinton was a worthless Democrat”… and how terrible of a job they think Bill Clinton did in Bosnia.  This correlation is high enough that I’m pretty sure that most of the explanatory power there is related pretty solidly to observer bias.


My bias: I’m constitutionally predisposed to be a peacenik, myself.

But if I relied entirely upon that predisposition, well… it comes with the heavy weight that when something like Rwanda happens we don’t decide we aren’t peaceniks any more and then get involved in Rwanda, because that makes us not peaceniks, but folks who are willing to use military intervention.

Or if I don’t rely on it … we use military intervention, but we realize that this means that we’re not really peaceniks, and that we’re going to inadvertently bomb children, trying to help.

And yes, we will inadvertently bomb children, trying to help. Or we will shoot some schlub that really doesn’t want to be carrying a rifle for the other side, but they’re forced into it (conscription is a thing, remember). This is for all practical purposes unavoidable.

Does this mean we shouldn’t help?

If this dilemma does not bother you… if this does not keep you up at night at least occasionally, you are far too comfortable in your righteousness when it comes to your position on military intervention (you are also probably frequently either patronizing or demonizing the folks that serve in the armed forces, but that’s an aside).  I have fallen into that trap myself.  It is very easy to cave to your ideological inclinations.

I’m predisposed to be a peacenik… but I’ll be damned if I am certain it is always the right thing to do.

Even though war is hell.

There is no moral high ground in this aspect of foreign policy, and too many folks seem to want to have their cake and eat it too.  They judge the leadership of the country not by their actions and outcomes given the alternatives… but by whether or not they think the leaders *feel* really bad about the children or not.

I’m hopeful that in the long run just about everybody involved in government feels really bad about collateral damage, if they live long enough to achieve wisdom.  It appears from “Fog of War” that Robert McNamara spent the last three decades of his life haunted by all of the things he did and all the deaths that came on his watch.  Whether he actually did or not, I have no idea, of course.

It’s important for the sake of his humanity, sure…. but it means *nothing* to me when it comes to evaluating whether or not what he did was the least worst thing to do in any given situation.

But good humans do horrible things and horrible humans do terrific things and when we have a representative government it is probably more important for us to focus on the *things* and not the *people* doing them.  We need the least worst things.

That’s pretty much what military intervention is all about, deciding what the least worst thing to do is at any given time.

To be topical: in the current race, with the remaining candidates, what does all that mean?

In my assessment, Bernie will be predisposed not to intervene and Clinton seems predisposed to intervene.

Since intervention is a case-by-case condition, I’m pretty sure that both predispositions will result in the possibility that some folks who might not have been killed will get killed anyway.

With Bernie, we might have another Rwanda.

With Clinton, we will probably have another Haiti, or another Libya.

With Trump, there is literally no rational way to predict what is going to happen because he has nothing resembling a coherent predisposition, except maybe “if somebody insults me enough I’ll lose my temper”… which is, in the grand scheme of things, far worse than the other two.

In one case (defaulting to non-intervention), lots of people will be killed by somebody else while we do nothing. And in today’s mechanized warfare environment, with an organized force, killing a lot of people is very, very easy when they don’t have the capability to shoot back at you in an organized way. Throw in the history of colonialism, our arms export history, and the cold war on top of it all, and we as a nation (if not as individuals) bear more than some culpability for the initial conditions, whether or not we participate in the actual killing.

In the other case, some or lots of people will be killed by Americans while we bumble around trying to keep them from killing someone else while we do nothing.

And sometimes, in both cases, we’ll save some people that wouldn’t have died otherwise, using whatever means we use… or see folks that were going to get killed, whether we intervened or not, die terrible deaths anyway.

Giving ourselves a pass on the collateral damage is morally reprehensible. Giving ourselves a pass on the cost of non-intervention so that we can proclaim our moral high ground is reprehensible.

It should bother you, what we do, as a nation.

It should bother you, what we don’t do, as a nation.

