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)