And if you’re bothered (or unbothered) because of your impressions of the person that is currently occupying the Oval Office, I think you might want to reconsider that as a default position.

Only the dead get to judge who is the bigger moral failure.

(Photo credit: Flickr user “syriafreedom” / Creative Commons license)

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Patrick is a mid-40 year old geek with an undergraduate degree in mathematics and a master's degree in Information Systems. Nothing he says here has anything to do with the official position of his employer or any other institution. ...more →

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12 thoughts on “On Foreign Policy (The War Sort)

  1. I see military intervention as something like fire, a tool that could easily get out of hand. A big problem with pacifism and non-violence though is that they have three very big foundational problems. The foundational problems are that deep down everybody wants the same thing but doesn’t realize it, that most conflicts have a reasonable compromise solution that could come about by discussion and negotiation, or that in the instances where one side is nearly or completely in the wrong a display of non-violence will get them to think rightfully. I think a quick glance of human history can disabuse a person of this notion.

    I guess a fourth foundational problem with pacifism is that it assumes that everybody really likes kindness, gentleness, and peacefulness as virtues but this might be related to the first foundational flaw. Many people see the pacifist virtues as deeply naive at best or vices and weaknesses as worse. To them life is about fierceness and competition and they are going to be the top dog. This isn’t going to change any time soon.

    So this creates a dilemma when it comes to humanitarian disasters. Many people want to help but do not want military intervention. Yet, doing nothing can appear is venal self-interest of that antipathetic variety. “It ain’t my problem and it doesn’t concern me.” Using military force can get out of hand very quickly though and escalate things. It is a problem with no good solution.

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  2. I don’t think Americans, on the whole, in numbers electorally significant, care at all who the American military is bombing or if they deserve it.

    Americans only care if Americans are dying in measurable numbers across a short enough time frame.

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    • Sadly, I think you’re only describing part of “Americans.”

      I can think of a few debates I’ve seen over the past year where the places that got the audience cheering suggested that quite a few Americas do care if foreigners are killed whether or not they deserve it, and are totally looking forward to it.

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    • Whelp, and there’s also the depressing fact that Americans seem generally okay with troops dying somewhere else as long as it’s only a few of them, it seems to be acceptable, and nobody they really know.

      A handful of Marines get killed in a chopper helping out as “military observers”? That happens. Regrettable. Two sentences in the nightly news one night.

      A handful of Marines get killed when somebody drives a suicide car bomb into one of our embassies? That’s an Attack on America, something that drives the news cycle for a while.

      When everybody knows somebody who has lost somebody, people get tired of war. When most people only know somebody who knows somebody who lost somebody, Americans seem willing to push on.

      The dynamics of how the American public *accept* casualties is part of the problem with choosing military intervention as a foreign policy option. It very distinctly skews which types of military interventions are regarded as “currently on the table”.

      I imagine this has a very deep and significant impact on the likelihood that our interventions will actually work.

      This is why we can send a big bunch of troops to Haiti (everybody forgets that one) or Granada (that one, too) and two decades later nobody much remembers it. Folks in Haiti and Granada weren’t going to fight back the way folks in Afghanistan were, nor did they have the weapons or equipment to do so at the time.

      Nowadays it is very difficult to send large groups of troops anywhere we might want to send them that doesn’t have a substantial quantity of dangerous devices ready-to-hand. Most of the spots in the world that might be “troubled” nowadays appear to have decent stockpiles of all sorts of things that go “boom” or “bang” (much of which they got from us.)

      So, we are left with light risk (in terms of troop loss) military interventions that require special operations, drones, or air strikes.

      There’s only so much you can do, constructively (or destructively, to be more accurately), with those three options, and their failure modes (accidentally targeting a hospital or a wedding) are repeatable. That makes for the same bad news repeated on a cycle… “we bombed ‘accidental target A’ again?”

      I think part of the disquiet with the drone program is rooted in this. General folks don’t much care that there is collateral damage, because folks haven’t much cared about collateral damage in forever.

      But when you hear the same sort of collateral damage, you pattern-match it, because finding patterns is what humans do. And then it appears to be a problem to more people.

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  3. I agree there is reason to worry whether you think we might be doing too much, or too little. It’s just that the first worry seems like the vastly more important worry to heed.

    If you don’t implement a bias in one direction or the other, there is still every reason to worry, because in all likelihood you’re still getting it wrong. You’re just much less sure in what direction! That doesn’t seem good to me.

    And it seems like there is every good reason to take on the worries about a bias toward intervening too little over those of intervening too much. Hubris about what we can accomplish. Certainty in almost every instance that intervention means adding to total human destruction in the conflict at least for a short period. Uncertainty about what medium- or, ugh, long-term commitments intervention could mean for the U.S. and whether there is any interest on the part of the public to meet them. Lastly, just what seems to me like what should be an natural inclination to be more skeptical of than interested in military intervention in foreign conflicts.

    This against the speculative case in each instance that use of force by outside powers is going to be an efficacious addition to the toxic mix of circumstances that caused us to contemplate it in the first place.

    I do want interventionists to make that case on a case-by-case basis. But it should always be met with a bias more toward skepticism than toward intervention by (most of) the public. Sure, we should then have nagging worries that we’re not saving the world from enough of the carnage that’s in it. But those worries should be much more muted than if we weren’t applying that bias.

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  4. I call BS on the equivocation of a preference for intervention with a preference for non intervention. Maybe that would make sense if we lived in a country that had largely stayed out of other people’s business but it isn’t. The history of post-war American foreign policy is messy interventions in simmering civil wars and messy ethnic disputes in the developing world. The morality of a given intervention may vary somewhat but the result has always been to set the stage for reprisals and mass killing by the victorious side. More often than not one intervention lays the seeds for the next crisis which naturally will require yet another intervention.

    The Rwanda situation is an outlier only because we did not intervene. However, given the results in places like Libya, Iraq, and Afghanistan there is no reason to think that American military force would have resulted in a better long term outcome. Instead of this type of hand-wringing we should try to be more humble and grapple with the limitations of what military force can achieve, not stage a make-believe debate in the establishment press before sending in the war machines.

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    • I keep wondering why people think that non-intervention in Afghanistan was politically possible after 9/11. We were attacked by Al-Qaeda. The Taliban were harboring Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda. It would be political suicide for any politician not to respond to 9/11 without some form of military intervention. Does anybody really think that any politician could withstand a decision to do nothing in the response to massive terrorist attack even if doing nothing was the best possible decision?

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      • I think you’re probably right that doing nothing may have been politically impossible but I think that point dodges the issue. I mean, where did bin Laden come from? Oh yea, that other civil war in the 80s where we fed weapons to a bunch of fanatics because they were the enemy of our enemy’s friend (and ultimately our enemy himself). That intervention laid the seeds for our current intervention which with mission creep has become a 15 year long nation building project that the supposed beneficiaries of probably don’t even want and is certainly going to fail.

        At some point we have to break the chain and stop going in. Maybe that won’t work out either or will come with other tough moral quandaries but let’s not pretend that we’ve actually tried it and that such a position has any real establishment political support. Even Obama who was advertised as smarter than this has given God knows how many weapons to God knows who in Syria. When one of those people uses those weapons and training against Americans in some capacity will it be cause for another intervention? As always, it will be politically impossible not to intervene. And do it again and again and again.

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  5. I wouldn’t call myself a peacenik, but I’m pretty non-interventionist (not absolute, but I have a pretty high bar for what I deem acceptable for intervening).

    I would never have committed any military resources to Rwanda or Bosnia. I was in Somalia and I was pretty damn certain we had no business being there, nor were we particularly wanted there. I mean, it would be nice if we could go in whenever other people start killing each other in job lots, and make it stop, and deliver perfect justice to the evil men, but we can’t. We don’t even get close most times.

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